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Why delaying Social Security is the smartest retirement play

Trays of printed social security checks
Trays of printed social security checks wait to be mailed. Delaying Social Security after full retirement age causes retirement credits to grow at a rate of 8% a year.
(Associated Press)

Dear Liz: If someone delays applying for Social Security after their full retirement age, the common thought is that their benefit grows by 8% a year until the age of 70. It accrues by that much only if you continue to work, right? I was unceremoniously laid off during the pandemic and I am holding off as long as I can before applying. I will be 67 at the end of this month. But because I am not working, that 8% is not a reality, right?

Answer: Wrong. The 8% delayed retirement credits apply whether you’re working or not. Those credits will help you maximize the benefit you receive for the rest of your life and potentially the rest of your spouse’s life, if you are the higher earner in a marriage. This effect is so powerful that many financial planners recommend their clients tap other resources, such as retirement funds, if it allows them to put off claiming Social Security.

It may help to think of retiring as a separate event from claiming Social Security. Many people link the two, but you can work while claiming Social Security or retire but delay Social Security.

If you did continue to work, your benefit might be increased somewhat by the additional earnings. This typically happens if you had a low-earning year included in the 35 highest-earning years that Social Security uses to calculate your benefit. If you had earned more in 2020 than in one of those previous years, then your 2020 earnings would replace that past year’s earnings in the formula and boost your benefit.

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The 8% delayed retirement credit probably will have a much bigger effect on what you ultimately get, though, so don’t fret about any missed opportunities. Just try to delay your application as long as you can.

A woman told Hertz she found a used condom in a rental car. Then Hertz billed her for dog hair, even though she didn’t have a dog in the vehicle.

Different Roths, different rules

Dear Liz: I have a Roth 401(k). Are withdrawals from it the same as from a Roth IRA? And how do I move it to a Roth IRA?

Answer: Roth 401(k)s are a type of workplace retirement plan that, like Roth IRAs, allow tax-free withdrawals. But the rules for Roth 401(k)s are somewhat different from those governing Roth IRAs.

For example, a Roth IRA allows you to withdraw an amount equal to your contributions free of taxes and penalties anytime, regardless of your age. Earnings can be withdrawn from a Roth IRA tax- and penalty-free once you’re 59½ and the account is at least 5 years old. The clock starts on Jan. 1 of the year you make your first contribution.

To withdraw money tax- and penalty-free from a Roth 401(k), you typically must be 59½ or older and the account must be at least 5 years old.

In addition, Roth 401(k)s — like regular 401(k)s and traditional IRAs — are subject to required minimum distribution rules that require you to start taking money out at age 72. Roth IRAs aren’t subject to those rules.

Many people roll their Roth 401(k)s into Roth IRAs to avoid the required minimum distribution rules or to have more investment choices. Such a rollover resets the five-year clock that determines whether a withdrawal incurs taxes and penalties, however. If you wait until you retire to roll over your Roth 401(k) and need access to the money, that waiting period could be problematic.

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You can roll over your Roth 401(k) after leaving the employer that offers the plan. But you also could ask if your plan allows “in service” rollovers — in other words, rollovers while you’re still working for the employer. Some Roth 401(k)s allow these, although they may be restricted to people 59½ and older.

Contributing to a Roth IRA is an excellent way for young people to build wealth, and the earlier they can start, the better.

Finding a fee-only advisor

Dear Liz: I need help locating a fee-only financial advisor. My search only comes up with advisors with investments.

Answer: It’s not clear what you mean by “advisors with investments.” Some fee-only planners charge a percentage of the assets they manage and often require you to invest a minimum amount with them. Others charge a monthly retainer (check XY Planning Network) or by the hour (visit Garrett Planning Network).

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If you’re primarily looking for help with issues other than investing, such as budgeting or debt management, you could consider hiring an accredited financial counselor or accredited financial coach. Visit the Assn. for Financial Counseling & Planning Education. Another resource is nonprofit credit counseling agencies affiliated with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling at www.nfcc.org.

Liz Weston, Certified Financial Planner, is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the “Contact” form at asklizweston.com.


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