If you’re in your 40s, 50s or 60s, and thinking ahead to how you’ll fund the later years of your life, let me lay out a plan for you to make some serious cash. How much cash? Well, let’s just say it’s quite a bit more than you might imagine.
As they get older, Americans look forward to earning the Social Security benefits they’ve worked so long and hard to achieve. Because the notion of reaping that stream of checks for the rest of their lives seems so tempting, many decide to take those benefits at 62, the earliest possible moment they’re eligible to grab them. Most know they’ll make more money if they wait until their full retirement age of 66, or the oldest age at which they can begin taking their Social Security benefits, 70.
But they don’t know how much more.
For proof of the level of misunderstanding about this issue, try this test on your older friends and relatives. Ask them this question: “How much more, on a percentage basis, will you make in monthly Social Security benefits if you delay starting those benefits eight years, and take them at 70 instead of 62?”
Most people guess somewhere between 20 and 25 percent, says Steven Sass, associate director for the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. In fact, the correct answer is at least 76 percent.
And because Social Security benefits are calculated on the basis of the average of the highest-earning 35 years of work, if the years of work you log after age 62 provide your biggest paychecks, it could be noticeably more.
A lot of the people who begin taking their Social Security benefits at their 62nd birthday or soon thereafter not only don’t know how much more they will make by waiting until 70, but are mired in the grip of several other fallacies as well.
First, they assume they won’t live that long, so they might as well grab what’s due them as early as possible. But guessing they won’t live long has been the precursor to poverty for many who lived longer than they ever expected.
Consider a couple in average health as they approach the decision on Social Security. These days, chances are that at least one member of that couple will live to be 89, Sass says. “If they’re in good health, the odds are greater than 50-50 that at least one of them will be around at that age,” he explains.
The second misconception for most is the idea they should strategize to gain the most money possible from Social Security. That is not the right way to approach the issue, Sass says. The real issue is how much retirement income do you need, and where can you get it? For most, especially the long-lived among us, Social Security will provide more than half that income.
“Pensions lose value due to inflation, and savings can dwindle,” Sass says. “Social Security tends to become a larger share of what you have over time.”
Yet another fallacy clouding the minds of those approaching their years of Social Security is that their choices won’t affect their spouse. Wrong again. It’s highly recommended that the higher-earning half of a couple, which often is the husband, delay claiming Social Security as long as possible. That’s because after one member of a couple dies, the surviving spouse can change his or her benefits to that of the deceased spouse. If a higher-earning husband anticipates passing away sooner than his wife, it’s in both his and his wife’s best interests to wait as long as possible to claim Social Security.
Doing so will not only let him claim higher benefits for the rest of his life, but permit his wife to enjoy the higher stream of income through her final few golden years.
We’ve established these startling facts are not well understood by most people. But given the fact that Social Security is likely to be a crucial component in the livelihoods of many people, shouldn’t we at least expect folks to be getting up to speed in general on Social Security as they approach retirement?
Sorry, no can do. That’s too much to ask. This is, after all, America, home of the brave and land of the freedom from responsibility to be financial fit.
According to a Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies’ survey titled “Redefining Retirement: The New ‘Retirement Readiness,’” only about one in four of those respondents in their 60s know “a great deal” about Social Security. And that figure drops to 13 percent among those in their 50s. Speaking of a drop, it’s jaw-dropping to learn that of the very people who expect to rely on Social Security in retirement, only about one in six report they have “a great deal” of understanding.
If you’re among those whose knowledge could be increased, do yourself a favor and start reading up on Social Security, starting at www.aarp.org/socialsecuritybenefits. At that site, you can access a calculator that among other things will help you grasp how much of you monthly expenses Social Security will cover.
Learning more about what one expert calls “the only lifetime stream of income most retirees will ever have” can help you start ensuring Social Security actually provides security.