Sunday, October 30

Week 278 - Living From One Month To The Next On Social Security

Situation: 60℅ of Americans over age 65 are “overwhelmingly” dependent on Social Security and 20% are totally dependent (“Animal Spirits”, George A. Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2009, p. 124). To maintain Social Security in its current form, with cost of living adjustments (COLA), would consume ~2℅ of the country's taxable income going forward. The average monthly benefit (July 2016) for a retired worker is $1350. Contrast this with the US “poverty threshold” of $1200/mo.

Mission: Outline constraints on the 20% who are totally dependent on Social Security and the 40% who have some savings but remain overwhelmingly dependent on Social Security. Create a spreadsheet of the types of assets held by the latter group.

Execution: To live independently on $1350/mo, an individual or couple would have to start retirement debt-free and remain so. If they are living rent and mortgage free in their home, they will not be able to afford the expenses (maintenance, property tax, utilities) unless they take in a renter. A car would also not be affordable due to expenses (insurance, tires, maintenance, registration). The discipline of sticking to a budget rules out the use of credit cards; a debit card and checking account are a better plan. They would need to use accrual accounting. That is, assign all $1350 of income each month to budgeted expense, including a savings account for non-recurring capital expenditures on new clothes, vacations, income taxes and medical/dental expenses. 

The 40% who find themselves overwhelmingly dependent on Social Security probably had no intention of ever owning stocks or stock mutual funds, preferring instead to use FDIC-insured savings accounts, Savings Bonds, whole life insurance, 1/10th ounce gold coins and a money market fund (or short-term bond fund) obtained from a broker. They are savers rather than investors and don’t want to place their savings at risk. They’d like to avoid losing money to inflation, and may be aware that the only zero-risk/zero-cost investments are 10-Yr Inflation-protected Treasury Notes and IRA-like Inflation-protected Savings Bonds obtained online

This cohort doesn’t want to gamble, which means they don’t want to invest in asset classes that always seem to fall in value during a recession. That restraint rules out stocks, corporate bonds, and REITs but not the equity in their own home. They may strive to own a home, but until the Housing Crisis they weren’t fully aware of the risk. Now they know that only Treasury Notes and gold can be counted on to rise in value during a financial crisis. 

Administration: see Table.

Bottom Line: Live small, stay out of debt, close any credit card accounts and keep track of every penny in an accrual accounting ledger.

Risk Rating: 3 (where Treasury Notes = 1 and gold = 10).

Full Disclosure: I dollar-average into Savings Bonds and hold Treasury Notes at I hold an intermediate-term US Treasury Bond Fund in a retirement account. 

NOTE: Metrics are current for the Sunday of publication. Red highlights denote underperformance vs. VBINX at Line 13 in the Table.

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