Big Social Security Benefit Increase for 2022: But is Bump Really Enough?
The Social Security Administration has announced a big Social Security benefit increase for 2022. Beginning next January, Social Security paychecks will show a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) of 5.9%. This is a huge bump over the modest 1.3% increase that was awarded in 2021.
In 2021, the average retired Social Security benefit was $1,565. Average recipients will receive a $93 monthly bump in 2022, amounting to an additional $1,146 a year. (This is significantly more than last year’s average increase which was a mere $20 a month — $240 a year— bump.)
Time to Update the Data in Your Retirement Plan
It is a good idea to always keep your retirement plans updated with any changes to your financial situation. This news may cause you to update your Social Security benefit amount as well as your inflation projections.
Social Security Benefit Amount
If you have already started Social Security, this COLA is significant enough that you should update your current or projected Social Security benefit in the NewRetirement Planner.
In light of this news, everyone should assess their assumptions for Social Security COLA, general inflation, housing appreciation, and medical inflation in the NewRetirement Planner.
This may be a temporary blip in inflation or it could signal a period of increasing costs. Stress-test your plans for the latter.
Putting the 5.9% Increase in Perspective
This year’s increase is significant, but it is nowhere near a record jump.
Since 1975, the highest Social Security COLA was 14.3% in 1980, but that was an anomaly. Inflation and COLAs were high in the late 1970s and early 80s, but the 14.3% increase was 3.1 higher than the second-highest increase.
In the last 46 years, there have been:
- Only 8 years with COLA increases at or over 5.9%, all occurring between 1975 and 1982
- 13 years with a 2% bump or less
- 16 years with an increase in the range of 2–3.9%
- 3 years with a 0% increase (2010, 2011, and 2016)
A 5.9% Increase Is a Lot, but Is it Enough?
This year’s COLA is helpful. However, over the past 12 years, COLAs have averaged a meager 1.4 percent.
And, year after year of small increases has a cumulative effect. In fact, each inadequate increase impacts a retiree’s income for the rest of their lives.
Furthermore, the way the Social Security COLA is calculated (see below) is perhaps inadequate to keep pace with the true increases in costs to retirees.
According to Mary Johnson of the Senior Citizens League, “Over the past 21 years, COLAs have raised Social Security benefits by 55 percent but housing costs rose nearly 118 percent and healthcare costs rose 145 percent over the same period.”
Housing and healthcare are two of the biggest expenses for retirees.
And, not keeping up with monthly costs has short-term as well as long-term consequences.
Johnson continues, “COLAs are intended to protect the buying power of Social Security benefits but, according to consumer price data through July of 2021, Social Security benefits have lost nearly one-third of their buying power, 32 percent, since 2000.”
Nancy Altman, president of Social Security Works, another advocacy group, agrees. She told the New York Times, “You’re glad that you get a 5.9 percent increase, but it doesn’t feel like you’re getting 5.9 percent when all of your other costs are going up much higher.”
Is there a Downside to a Big COLA Increase?
It might seem like a big increase in Social Security benefits is good news. However, the bigger paychecks are intended to help retirees keep pace with inflation. And, inflation is bad news for retirees.
Johnson says, “Even worse, it appears that inflation is not done with us yet, and the buying power of Social Security benefits may continue to erode into 2022.”
How Social Security’s Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) Is Calculated
The first Social Security COLA increase was in 1950. It took an act of Congress, and the benefit increased by 77%. Two more acts of Congress in the 1950s brought the total increase to 125% over its original level by the end of the decade. From 1950 to 1975 the COLA was increased by single acts of Congress nine times.
In 1973 legislation was passed that dictated that Social Security benefits would keep place with inflation, and the first yearly, automatic COLA increase came in 1975. The Social Security Act specifies that COLAs are determined based on increases (decreases are not used) in the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W).
The Social Security Administration uses the average CPI-W data from July, August, and September of the previous year and compares it to the same time period of the current year. The percent change in the two numbers is the COLA increase.
Does the Way Social Security’s Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) Penalize Retirees?
As it says in the name, the CPI-W measures the increases in costs of the types of things that urban workers typically buy and in what proportion. The problem with using this measure for Social Security is that retired seniors spend money quite differently than most workers. Most notably, seniors spend quite a bit more on healthcare than the general population.
To make matters worse, healthcare costs have been rising much faster than most other goods and services. Different measures show that healthcare costs have risen 3% to 12% each year in the last decade. And seniors spend a greater proportion of their income on healthcare than an average worker.
According to the Senior Citizens League, “The suppressed growth in Social Security benefits not only creates ongoing benefit adequacy issues for retirees, but also Medicare budget problems when the COLA is not sufficient to cover rising Part B premiums for large numbers of beneficiaries.” Though there are some statutory protections for Part B premium increases, about 30% of beneficiaries are not protected and could see “substantial spikes” in their Part B premiums.
Alternatives to the CPI-W method of calculating the Social Security COLA have been proposed, including something called the R-CPI-E for “Retirement Price Index for Elderly Americans.” This method of calculating inflation specifically for people over the age of 62 was mandated by the Older Americans Act of 1987, but it has never been used to update the Social Security COLA.
How to Make Sure You Have Sufficient Retirement Income
Social Security is only designed to replace part of your retirement income. It is almost (but not quite) impossible to live on Social Security alone.
Here are 4 things you should do to make sure you have sufficient retirement income, regardless of Social Security 2022 increases:
1. Calculate All Sources of Retirement Income
You will want to think about how you will be withdrawing and/or earning from savings and whether or not you have a pension, passive income, or a retirement job.
2. Estimate Your Retirement Expenses
How will your spending change over the course of retirement?
3. Assess Inflation
Ronald Reagan said, “Inflation is as violent as a mugger, as frightening as an armed robber, and as deadly as a hitman.” And, it is true. Inflation will make whatever money you have become worthless. That is one of the reasons why predicting and calculating inflation correctly is so important for your future financial security.
4. Protect Yourself from Other Risks
Inflation is not the only unknown that could devastate your retirement finances. You also need to plan for a long life, a healthcare emergency, natural disasters, and more.
Build Projections of Social Security Income Into Your Retirement Plan
Sound complicated? It does not need to be.
The NewRetirement retirement planning calculator is an easy-to-use but super-detailed tool that will tell you if you have sufficient retirement income. You can set different levels of spending and income for different phases of retirement.
You can even set your own estimated inflation rates — one for general spending, another for housing, and medical costs can be specified separately. Try different rates for each category and see how much it impacts your retirement financial health.