If you’re like 97% of older Americans, you’ll receive Social Security benefits. That’s good news. However, while the benefits you’ve earned are guaranteed, not everyone gets the same amount — and you can make choices that either increase or decrease how much you receive and when you receive it.
To make good choices with your Social Security, you first need to understand how Social Security works. Specifically, it’s important to know that the benefits are progressive. That means, if you’ve earned less than the national average throughout your career, you will have more of your earnings replaced by Social Security. If you’ve earned more than the national average, you’ll have less replaced. In general, lower-wage workers can expect to have about half of their earnings replaced, while higher-wage workers can expect to have a quarter or less of their earnings replaced.
As of 2020, the average monthly benefit was around $1,503. A cost-of-living adjustment routinely raises benefit payments by small amounts, with payments rising by 2.8% (an average of $40 more a month) heading into 2019 and 1.6% (an average of $24 more a month) heading into 2020. You can expect the average monthly benefit to be higher when you retire than it is now, but the exact amount you receive will be determined by more than cost-of-living increases and your lifetime earnings. It will also be determined by when you start claiming benefits — and that’s where the decision-making comes into play.
Claiming Benefits Early
If you want, you can start claiming your Social Security benefits as early as age 62. For some, this may be a necessity due to life circumstances. But, for most, claiming early is not a good idea. If you claim at 62, you’ll only receive 75% of your monthly benefit, and this percentage will never go up, no matter how long you live. The only increases you’ll receive will be cost-of-living adjustments. To avoid this penalty and receive 100% of your monthly benefit, you’ll need to wait until you’re older.
Receiving 100% of Your Monthly Benefit
You may have heard that the retirement age is 65. While you’re certainly free to retire whenever you choose, 65 is no longer the age when you can claim 100% of your monthly benefit — and hasn’t been for a while.
For those born between 1943–1954, the age at which they can claim 100% of their monthly benefits is 66. The last of this group will reach that age in 2020. After that, the age at which someone can claim 100% of their monthly benefit will slowly rise, eventually hitting age 67 for those born in 1960 or later.
Will that age rise again? That’s impossible to predict, but it could definitely happen. So, if you were born after 1960, you’ll want to pay attention to any future changes.
Deferring Benefits to Age 70
For many, holding off on claiming Social Security until age 70 is a smart idea. That’s because, for each year you wait beyond the age you can receive 100% of your benefits, you’ll get an extra 8% per year for the rest of your life.
This is a great benefit. What other way can you increase your guaranteed yearly retirement earnings by 24%–32%? To see how this deferment can add up for you, check out the Social Security Administration’s benefits calculator.
The only risk in deferment is the possibility that you won’t live until age 70, or won’t live long enough past 70 to make the increase in yearly benefits a net gain. Currently, the average life expectancy for a U.S. woman is 81.4 and the average for a man is 76.3. However, those life expectancies are calculated at birth and include those who die young. According to the Social Security Administration, a man who turns 65 today is likely to live until 84, while a woman who turns 65 today is likely to live until 86.
When determining if deferring your benefits makes sense, you’ll want to calculate your break-even date (i.e., the date when the total amount you’ll earn by deferring surpasses the total amount you would have earned if you started claiming your benefit earlier). Then, consider your health, family history, and any other factor that might affect your longevity. For most who reach retirement age, deferring pays off in the long run.
Considerations for Married Couples
If you’re married, your spouse’s benefits can become your benefits on the occasion of their death. While considering the death of a spouse is not pleasant, it is an important part of a strong social security claiming strategy.
As long as both you and your spouse are alive and of retirement age, you’ll each collect your own individual Social Security benefit, beginning at the age of your choosing. If one of you passes away, the surviving spouse will receive the highest of the two monthly benefits. Meaning, if a wife is receiving more in Social Security than her husband, the husband will start receiving her benefit (and his will stop) if she dies. If one spouse never qualified for any benefit of their own, they will begin receiving half of their spouse’s benefit on the occasion of the spouse’s death.
When deciding on when to start claiming your Social Security, you should take your spouse’s Social Security benefit into consideration. For many couples, it makes sense to defer the benefit of the spouse who will receive a higher amount. That way, whoever lives longest will be guaranteed the deferment bonus for the rest of their lives.
Of course, making these choices aren’t necessarily easy. And while the Social Security Administration can answer a lot of questions, they are not allowed to help you put together a strategy to maximize your lifetime benefits. For that, you may want to consider a financial advisor with retirement earnings expertise. Social Security is too important to ignore.
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