The retirement solution hiding in plain sight

TitleThe retirement solution hiding in plain sight
Publication TypeReport
Year of Publication2019
AuthorsFellows, M, Fichtner, J, Plews, L, Whitman, K
Series TitleUnited Income White Papers
InstitutionCapital One
CityWashington, D.C.
KeywordsDecision making, Retirement, Social Security

Social Security now accounts for about one-third of all income annually received by U.S. retirees, amounting to $1 trillion in annual benefits. While impactful, research consistently finds that the financial effect of Social Security could be even greater if more people waited to enroll, since monthly benefits can increase in value if retirees delay claiming. But, we don’t know how much is annually lost from households making the sub-optimal decision about when to claim Social Security, how many are making mistakes, or who is making those wrong decisions. To explore these questions, we utilize new technology invented by United Income and data sponsored by the Social Security Administration, finding:

Retirees will collectively lose $3.4 trillion in potential income that they could spend during their retirement because they claimed Social Security at a financially sub-optimal time, or an average of $111,000 per household. The average Social Security recipient would receive 9 percent more income in retirement if they made the financially optimal decision about when to claim this retirement benefit.

Current retirees will collectively lose an estimated $2.1 trillion in wealth because they made the sub-optimal decision about when to claim Social Security, or an average of $68,000 per household. Most retirees will lose wealth in their 60s and early 70s if they choose to optimize Social Security, but will be wealthier in their late 70s through the rest of their lives.

Only 4 percent of retirees make the financially optimal decision about when to claim Social Security. About 57 percent of retirees would build more wealth through their life if they waited to claim until they were 70 years old (when only 4 percent of retirees currently claim), while only 6.5 percent of retirees would have more wealth if they claimed prior to turning 64 (when over 70 percent of retirees currently claim benefits).

About 21 percent of those at risk of not affording retirement (or having enough income to cover their expected cost of living) would see an improvement in their chances if they claimed Social Security at the optimal time. Among those retirees at risk that start with a greater than 10 percent chance of affording retirement, 95 percent see their chances of affording retirement improve by an average of 28 percent.

Elderly poverty could be cut by nearly 50 percent if all retirees claimed Social Security at the financially optimal time. In particular, about 13 percent of people over the age of 70 are expected to live in poverty at some point, which is estimated to fall to 7 percent if retirees had claimed Social Security at the optimal time –a rate that could potentially fall even further if they earned additional income while they waited to claim Social Security.

This report finds that nearly no retirees are making the financially optimal decision about Social Security, and that the costs of those mistakes are high for retiring households, particularly those at risk of not being able to afford retirement. In addition, since making the optimal decision means sacrificing wealth in the near-term, we think it is unlikely more people will make the right decision without a policy intervention. There are numerous difficulties associated with solving this problem, though, which will require a thorough and diverse process for addressing. Among the topics for consideration should be the eligibility age range rules, which were last materially modified in 1983. Since 92 percent of retirees are expected to be better off waiting to claim until at least their 65th birthday, claiming before should ideally be an exception for those who demonstrably need to claim benefits before the full retirement age. Means-testing rules may be one way to address this, though an easier place to start would be to change how the Social Security Administration frames claiming age options to the public. Instead of portraying age 62 as the “early eligibility age,” for instance, claiming at age 62 could instead be labeled as the “minimum benefit age” while age 70 could be labeled as the “maximum benefit age.” The Social Security Administration could also be provided with resources to improve utilization of the policy it administers, perhaps in partnership with third-party fiduciaries. With the potential to put $2.1 trillion wealth and $3.4 trillion in income in the pockets of retirees, policymakers should be focused on improving this program.

Citation Key10903