2019 Social Security COLA

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Social Security Exhibit

[Updated on October 11, 2018.]

The official announcement for 2019 Social Security cost of living adjustment (COLA) came out. The COLA in 2019 will be larger than in 2018, but it’s actually bad news.

Social Security COLA goes by the increase in the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W). Based on changes in CPI-W, the COLA will be 2.8% in 2019 versus 2.0% in 2018. For those who are still working, the maximum earnings subject to Social Security tax will increase by 3.5% to $132,900 in 2019.

While we are at it, I’d like to re-address a few common myths about the Social Security COLA.

Myth No. 1: The President or Congress sets the Social Security COLA

Some mistakenly think that the Social Security COLA is given arbitrarily by the President or Congress, and they want their elected officials to take care of the seniors by declaring a higher COLA. That’s not the case.

The calculation is automatic. It goes strictly by the inflation numbers. You get a higher COLA only if the inflation numbers are higher. How the COLA is calculated is written into the law many years ago. The current President and Congress don’t control the results.

Myth No. 2: Retirees should want a higher Social Security COLA

Intuitively people want a higher COLA. However, a higher COLA caused by a higher inflation does no good. When there is a higher inflation, even though your Social Security benefits get a bump, your other money will lose more value. Contrary to intuition and many people’s belief, you want a lower COLA. A lower COLA means lower inflation, which means lower expenses for retirees, which makes your savings outside Social Security last longer.

Some say the government deliberately under-reports inflation. Even if that’s the case, you still want a lower COLA.

Suppose the true inflation for seniors is 5% higher than the reported inflation. If you get a 1% COLA when the true inflation is 6% and you get a 3% COLA when the true inflation is 8%, you are much better off with a lower 1% COLA together with 6% inflation than getting a 3% COLA together with 8% inflation. In that case your Social Security checks lags inflation by 5% either way, but you’d rather your other money outside Social Security lose to 6% inflation than losing to 8% inflation. Your savings last longer with lower inflation.

Pray for lower inflation if you are retired.

Myth No. 3: A larger increase in Medicare Part B premium means there is no COLA

Sometimes there is an increase in Medicare Part B premium such that it completely offsets the Social Security COLA. Although there is no net increase in the amount people receive, there is still a COLA. Medicare Part B premium increases when the costs to cover the retirees’ medical expenses increase. Medicare Part B premiums only pay a small fraction of the total cost. Medical costs can increase faster than the general cost of living, especially for retirees.

Deducting the Medicare Part B premium from the Social Security check is only for efficient administration. If people pay Medicare Part B premium separately, it’s easy to see there’s COLA, then there’s an increase in medical cost. The existence of one does not deny the existence of the other. In order to preserve the COLA, one can always dis-enroll from Medicare Part B, but that wouldn’t be wise.

[Photo credit: Flickr user FDR Presidential Library & Museum]

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