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Social Security: It Is an Asset, But Not a Bond

A reader writes in, asking:

“At our local Bogleheads chapter meeting, there was a heated discussion about Social Security, specifically, whether it should be counted as a bond in your asset allocation. My view is that it’s not really an asset because you can’t sell it. But one of the more experienced people in our group was emphatic that it’s a mistake to leave Social Security out of an asset allocation analysis and that it should be counted as a bond because it provides predictable payments.”

This question comes up over and over, year after year — both in my email inbox as well as on the Bogleheads forum.

Social Security is an asset. It’s true that it is not a liquid asset (i.e., you cannot sell it). But even illiquid assets show up on balance sheets. Same goes for lifetime annuities. They are assets, even if they are not liquid.

And yes, Social Security is a fixed-income asset. So it’s more bond-like than stock-like.

But it’s definitely not a bond.

There are a lot of differences between a) having a $2,000 monthly Social Security benefit at full retirement age (i.e., a stream of income with a present value of about $350,000) and b) having $350,000 of bonds in your brokerage account.

Social Security is what it is — and it isn’t what it isn’t.

The desire to classify everything as either a stock or a bond is completely bananas.

For example, do you classify your house as a stock, because its value goes up and down considerably over time? Or do you classify it as a bond, because it pays you “interest” in the sense that you do not have to pay rent each month? (I hope the answer is obvious: it’s neither a stock nor a bond, because it is a house.)

The distinctions between different types of assets are real and useful.

Social Security:

  • Is inflation-adjusted,
  • Will last your entire lifetime,
  • Will not extend beyond your lifetime (or beyond you and your spouse’s lifetimes if married, child benefits notwithstanding),
  • Is absolutely illiquid (i.e., it’s not just hard to sell; it cannot be sold at all), and
  • Is subject to political risk.

By shoehorning that into the “bond” category, you are ignoring some or all of those unique characteristics. You are ignoring useful information.

Relatedly, if you have decided, for example, that you want 40% of your portfolio in bonds, but you haven’t yet decided what will count as a bond, how did you decide that 40% was the right number? Perhaps the line of reasoning that went into that decision had some flaws.

Rather than counting Social Security income as part of your bond allocation, I’d suggest using this method for fitting it into your overall retirement plan:

  1. Determine how much money you plan to spend each year during retirement.
  2. From that, subtract any part-time job or business income you expect to earn.
  3. From the remaining amount, subtract your Social Security/pension income to determine how much you will need to spend from your portfolio each year.
  4. Then make any portfolio-related decisions (including asset allocation) with that net required-spending-from-portfolio figure in mind.

Want to Learn More about Social Security? Pick Up a Copy of My Book:

Social Security cover Social Security Made Simple: Social Security Retirement Benefits and Related Planning Topics Explained in 100 Pages or Less
Topics Covered in the Book:
  • How retirement benefits, spousal benefits, and widow(er) benefits are calculated,
  • How to decide the best age to claim your benefit,
  • How Social Security benefits are taxed and how that affects tax planning,
  • Click here to see the full list.

A Testimonial from a Reader on Amazon:

"An excellent review of various facts and decision-making components associated with the Social Security benefits. The book provides a lot of very useful information within small space."
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My Social Security calculator: Open Social Security