Resolutions for a new year tend to fall into one of two categories: what you want to stop and what you want to start. That’s as true of federal retirement as it is of anything else.
First, resolve not to get caught in the rumor mill. Anyone who’s been in the government long enough to be even considering retirement should know better than to believe much of what goes around federal offices regarding retirement benefits. But unfortunately, many veteran employees still are taken in, possibly because the rumors tell them what they want to believe, or what they secretly fear. Or possibly it’s because they have heard the rumors so many times that they think there must be something to them.
In that vein, improved technology has been a disadvantage, not an advantage. In the old days, these rumors crawled around by word of mouth or via inter-office mail. Then came the fax machine, which allowed faster and more widespread dissemination. The advent of email put the rumor mill into high gear and social media now has it spinning constantly.
Some of the more common ones are:
* The “secret bill” to abolish the CSRS system. This rumor has it that unnamed people in Congress and the White House want to end CSRS, either by forcing everyone in it into the FERS system or by luring all CSRS employees into retirement. In fact, the decision already was made, 30 years ago, to simply let CSRS die on the vine, by putting all newly hired employees in FERS. CSRS will be abolished when the last beneficiary dies, although that won’t be for a very long time. And no bills in Congress are secret; either there is a bill or there isn’t one. There isn’t one.
* The “reverse open season.” This rumor has it that employees in FERS will be allowed to join CSRS. It is circulated primarily by FERS employees who believe—probably with justification–that their retirement benefits will be inferior to those of similarly situated CSRS employees. Of course, this rumor flatly contradicts the previous one (although some employees still find a way to believe both). Also, that decision more than 20 years ago to create FERS was intended in part to shore up the Social Security system by bringing in more contributors. A loss of contributors by allowing FERS employees to switch to CSRS is the last thing Social Security needs now.
* The “triple nickel.” This especially venerable rumor—going back decades in some form—has it that the government will offer employees, as an inducement to retire, an additional five years of creditable service, five years onto their age and/or some monetary payment featuring a 5—originally $5,000 or, more recently, $50,000. The fact is, the government already has plenty of people already eligible for retirement or who would be, under standard early retirement offers. To the extent that it wants to shed employees, it has had success using those rules plus buyouts of $25,000, coupled with hiring restrictions.
It’s easier now than ever to disprove rumors. For example, many of them cite as alleged sponsors members of Congress who don’t exist. Anyone with Internet access can check the names of those in Congress in a moment. Similarly, many of the rumors refer to bill numbers that don’t exist—for example, to five-digit House or Senate bills numbers (those numbers never get above the low four digits).
Your second resolution should be to build a solid knowledge of your retirement benefits, even if it means starting from scratch.
Discard almost all of what you have heard in the lunchroom over the years. Counting on your co-workers for retirement guidance is like being back in school and cheating on a test—you’re assuming that the person you’re copying from knows more about the topic than you know. That’s risky.
Even if your co-workers are well informed, the decisions they are making about retirement won’t necessarily be best for you. That’s true even if you seem to be in more or less the same life and career situations. You have to make your own decisions. In some cases this means going in a different direction than your peers—retiring earlier or later, for example, or making a different choice on survivor benefits–and possibly having to stand up for your decisions under their criticism.
Also discard any notions you have of retirement based on your opinions of what the benefits “should” be. Benefits are set by law and regulation, and those policies don’t change easily or often. Your focus must be on what the benefits are, not what you wish they were, or else you risk misleading yourself.
The proper way to go about it is to learn how your retirement system works, what benefits you might be entitled to, what you have to do to make sure you get them, and roughly how much you stand to receive and when. The basic concept is straightforward—you need to reach certain age and years of service combinations, and your benefits will be based on service and your salary level in your highest-paid three years. It’s unfortunate and surprising how many long-time employees don’t have their minds around even that much. That’s partly why they’re vulnerable to believing rumors. The resources for understanding these benefits in more detail are there; use them.
It will take some time and effort but it will be well worth it. Remember, misinformation can and does spread across the entire government in a matter of minutes. Truth is slower in catching up.