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Social Security Planning Approaches: Insurance Approach vs. Maximizing Expected Outcome

When it comes to Social Security planning, people often take one of two approaches:

  • The insurance approach: Social Security is meant to be longevity insurance, so in order to get the most protection from it, I will delay until age 70.
  • The maximizing approach: I want to get the most total dollars (or present value of dollars) from Social Security over my lifetime, so I will file at whatever age results in the highest expected sum. (Note: this second approach is what calculators such as Open Social Security are doing — recommending the filing age(s) that maximize the expected present value of dollars collected.)

In short, most people should be accounting for both perspectives in their planning.

Taking only the maximizing approach fails to account for the fact that a reduction in risk is valuable. Waiting to file for Social Security generally reduces longevity risk, because it makes you less likely to deplete your savings in a live-a-long-time scenario, and it means that you would be left with a greater monthly income in the undesirable event that you do deplete your portfolio.

Conversely, taking only the insurance approach makes no sense either. Yes, Social Security does function as longevity insurance. And when you delay Social Security you are, essentially, buying more of that insurance. But just because a type of insurance is available doesn’t mean that you need it or that it’s a good deal. (I’m sure you can come up with several examples of this concept on your own.)

For some people, the risk reduction that comes from delaying Social Security isn’t really important, because they’ve already reached a point where their level of savings relative to their desired level of spending is such that there’s very little chance of running out of money, regardless of what decisions are made with regard to Social Security.

Similarly, for some couples (most especially, married couples in which one person is in very poor health or the higher earner is much older than the lower earner), having the spouse with the lower earnings history delay filing doesn’t necessarily even reduce risk. It makes the “we both live a long time” scenario better. But it makes the “one of us lives a long time” scenario worse. And for such couples, it’s that second scenario that’s far more likely.

“Delay until 70” happens to be a respectable rule of thumb for an unmarried person, because:

  1. It does happen to be a pretty good deal (not astonishingly good, but good) for most unmarried people, and
  2. If you choose to delay, then you die at an early age, it’s not as if you’ll be upset about having waited to file for your benefits.

But once we look at married couples, it’s more complicated because:

  1. It’s often not a good deal (for the lower earner to delay). In some cases (again, if one person is in very poor health or if the higher earner is much older than the lower earner), it can be quite a bad deal.
  2. And if you’re the lower earner and you choose to delay, then one spouse dies soon thereafter, the surviving spouse will still be alive and will be in a worse position as a result of you not having filed for benefits early.

Point being, Social Security planning should be treated much like any other personal financial planning topic in that:

  • It’s helpful to actually do an analysis that looks at your personal facts and circumstances, and
  • When performing that analysis, the evaluation of any particular strategy should account for both the effect that that particular strategy would have on the risk(s) to which you are exposed and the effect that that strategy would have on the expected (i.e., probable) outcome.

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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,
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My Social Security calculator: Open Social Security