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Cost-of-Living Adjustments: What They Are and Why They Matter

The rising costs of food, gas, electricity, and health care can strain anyone's budget. The situation is even worse if your living expenses increase while your income stays the same, because your purchasing power will steadily decline over time. That's why cost-of-living adjustments, or COLAs, are especially valuable to retirees and others living on fixed incomes.

How COLAs work

A COLA is an increase in regular income you receive (such as a Social Security or pension benefit) that is meant to offset rising prices. It's important protection because price inflation has occurred almost every year in the last 40 years.

Inflation rates graph

 

Data Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

It's easy to think of a COLA as a "raise," but a COLA is meant to help you maintain your standard of living, not improve it. For example, let's say you receive a $2,000 monthly retirement benefit, and the overall cost of the things you need to purchase increases by 3% during the year. The next year, you receive a 3% COLA, or an extra $60 a month, to help you manage rising prices.

That 3% COLA doesn't sound like much, but without a COLA, inflation can seriously erode your retirement income. Assuming a 3% inflation rate, in just 10 years, the purchasing power of your $2,000 benefit would drop to $1,520, and in 25 years, the purchasing power of your benefit would be only $963, less than half of what you started with.

Who receives COLAs?

Social Security is the major source (and in some cases the only source) of inflation-protected retirement income for many Americans. Social Security COLAs are announced each October, based on increases in the average Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W) from the third quarter of the last year a COLA was payable to the third quarter of the current year. For example, because the CPI-W rose 1.7% between August 2011 and August 2012, Social Security and SSI beneficiaries received a 1.7% COLA, beginning with December 2012 benefits. However, if there is no rise in the CPI-W, then beneficiaries will not receive a COLA.

COLAs are also commonly paid to retirees who are covered by state or federal pensions. However, most private pensions do not offer COLAs.

Less commonly, employers offer COLA increases as part of compensation packages. You may also purchase riders to certain insurance policies (such as disability income and long-term care policies) that ensure that benefits you receive keep pace with inflation.

Should you count on COLAs?

As important as COLAs are, they are still vulnerable to cutbacks. For example, pension plans that are underfunded may view reducing COLAs as a relatively simple way to cut costs, and some plans have attempted to eliminate COLAs altogether, although there have been legal challenges. Changing the COLA formula that the Social Security Administration uses has also been proposed as a way to save money and strengthen program reserves.

So while you should appreciate the value of COLAs, you should also take other measures to account for the effect of long-term inflation. These include using realistic inflation and investment return assumptions when planning for retirement, maintaining a diversified portfolio that reflects your time horizon and tolerance for risk, and considering investments that have historically held their own against inflation.