Separating Fact and Opinion

It can be difficult to tell the two apart in the federal retirement world.

It seems that everyone has an opinion when it comes to retirement decisions. And many of these opinions are stated as though they’re facts.

Some of the questions I get from federal employees about retirement center around relatively straightforward facts in law or policy. Here are some of the most common, along with links to factual answers from my previous columns or official sources:

How does my sick leave get credited in my retirement calculation?

Will I get a cost of living adjustment on my retirement benefit?

Am I entitled to widow’s benefits based on my deceased former spouse’s Social Security record?

What are the requirements to continue my health insurance coverage into retirement?

Do I have to begin taking payments from my TSP account when I retire from federal service?

Other questions, though, require opinions because they lack a definitive right or wrong answer. In the retirement world, these often start with “ Should I…” Here are some of the ones I’m frequently asked:

Should I...

  • File for Social Security at 62?
  • Enroll in Medicare Part B when I am over 65 and retired?
  • Elect a survivor benefit if my spouse is also going to retire from federal service?
  • Leave my money in the Thrift Savings Plan after retirement, or move it to an IRA?
  • Retire when I am first eligible to collect a benefit, or continue working?

The answer to all of these is, well, it depends. I know that’s not very satisfactory, but in my 30 years of teaching retirement planning, I’ve learned that every pancake has two sides.

For example, the decision to enroll in Medicare Part B can be argued two ways. Some people say that everyone should add Part B (outpatient medical coverage) once they are retired and over 65. Others make the case that it’s not necessary, since insurance under the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program will continue to cover you throughout your retirement even if you don’t enroll in Medicare.

Both of these opinions are based on facts. For example, it’s a fact that many FEHBP plans will waive their deductibles, copayments and coinsurance when Medicare Part B is the primary payer. On the other hand, it’s also a fact that Part B has a monthly premium that starts at $135.50 a month per person, and which can be much higher based on your income. So there’s no right or wrong answer here. It’s a matter of weighing the pros and cons of paying the extra money to get more complete health coverage compared with saving the extra cost of Part B and continuing to use your FEHBP plan by itself.

When it comes to providing advice on these kinds of questions, I try to provide enough information to show how the benefits of one decision may outweigh the opposite action. One of the other strategies I use is to point out the long-term consequences of one option over another. When it comes to retirement decisions that may be hard to change later, it is important not to focus on the money you save now, but the cumulative cost your decision can have over the next decade or several decades. After all, for many federal retirees, life after government may last longer than their working careers.