Dear Liz: I am 661/2 and eligible to collect my full Social Security benefit now. I am in good health and assume I will live into my 80s. I am still working and don't need the extra money. Is it better to put off taking my benefit so that it will grow 8% with Uncle Sam, tax free and guaranteed, or should I take the money now, pay taxes on it and invest it? Politically speaking, I think I should take it, but my gut says let it grow. What do you think? Is there a program available to demonstrate the differences?
Answer: Far too many people grab their Social Security checks too early, locking themselves into lower payments for the rest of their lives. Some do so in the mistaken belief that their benefits, or Social Security itself, will go away or be dramatically altered if they don't "lock in" their checks. It's true that Congress needs to change the Social Security program if it is to meet all its future obligations. But lawmakers are far more likely to change benefits for young people than they are to mess with promised benefits for people close to retirement age.
As you've noted, when left untouched benefits grow about 8% a year from age 62 to age 70, which is a strong incentive to delay filing. You'd be hard-pressed to find an investment with a guaranteed 8% annual return, let alone one that would offer that yield plus enough extra return to offset the taxes you'd pay on those benefits if you took them earlier.
The Social Security site has a benefit estimator that can show you the effects of claiming your benefit at various ages. You'll find it at http://www.ssa.gov/estimator.
AARP also has an excellent retirement calculator that can help you plan various scenarios using not just Social Security but all of your retirement benefits. It's at http://www.aarp.org/work/retirement-planning/retirement_calculator.
Finally, you should check out mutual fund company T. Rowe Price's information about "practice retirement" at troweprice.com/practice, which details the benefits of continuing to work through your 60s while saving less for retirement. The growth in Social Security benefits and retirement accounts is so great during that decade that it often more than offsets a sharp reduction in savings, which would mean you'd have more money to spend on vacations and other fun pursuits even before you retire.
Whole-life vs. term-life policies
Dear Liz: My mother and her insurance agent swear by whole-life insurance policies. I am 45 and have heard from everyone else to only have term life, which is what my husband and I both have. We have a 15-year-old daughter. Can you please put in layman's terms what a whole-life policy is and what the benefits are?
Answer: Term insurance provides a death benefit if you die during the "term" of the policy. Term insurance provides coverage for a limited time, such as 10, 20 or 30 years. It has no cash value otherwise and you can't borrow money against it.
Whole-life policies combine a death benefit with an investment component. The investment component is designed to accumulate value over time that the insured person can withdraw or borrow against. Whole-life policies are often called a type of "permanent" life insurance, since they're designed to cover you for life rather than just a designated period.
If you need life insurance — and with a daughter who is still a minor, you certainly do — the most important thing is to make sure you buy a big enough policy to cover the financial needs of your dependents. This is where whole-life policies can be problematic, since the same amount of coverage can cost up to 10 times what a term policy would cost. Many people find they can't afford sufficient coverage if they buy permanent insurance. Also, many people don't have a need for lifetime insurance coverage. Once your kids are grown and the mortgage is paid off, your survivors may not need the coverage a permanent policy would provide.
If you are interested in a whole-life policy, make sure to run it by a fee-only financial planner who can objectively evaluate the coverage to make sure it's a good fit for your circumstances.
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