Book Review: Get What’s Yours (2015)


get whats yours

by Alan F. Zundel

If Social Security is your best financial investment, then a buying a copy of “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets To Maxing Out Your Social Security” is your second best investment—and not just for older people.

Social Security rules are relevant, of course, to knowing how much income you will have when you retire. But their rules are also relevant to:

• anyone who could become disabled, which means everyone
• decisions about marriage, divorce, or remarriage (even if it’s many years before retirement)
• protecting dependents when you die, even if you die young
• what you may be entitled to if your spouse or an ex-spouse dies
• decisions of gay and lesbian couples about where to get married and where and when to move between states

For those nearing retirement, it is also relevant to:

• the optimal time to start collecting retirement benefits
• the optimal time to stop working, which is not the same thing
• how spouses can collect on each other’s accounts as well as their own

Since I am 63 and my wife is just a few years younger, I started investigating our options for collecting Social Security several years ago, relying on information from the SS website as well as other sources. But this book taught me things I hadn’t learned before, and caused some rethinking on my part.

Written by Laurence Kotlikoff, an economics professor and the author of the “Ask Larry” column on Social Security, PBS NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman, and financial journalist Phil Moeller, “Get What’s Yours” is stuffed with information that every U.S. citizen should know for their financial planning.

There was so much information, in fact, that my brain couldn’t handle it all, so I had to focus only on the parts most pertinent to my own family’s situation. The book is well organized to facilitate that sensible strategy, with the first few chapters giving you the basics and the rest of the chapters each focused on specific areas of concern. (E.g., married couples, singles, people who have been divorced, the disabled, widows and widowers, gays and lesbians, and so on.)

Even then it was hard to assimilate it all. Be prepared to take notes for the best strategies under various contingencies you and your family may face. The difficulty of the material is not the fault of the authors, who do about as clear a job as I can imagine in explaining it all. It is more the fault of the incredible complexity of Social Security’s rules and regulations.

Which, by the way, your average Social Security employee does not understand either. Do not rely on them as to what choices are in your best interests. It’s your responsibility to know what the ramifications of your choices are, and there could be tens of thousands of dollars at stake.

The authors give several real life cases of people who were misinformed to their detriment, as well as cases of people who made detrimental decisions on their own by relying on faulty assumptions. They also use simplified examples of different situations in order to highlight how differing choices could affect you.

I was grateful to have read this book, as it gave me a clearer picture of things my wife and I could do to protect the financial interests of ourselves and our children. Some of it involved our plans for when to apply for benefits and which benefits to apply for, but part of what I learned was that there were benefits available to us that I was not even aware of. That alone was worth the price of the book, many times over.

But unless you are near or at retirement, should you even bother thinking about this? Will Social Security still be around for you several decades from now?

The authors address this subject in the last chapter, and they have varying viewpoints on the future of our retirement system. Bottom line, Social Security will need to be adjusted and may even be replaced at some point. But it is doing an amazing job at keeping millions of Americans out of poverty at an administrative cost the private sector could never match, so we should avoid being cavalier about any proposed changes.

As always in our political marketplace, “buyer beware.” Not every change is an improvement.

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