Skip to Navigation Skip to Main Content

Scott Burns: Deferring Social Security is good investment

Q: I just turned 68. I’m a single woman making about $66,000 a year. I was planning on drawing my Social Security in two years when I turn 70. I have about $260,000 in savings and stocks.

A financial adviser said I should start drawing Social Security now because it would take until I’m 85 to get my money back from not drawing now. My car and house are paid for, and I’m not planning on extensive travel during retirement.

Should I draw my Social Security now, which would mean early in 2013? You always recommend waiting if you can. I know I can wait because I will work until I’m 70 at least. Please let me know if I’m looking at things correctly by waiting until 70.

K.E., by e-mail

A: If leaving money to heirs or a charity is a major motivation for you, then you might consider taking your benefits now rather than waiting. This would reduce the demand on your financial assets for income in coming years. This would allow them to grow, which would be really nice for your financial adviser.

But if your main goal is to maximize your consumption and security through the remainder of your life, then you should defer taking benefits until age 70 and use your investment assets to cover the cost of the waiting period.

The “payback” period — the amount of time it will take for you to recoup the benefits you forgo during the two years — will be 12.5 years (this includes adjustment for inflation, so it’s in real dollars). The life expectancy of all American women at your age is now 17.4 years. It will be 15.9 years when you turn 70. Your expectancy will be higher because people in the top half of all wage earners live about 4.5 years longer than people in the bottom half.

So while no one can say that deferring is a cinch, it’s a very good bet that you will benefit with a higher and more secure income all of your probably longer life.

The clincher on this is the alternative. If you defer $1,000 of benefits for the next two years, the $2,000 you give up will get you a lifetime benefit increase of $160 a year. So your $2,000 “investment” will earn you a lifetime 8 percent payout, adjusted for inflation. Basically, you are making a life annuity investment and getting a return you could not possibly get in the private market.

The people who benefit most from deferral are married couples because if the primary earner defers benefits, the increased benefit will be received during the joint life expectancy of the couple, which is about 25 years. So for couples it is pretty much a cinch. For singles, it’s a good bet, but not a cinch.


Q: I have a question on financial advisers. I read a recent Wall Street Journal article about when exchange-traded funds cost too much. The article mentioned that the cost of a managed ETF portfolio should be 1 to 1.25 percent of the amount invested per year. In one of your recent columns, however, you mentioned a method where a person basically bought their own ETFs at a much lower cost. Is there a list of financial advisers who work within the 1 to 1.25 percent cost profile?

C.T., by e-mail

A: The fees you will pay an investment adviser depend very much on the affiliation of the adviser and the amount of money you will be investing. So the important reality here is that moving to low-cost exchange-traded index funds won’t do anything for you if everything you save on ETF expenses is simply transferred to your adviser. The idea is to find a way so that you get more of the return on your money.

If you start your search among Registered Investment Advisers — advisers who have a sworn fiduciary duty to you — I think you will have a good chance of finding an adviser who will manage your account at 0.5 percent to 1 percent. Whether an adviser can make enough good decisions to recoup his cost is another discussion.


SCOTT BURNS is a finance and investment columnist for Universal Press Syndicate. Questions about personal finance and investments may be sent by e-mail to or by fax to 505-424-0938. Check the Web site: Questions of general interest will be answered in future columns.