In one year’s time, the U.S. inflation rate dropped by more than half, from 8.2 percent in September 2022 to 3.7 percent in September of 2023.
If there is a downside to lower inflation, it’s a lower cost of living adjustment (COLA). This year, the inflation rate plummeted from 6.4 percent in January to the current 3.7 percent. While food prices, both grocery and dining out, continue to increase. Between February 2020 and September 2023, grocery store prices rose 25%. That was slightly above the 23% increase in menu prices during the same period. But a number of consumer goods prices had decreased by midsummer, such as:
The Problem with Inflation Data
Inflation data can be misleading for a number of reasons. First, while inflation statistics are quoted annually, these are compounded figures. The annual inflation figures for the past three years are as follows:
If you add each year’s annual inflation, it comes to 17.8 percent; however, compounded prices rose by 18.8 percent over the three-year period. Now, imagine the compounding effect of inflation over many more years.
Second, when you hear that there is a decrease in inflation, it is not that prices are lowering; instead, it’s that prices are increasing but at a slower rate. For prices to drop, we would need actual deflation and not just lower inflation.
Finally, you need to remember that whether it is from a Social Security COLA increase or a raise at your job, an increase in income equal to inflation does not keep up with the actual cost of inflation. This is because of taxes. If you get a raise equal to inflation, you take home that amount less taxes, so your wages or Social Security is really not keeping up with inflation.
Take all three of these factors together, and that’s why inflation feels much worse at the grocery store than it appears on paper.
Social Security Benefits
The fluctuating inflation rate doesn’t just impact the prices of consumer goods, it also affects income. Specifically, Social Security benefits are adjusted each year based on changes in the cost of living.
More than 71 million Americans currently receive Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. One in four households of people age 65 and older depend on their Social Security check for at least 90 percent of their family income. Therefore, it is very important that COLA adjustments keep up with inflation.
Given that the inflation rate fluctuated between 7.1 percent and 9.1 percent last year, Social Security benefits increased by 8.7 percent in 2023. However, since inflation has dropped significantly in 2023, Social Security benefits will increase by only 3.2 percent in 2024.
To find out how much individual Social Security paychecks will increase, beneficiaries can check the Message Center of their my Social Security account. In early December, recipients will receive notification of their increased payment by mail.
How the Increase is Determined
Be aware that if there is no year-to-year increase in inflation, there is no cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security income. While inflation rates vary, it is pretty uncommon not to have some sort of increase.
Effective January 2024, the average monthly Social Security benefit for a retired worker is $1,907; for a married couple, the combined average is $3,033. The maximum amount of earnings subject to the Social Security tax is scheduled to increase from $160,200 in 2023 to $168,600 in 2024.
Health Savings Accounts
Starting in 2024, the annual contribution limit for an HSA linked to a high-deductible healthcare plan will be $4,150 for individual coverage; $8,300 for a family plan.
2025: Catch-up Contribution
Starting in 2025, people ages 60 to 63 will be able to significantly increase catch-up contributions to certain employer-sponsored retirement plans. The limit will increase to $10,000 – or 50 percent more than the regular catch-up amount – whichever is greater.
2026: Catch-up Contribution Twist
Starting in 2026, catch-up contributions made by people earning more than $145,000 will have to be contributed to an after-tax Roth account. Note that the Roth account requirement applies only to workers whose wages are subject to FICA taxes, so it does not apply to partners, the self-employed, or state and local government employees.
As of this writing, the IRS has not yet released changes to contribution limits for qualified retirement plans in 2024.
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