By Michael J. Wiener
Special to the Findependence Hub
Close Friend: My wife and I are just a year away from being able to start our CPP benefits when we turn 60. I’m not sure if we should start them right away or wait until we’re older to get bigger benefits.
Michael James: I don’t usually get involved with giving this kind of advice about people’s specific situations, but you’re a close enough friend that I’ll try to help. Let’s go through a standard checklist of questions to help you decide.
CF: Fire away!
Do you need the money?
MJ: The first question is “Do you need the money?”
CF: Of course I need money. What kind of question is that?
MJ: Hmmm. You’re right. That question isn’t very clear. I think the idea is whether you need CPP benefits to be able to maintain your standard of living.
CF: Well, I’m retiring in a few months, and I don’t really know what standard of living I can afford.
MJ: Another good point. Let’s try to make the question more precise. If you don’t start your CPP until you’re 65 or 70, will you have less money available to spend before CPP starts than you’ll have after CPP starts?
CF: I’m not sure. My wife and I have $600,000 saved in our RRSPs that we could live on during our 60s.
MJ: That’s more than enough to live on while you wait for larger CPP benefits at 65 or 70.
CF: Okay, next question.
CF: My dad died at 82, but my mother and both my wife’s parents are still kicking. One of my uncles died in his 60s. Maybe I should take CPP now in case that happens to me.
MJ: We can all imagine dying young, but it’s more important to make sure you don’t run out of money if you live a long life. Maybe a better way to phrase the question is “Are you willing to spend down all your savings before you turn 80 because you’re sure you won’t live that long?”
CF: No, I’m not.
MJ: So, even though you don’t know how long you’ll live, you’re going to have to use your savings sparingly in case you live a long life.
CF: Does that mean I should take CPP at 60 so that I won’t spend as much of my savings in my 60s?
MJ: No, it means the opposite. When you spend some savings in your 60s, you’re buying a larger guaranteed CPP payment that is indexed to inflation. You’re taking part of your savings that you spend over exactly 10 years and turn it into an income stream that could last for decades. By making this choice, you’ll be able to safely spend more money each month starting today.
CF: I’m starting to see a trend toward taking CPP at 70.
More money while young
MJ: Let’s see. The next question here is “Do you want more income available to spend while you’re young?”
CF: I suppose so. But can’t I just spend extra from the RRSPs during my 60s to boost my income over the next decade?
MJ: Good point. This question doesn’t make a lot of sense. In fact, if you spend some of your RRSPs now in trade for higher guaranteed CPP benefits for the rest of your life, your safe spending level starting today will already be higher. Choosing to spend even more during your 60s just means you need more savings to cover this spending. Because you have enough savings to spend extra in your 60s, you’re still better off taking CPP at 70.
CF: Sounds good to me.
Do you want the money now?
CF: I thought the point of these questions was to figure out what is best for me rather than just me going with my gut.
MJ: I agree. Of course people can do whatever they want. But if they give nonsensical reasons for their choice, they have to expect others to point out that the reasons make no sense.
CPP contribution history
MJ: Next question: “Do you have many years when you contributed little to CPP?”
CF: I had some low income years, and my wife had even more because she took time off to look after our children. What difference does this make?
MJ: There’s a complex set of rules around calculating your CPP benefits. You get to drop out a certain number of years of low contributions. If you don’t work from 60 to 65, you’ll drop out those years, but that takes away from dropping out other low contribution years. Fortunately, the primary caregiver gets an extra drop out for the years when the kids were under age 7. And there’s also an extra provision allowing you to drop out the years from 65 to 70.
CF: Does this mean I’d be penalized for delaying CPP?
MJ: Yes, but not by very much. In my own case, my wife and I will be penalized by close to the maximum possible amount, and we’re still better off delaying CPP. The amount the benefits rise during the years from 60 to 65 is far more than the penalty from not working from 60 to 65.
CF: So, things are still pointing toward delaying CPP.
CF: Beats me.
MJ: This question doesn’t make much sense, really. It might as well ask “Are you unrealistic?”
CF: What difference do my future investment returns make?
MJ: The idea of this question is that you could take CPP at 60 and invest for a high return. The hope is that you’d invest so well that a decade later, this CPP money would be more than the larger CPP benefits you’d get if you took CPP at 70.
CF: I understand that stocks have gone up an average of around 10% per year during my lifetime. Is that enough to keep up with the increase from delaying CPP?
MJ: No, it isn’t. The reason is that CPP benefits are indexed to inflation. Stocks have only beaten inflation by 5-6% per year, and your portfolio has some bonds in it. So, you can’t expect the eye-popping returns necessary to keep up with rising delayed CPP benefits.
MJ: Are you concerned about whether the surviving spouse would have enough money if one of you died young?
CF: Of course I am!
MJ: I think what this question is getting at is that if you delay CPP to age 70 and you happen to die just before you start to collect, you will have been spending down the savings left for your wife.
CF: That sounds bad.
MJ: It’s not as bad as it sounds. Most of your savings would still be there, and if your wife doesn’t get a maximum CPP pension, she would get a modest survivor’s pension after you die. This is a case where it makes sense to do the calculations necessary to see what your wife’s income would be like, and how much her needs would drop without having to feed and clothe you and pay for your golf trips and other expenses specific to you. If there is a modest shortfall, you could buy a small amount of term life insurance on both of you to run from, say, age 65 to 75.
CF: It’s hard to get the image of my wife being destitute out of my head.
MJ: I understand. This area can spark strong emotions. That’s why it’s important to run the numbers to see how you or your wife would fare if one of you died around age 70. In my case, if my wife and I take CPP at 70, my wife’s standard of living would rise if I died at 70.
CF: How is that true?
MJ: We worked out how much the family income would drop, and it turned out to be less than the portion of our family expenses that are spent on just me.
MJ: “Are you concerned with how much money you’d leave your kids if both you and your wife die young?”
CF: I’d like to leave something to my children whether I die young or old.
MJ: This is another strange question. Why is it okay to give no money at all to your children when they’re in their 30s if you don’t die young, but it’s suddenly important that they get a lot of money if you do die young?
CF: Doesn’t make sense.
MJ: Whatever you decide about bequests, you can set aside some of your savings or maybe get some life insurance. You might even choose to give some money to your adult kids while you’re still alive, as long as you don’t jeopardize your retirement. This whole area seems like something you should think about and make some plans rather than use it as a way to be fearful about spending some of your savings in your 60s.
CF: It sounds like waiting until we’re 70 to start CPP is the best choice for us. Is it the same for most other people?
MJ: Perhaps. But there are definitely some who should start CPP sooner. For example, some people have very little money saved, and sadly, others have compromised health. Some low income people have complex situations where they’re trying to maximize their Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS). Some wealthier people have complex tax considerations where they’re trying to minimize the amount of their Old Age Security (OAS) that gets clawed back.
CF: I’m lucky my decision is simpler. Thanks for the help!
Michael J. Wiener runs the web site Michael James on Money, where he looks for the right answers to personal finance and investing questions. He’s retired from work as a “math guy in high tech” and has been running his website since 2007. He’s a former mutual fund investor, former stock picker, now index investor. This blog originally appeared on his site on Mar. 31, 2022 and is republished on the Hub with his permission.