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How Auto-IRAs Can Help Increase Lifetime Social Security Benefits

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What You Need to Know

  • Auto-enrollment at a 6% default rate can translate into up to 8% more income for life by allowing retirees to delay claiming Social Security, research finds.
  • The Pew Charitable Trusts say using IRAs to delay claiming Social Security could benefit a wide variety of workers, including Black and Hispanic workers.
  • An earlier Pew study found 39% of workers in auto-IRA plans with a 3% default contribution rate could delay claiming Social Security by at least one year and 20% could delay it by at least two years.

Individual retirement accounts with automatic enrollment features, or auto-IRAs, can significantly affect income during retirement, according to new research on individual retirement accounts by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Savers enrolled at a 6% default contribution have more flexibility to delay claiming Social Security for at least a year while they continue to work or supplement their income with IRA withdrawals, which can boost monthly and annual Social Security benefits by between 7% and 8% for life, the research found.

Several states are considering launching auto-IRAs to close a gap between those who have access to retirement savings accounts at work and those who don’t.

According to Pew, 42% of American private sector workers do not have access to a defined benefit plan, 401(k) or IRA through their employer.

Black and Hispanic workers, those who work for smaller companies, younger workers and those with lower levels of education are more likely to not have access to a workplace retirement savings plan, according to Pew.

States that have adopted auto-IRAs include California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey and Oregon, and other states are considering doing so.

How Auto-IRAs Work

Under state auto-IRA plans, private sector workers would be automatically enrolled into auto-IRAs at a pre-set percentage of their earnings but would be allowed to change their contribution or opt out.

To understand how auto-IRAs could affect Social Security claiming and long-term retirement income, Pew previously studied a model that assumed a 3% default contribution in state auto-IRA plans and found that 39% of workers participating could delay claiming Social Security by at least one year and 20% could delay by at least two years.

In its most recent study, Pew updated its model to assume a 6% auto-IRA default contribution and found that by 2050 more than half of workers nationwide with auto-IRAs could delay claiming Social Security by at least one year, increasing monthly benefits by an average of $78, and more than one-third of workers could delay claiming for at least two years, increasing their monthly benefit by nearly 14% for life.

Pew noted that the use of IRA accounts to delay claiming Social Security could benefit a wide variety of workers, including Black and Hispanic workers who are more likely to be enrolled in state auto-IRAs.

“For example, the modeling indicates that Black and Hispanic workers would be able to use auto-IRA accounts to delay claiming Social Security benefits for somewhat greater lengths of time than White workers because they’re less likely to work for an employer that offers a traditional defined-benefit or defined-contribution pension plan,” said the report.

“Thus, Black and Hispanic workers on average would participate in auto-IRA plans for longer periods of time than whites — and therefore accumulate relatively higher auto-IRA balances. That money could then be used to delay Social Security benefits longer.”

Impact on Groups at Different Income Levels

Auto-IRAs could similarly benefit middle-income households (between $33,000 and $200,000) because that group had the highest share of workers who would potentially participate in auto-IRA programs for a greater number of years under the Pew model.

Higher earners are more likely to work for an employer that offers a workplace retirement plan or contribute 6% of a higher income to an auto-IRA.

The study also noted those with college or graduate degrees may be able to delay claiming Social Security for longer periods than those with an associate degree.

This is related to higher earnings associated with higher levels of education that would allow those with more education to accumulate greater IRA balances with which to then delay Social Security.

In addition, Social Security benefits make up a larger share of pre-retirement wages for lower earners than for higher earners, so higher earners reach retirement with relatively higher IRA balances and the Social Security benefits they need to replace are proportionately less, said Pew.

Claiming, Timing Issues

Delaying Social Security may not work for everyone, however. Some people prefer not to delay Social Security because they want to retain some of their savings for long-term care or emergencies.

Others may choose to claim Social Security as soon as possible because they are unemployed, have difficulty working due to illness, are terminally ill or have lower-than-average life expectancy.

In addition, financial difficulties faced by the Social Security system may affect how retirees approach their claiming strategies. As it currently stands, the program will only be able to pay out 79% of scheduled benefits starting in 2035 unless Congress takes action.

Kristen Beckman is a freelance writer based in Colorado. She previously was a writer and editor for ALM’s Retirement Advisor magazine and LifeHealthPro online channel. She also was a reporter for Business Insurance magazine covering workers compensation topics.

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