[Updated on September 13, 2023 after the release of the inflation number for August 2023.]
Retirees on Social Security receive an increase of their Social Security benefits each year known as the Cost of Living Adjustment or COLA. The COLA was 8.7% in 2023, which was the largest in 40 years. Retirees on Social Security will once again receive a COLA in 2024 but it won’t be as big as the one in 2023.
Automatic Link to Inflation
Some retirees think the COLA is given at the discretion of the President or Congress and they want their elected officials to take care of seniors by declaring a higher COLA. They blame the President or Congress when they think the increase is too small.
It was done that way before 1975 but the COLA has been automatically linked to inflation for nearly 50 years. How much the COLA will be is determined strictly by the inflation numbers. The COLA is high when inflation is high. It’s low when inflation is low. There’s no COLA when inflation is zero or negative, which happened in 2010, 2011, and 2016.
Specifically, the Social Security COLA is determined by the increase in the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W). CPI-W is a separate index from the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U), which is more often referenced by the media when they talk about inflation.
CPI-W tracks inflation experienced by workers. CPI-U tracks inflation experienced by consumers. There are some minor differences in how much weight different goods and services have in each index but CPI-W and CPI-U look practically identical when you put them in a chart.
The red line is CPI-W and the blue line is CPI-U. They differed by only smidges in 30 years.
There’s also a research CPI index called the Consumer Price Index for Americans 62 years of age and older, or R-CPI-E. This index weighs more by the spending patterns of older Americans. Some researchers argue that the Social Security COLA should use R-CPI-E, which has increased more than CPI-W in the last 30 years.
The green line is R-CPI-E. The red line is CPI-W. R-CPI-E outpaced CPI-W in 30 years between 1993 and 2023 but not by much. Had the Social Security COLA used R-CPI-E instead of CPI-W, Social Security benefits would’ve been higher by 0.1% per year, or a little over 3% after 30 years. That’s still not much difference.
Regardless of which exact CPI index is used to calculate the Social Security COLA, it’s subject to the same overall price environment. Congress chose CPI-W 50 years ago. That’s the one we’re going with.
More specifically, Social Security COLA for next year is calculated by the increase in the average of CPI-W from the third quarter of last year to the third quarter of this year. You get the CPI-W numbers in July, August, and September. Add them up and divide by three. You do the same for July, August, and September last year. Compare the two numbers and round the change to the nearest 0.1%. That’ll be the Social Security COLA for next year.
The government releases the CPI-W for September in mid-October each year. The Social Security Administration makes the calculation and announces the Social Security COLA for the following year at that time.
2024 Social Security COLA
Although we won’t know for sure what the Social Security COLA will be in 2024 until we have the CPI-W for September, we can make educated guesses based on the inflation numbers in recent months and different scenarios for inflation in the coming months.
I project the CPI-W under three scenarios – low, mid, and high. If inflation in September is 0%, meaning that prices freeze at the latest level, that’s our low inflation scenario. If inflation is approximately 0.25% in September, that’s our mid-line scenario. Finally, if inflation is about 0.4% in September, that’s our high scenario.
Here’s what the Social Security COLA will be in each scenario:
|Inflation through September||Projected 2024 Social Security COLA|
In the low inflation scenario, even though prices will freeze at the latest level, Social Security recipients will still receive a 3.1% COLA in 2024 because current prices are already higher than prices in the third quarter of last year. If we see positive inflation in September, the COLA will be higher than 3.1%.
The mid-line is probably the most likely scenario. Inflation in recent months is down but not zero. If inflation continues at a moderate pace, Social Security recipients will see approximately a 3.2% COLA in 2024.
The high scenario requires a 0.4% increase in the CPI-W in September. This isn’t out of the question. If inflation stays high, Social Security will have a 3.3% COLA in 2024.
The differences in these three scenarios aren’t huge. Between a 3.1% COLA in the low inflation scenario and a 3.3% COLA in the high inflation scenario, it comes down to a difference of $4/month on a $2,000/month Social Security benefit or a difference of $6/month on a $3,000/month benefit.
If you’re on Medicare, the Social Security Administration automatically deducts the Medicare premium from your Social Security benefits. The Social Security COLA is given on the “gross” Social Security benefits before deducting the Medicare premium and any tax withholding.
Medicare announces the premium for next year around the same time Social Security announces the COLA but not necessarily on the same date. The increase in healthcare costs is part of the cost of living that the COLA is intended to cover. You’re still getting the full COLA even though a part of the COLA will be used toward the increase in Medicare premiums.
Retirees with a higher income pay more than the standard Medicare premiums. This is called Income-Related Monthly Adjustment Amount (IRMAA). I cover IRMAA in 2024 2025 Medicare IRMAA Premium MAGI Brackets.
Root for a Lower COLA
People intuitively want a higher COLA but a higher COLA can only be caused by higher inflation. Higher inflation is bad for retirees.
Whether inflation is high or low, your Social Security benefits will have the same purchasing power. It’s the purchasing power of your savings and investments outside Social Security that you should worry about. When inflation is high, even though your Social Security benefits get a bump, your other money loses more value to inflation. Your savings and investments outside Social Security will last longer when inflation is low.
You want a lower Social Security COLA, which means lower inflation and lower expenses.
Some people say that 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 3% higher than the reported inflation. If you get a 1% COLA when the true inflation is 4% and you get a 5% COLA when the true inflation is 8%, you are much better off with a lower 1% COLA together with 4% inflation than getting a 5% COLA together with 8% inflation. Your Social Security benefits lag inflation by the same amount either way, but you’d rather your other money outside Social Security loses to 4% inflation than to 8% inflation.
Root for lower inflation and lower Social Security COLA when you are retired.
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