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Does Social Security COLA affect future retirees?

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If you're experiencing sticker shock every time you visit the grocery store or a favorite restaurant these days, you're not alone. Consumers are seeing the biggest price hikes in decades, leaving those about to leave the workforce wondering if their income will be able to keep up.

Fortunately, the Social Security Administration (SSA) provides cost-of-living adjustments, or COLAs, that increase monthly payouts for current recipients.1 But does Social Security COLA affect future retirees? The answer to that question depends on when you start claiming benefits. Here are the key details to know.

What is a cost-of-living adjustment?

Price increases can erode the value of a dollar for any consumer, and older adults are no exception. You may find that the monthly income amount that used to support your standard of living suddenly isn't enough to cover your bills.

To mitigate the effect of inflation on retirees, Social Security calculates an annual cost-of-living adjustment for those receiving retirement and disability (technically, Supplemental Security Income) benefits. Inflation can be measured in a number of ways, but the SSA relies on a figure known as the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers, or CPI-W. The administration uses the growth in CPI-W from the third quarter of the previous year until the third quarter of the current year to figure out what that COLA will be.

In years when there's no inflation—something that can occur following an economic downturn—the COLA may be zero. When prices are soaring, meanwhile, the adjustment can be significant. For example, the SSA implemented a 5.9% COLA for 2022, based on the rise of the CPI-W from the third quarter of 2020 to the same quarter in 2021. Given the acceleration of price increases into 2022, the COLA could be even higher in 2023.

How does the COLA affect benefits?

The COLA applies to a recipient's primary insurance amount, or PIA, which is what recipients qualify for if they collect benefits at their full retirement age. Suppose, for example, that your PIA was $1,800 a month in 2021. After the 5.9% adjustment, your benefit would have jumped to $1,906.20.2

A retiree receiving benefits based on their earnings record isn't the only one eligible for Social Security COLA. Any annual increases also apply to those receiving spousal benefits, survivor benefits and disability benefits.

For current recipients, it's worth bearing in mind that your PIA and the amount you actually collect may not be the same. If you start receiving benefits early, your monthly benefit may be less. If you delay benefits until after your full retirement age, it may be more (though monthly benefit increases stop at age 70). In addition, some older adults have Medicare premiums automatically deducted from their Social Security payouts. Therefore, the change in your monthly benefit may not match the COLA precisely.

Does Social Security COLA affect future retirees?

Any cost-of-living adjustments may or may not affect the benefit amount for future recipients, depending on when they apply for Social Security. To understand how this works, it's important to first understand how the SSA calculates retirement benefits.

The basis for your Social Security benefit is a figure known as your average indexed monthly earnings, or AIME. To arrive at your AIME, the program takes the actual earnings for each year you worked and adjusts the years earlier in your career to bring them closer to what you earned after age 60. It then averages the 35 years of highest indexed earnings and divides that number by the 12 months of the year. The resulting figure is your AIME. The administration applies a specific formula, based on your first year of eligibility, to the AIME to arrive at your PIA.

Here's the bottom line: You only receive COLA adjustments if you apply for retirement benefits after age 62. Specifically, you get adjustments for any years between your first eligibility (at age 62) and your filing date. If you claim Social Security right when you turn 62, you may not get any of those adjustments.

Say you reached your full retirement age in 2022—which happens to be age 66 and 4 months — and applied for Social Security in that same year. You could receive any COLAs you missed out on since becoming eligible for benefits at age 62 in 2018. Therefore, you could receive a 2.8% increase from 2018, a 1.6% increase from 2019, a 1.3% increase from 2020 and the 5.9% increase from 2021.

Even if you don't receive any previous COLA increases, your Social Security benefits indirectly take inflation into account. The process of indexing wages to arrive at a PIA means the program is adjusting lower-earning years upward to calculate your benefit. In fact, on average, new beneficiaries receive larger monthly benefits than existing recipients, according to the SSA.

Planning for inflation

If you're nearing retirement, the fact that Social Security provides COLAs means your benefit is protected against future inflation. However, the program is only one of multiple sources of income for most older Americans. Consequently, it's imperative that you think about the purchasing power of any other assets you may rely on as well.

Now may be a good time to evaluate your retirement budget and check whether your investment accounts are sufficient to support your planned lifestyle and personal goals. A retirement income planning calculator, for example, draws on your age, assets and future expenses to give you a quick look at whether you're on track.

If you're about to leave the workforce, it might also be a good time to have a financial advisor review your portfolio and make sure you have enough stocks and inflation-protected assets to hedge against future price increases. A local Thrivent advisor can talk with you about your goals and create a plan to help you achieve them.

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1Thrivent financial advisors and professionals have general knowledge of the Social Security tenets. For complete details on your situation, contact the Social Security Administration.

2Hypothetical examples are for illustrative purposes. May not be representative of actual results.