Struggling With That Big Social Security Decision? Ask Yourself These 3 Questions to Figure Out When to File

Chances are, you’ll rely on Social Security to some extent in retirement. You may even wind up depending on those benefits for the bulk of your income. As such, it’s crucial that you file for Social Security at the right age because it will dictate how much money you’ll receive on a monthly basis.

If you’re deep in the throes of that tough decision right now, you’re probably not alone. But it’s not an easy decision to make, so here are a few key questions that’ll help you make the right choice.

1. Have I reached full retirement age?

You’re allowed to start collecting Social Security as early as age 62, and while the Social Security Administration won’t force you to file for benefits at age 70, that’s generally considered the latest age to sign up since there’s no financial incentive to wait past that point. Smack in the middle of that time frame is full retirement age, or FRA. That age isn’t universal — it’s a factor of when you were born, as per the following table:

Year of Birth

Full Retirement Age

1943-1954

66

1955

66 and 2 months

1956

66 and 4 months

1957

66 and 6 months

1958

66 and 8 months

1959

66 and 10 months

1960 or later

67

DATA SOURCE: SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION.

Once you reach FRA, you’ll get the full monthly benefit you’re entitled to based on your earnings history. By contrast, if you file before FRA, you’ll face a reduction in benefits for each month you claim them early. As such, if you expect Social Security to spell the difference between covering your retirement expenses and not, it often pays to wait until at least FRA to sign up for it.

IMAGE SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES.

Incidentally, you can also delay your filing past FRA and score a permanent 8% boost in your benefits for each year you do, up until you turn 70. That’s also a smart move if you’re low on retirement savings and are concerned about keeping up with your expenses once your paycheck from work disappears.

2. Can I cover my expenses another way?

The sooner you sign up for Social Security, the sooner you get your money. But what if you’re doing OK enough financially to hold off on filing a bit longer? The longer you wait, the higher monthly benefit you’ll secure, so before you claim Social Security, take a look at your expenses and see if there’s a different way of covering them.

For example, if you have some retirement savings, you can take withdrawals from your account to cover your living expenses. And while removing money from a 401(k) or IRA means not getting to invest it for added growth, remember that delaying Social Security past FRA gives you an automatic, guaranteed 8% boost in your benefits each year. You’re by no means guaranteed that sort of return in your retirement portfolio, and if you’ve shifted toward safer investments, which near-retirees and retirees are often advised to do, you may not even see half that return on an annual basis.

Even if you don’t have much retirement savings, you may have other means of covering the bills for an extra year or so, such as earnings from a part-time job or even renting out a portion of your home. Explore your options before rushing to file, as doing so could help you secure a higher benefit.

3. Is my health in decent shape?

The better your health is going into retirement, the more it makes sense to delay benefits as long as possible. And on the flip side, if your health is poor and you’re unlikely to live a long life, filing early is generally your best bet.

Imagine your monthly benefit at FRA (which we’ll assume is 67) is $1,500 based on your earnings history. If you file for Social Security at 62, you’ll reduce your monthly payments to $1,050, but you’ll start collecting them five years sooner. If you only live until 74, which is a good 10 years below the average life expectancy for seniors today, you’ll come out over $25,000 ahead in your lifetime by claiming benefits at 62 rather than waiting until FRA.

The opposite holds true if you live until 90. In that case, you should wait to file as long as possible. If you delay your $1,500-a-month benefit until 70, you’ll not only boost it by $360 a month but you’ll also come out over $32,000 ahead in your lifetime by waiting. As such, you’ll need to assess your health and see what it might mean as far as your life expectancy is concerned.

The last thing you want to do is claim Social Security at the wrong time and regret that decision down the line. Read up on how the program works, study its rules, and answer the above questions. With any luck, that’ll lead you to a solid choice that serves you well in retirement.

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