Most people are better off delaying the start of their Social Security benefits as long as possible. That’s the consensus of the AARP, financial planners and researchers who have studied the thousands of different claiming options. In fact, the benefits of putting off Social Security have grown in recent years, thanks to low interest rates, gains in longevity and changes in the law since the 1990s.
Still, every time I pass along the advice that waiting is better, I hear from those who just refuse to believe it. They focus on breakeven points rather than longevity risk; they don’t factor in spousal or survivor benefits; they underestimate how much their benefit can grow with even a few years’ delay.
So when Financial Engines approached me with the results of a recent survey, I just nodded my head in recognition. Their poll found that most people nearing retirement are confident that they can make smart Social Security claiming decisions–but that most do poorly on a test that measures their understanding of basic Social Security claiming concepts. You can read more about it in my column this week for Bankrate, “Are you Social Security smart? Guess again.”
My best advice is that before you claim Social Security, use some of the software tools that are available to help you evaluate your options. The AARP has a good calculator here. If you want to play with the numbers and assumptions a bit more, MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com has software that will really let you get your geek on; a one-year license is $40. You also can talk to a fee-only financial planner who is savvy about claiming strategies.
Here are two things you should know:
1. If you’re married (and that includes you same-sex couples, if you file in a state that legally recognizes your marriage), you have unique opportunities to maximize your lifetime benefits and protect your surviving spouse from poverty. The difference between the best claiming strategies and the worst can be $250,000. No, that’s not a typo.
2. Social Security is not going to disappear. The program is simply too popular and its problems, though real, are not insurmountable. Even if Congress does nothing, the system can still pay out 75% of the benefits promised just from the taxes it will collect. If Congress does do something, the changes almost certainly won’t affect near-retirees but will instead change benefits for younger taxpayers. Signing up for benefits as soon as you’re eligible in order to “lock in” your checks will just lock you in to a much lower payment, for life.
If you’re one of those people who likes to dive into the academic research surrounding claiming strategies, here are a few articles to check out:
“Recent Changes in the Gains from Delaying Social Security.” This article in the Journal of Financial Planning demonstrates how changes in interest rates, longevity and the benefit formula have dramatically improved the benefits from delaying Social Security claims.
“How the Social Security Claiming Decision Affects Portfolio Longevity.” Researchers William Meyer and William Reichenstein have done a lot of research on Social Security claiming strategies, and in this Journal of Financial Planning article they use a sophisticated model that factors in taxes to weigh how delaying Social Security can help retirees make their savings last longer.
“Should You Buy an Annuity from Social Security?” This brief from Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research explains why it often makes sense to tap retirement savings so that you can delay the start of Social Security benefits.
“When Should Married Men Claim Social Security?” This article, also from the Center for Retirement Research, should be required reading for any married couple thinking of starting benefits early. It does a great job of summarizing potential spousal and survivor benefits–and of making the point that starting too early can leave your surviving spouse in a world of hurt.