Don’t obsess about Social Security “breakeven”

Dear Liz: I read your recent article in which you advised waiting before starting Social Security benefits. Is this good advice for everyone? You probably know that there is a break-even age around 85, so that if you die before 85, starting benefits early is better, but if you die after 85, starting late is better. “Better” means you receive more money. So, right off the bat the advice to delay is wrong for half the people in their 60s, since about half will die before the crossover, and if they had delayed, they lost money.

Answer: The problem with do-it-yourself financial planning is that people often focus their attention too narrowly and ignore the bigger picture. That’s what leads them to do things like pay down relatively low-rate student loan debt while failing to save for retirement. They may focus only on the expected returns of each option, while ignoring the tax implications, company retirement matches and the extraordinary value of future compounding of returns.

Obsessing about the break-even point — the date when the income from larger, delayed retirement benefits outweighs what you’d get from starting early — is often a mistake, financial planners will tell you. There are a number of other considerations, including the value of Social Security benefits as longevity insurance. If you live longer than you expect, a bigger Social Security check can be enormously helpful later in life when your other assets may be spent. Also, if you have a spouse who may be dependent on your benefit as a survivor, delaying retirement benefits to increase your checks will reduce the blow when she has to live on just one check (yours) instead of two (yours and her spousal benefit).

In his book “Social Security for Dummies,” author Jonathan Peterson offers a guide to figuring out your break-even point based just on the dollars you can expect to receive (rather than on assumed inflation or investment returns). In general, the break-even point is about age 78. That means those who live longer would be better off waiting until full retirement age, currently 66, than if they started early at age 62.

Currently, U.S. men at age 65 can expect to live to nearly 83, and the life expectancy for U.S. women at age 65 is over 85.

You can change that break-even by making assumptions about inflation and your future prowess as an investor, but remember that the increase in benefits you get each year by delaying retirement between age 62 and 66 is about 7%. It’s 8% for delaying between age 66 and age 70, when your benefit maxes out. Those are guaranteed returns, and there’s no “safe return” anywhere close to that in today’s environment.

Don’t forget that those benefits will be further compounded by cost-of-living increases. One researcher published in the Journal of Financial Planning found that an investor would have to achieve a rate of return that exceeds inflation by 5% to justify taking benefits at 62 rather than at full retirement age.

“At higher inflation rates and/or higher marginal tax rates, the rate of return may need to be even higher, perhaps in excess of 7% or 8% above inflation to justify taking benefits at age 62,” wrote Doug Lemons, a certified financial planner who retired from the Social Security Administration after 36 years.

You can read Lemons’ paper, as well as other research that planners have done on maximizing Social Security benefits, at


  1. As a housing counselor (and daughter of a 80+ year old parent) I now see the value of waiting until full retirement age to draw Social Security. Like the reader who sent in the question, I once viewed the choice as “draw early since there are no guarantees”. But I know what my father receives and if there wasn’t another income for his household, he would not be able to pay all his expenses. I also talk to seniors about reverse mortgages. Unfortunately, many are needing a reverse mortgage to survive not because they see it as another part of their overall financial plan.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Deborah. Because of all the misinformation circulating about Social Security, people unfortunately believe that the system is about to disappear and that they have to lock in their benefit by applying early. What they’re doing is locking in a lower benefit for life, and the older they get, the more they’re likely to regret it.

  2. Despite general guidelines, deciding when to start Social Security must be based on an individual’s age, health and finances. The decision for married couples is a bit more complicated since they should consider payment choices (file-and-suspend and claim-and-switch) not available to singles. In our case, I will be retiring soon at age 63 and will claim early. My husband, at 66, will claim and switch, meaning that he will claim and collect 50% of my reduced benefit but switch to a Social Security payment based on his earnings record at age 70. We arrived at this decision after penciling out the income streams for my claiming at 63 or waiting until 66. By claiming early, I will be around $16,000 ahead at age 80, based solely on my Social Security (plus the 50% amount that my husband claims from age 66 to 70) and not factoring in any cost-of-living increases. Given that whoever survives the other will receive the enhanced benefit of my husband’s delayed Social Security amount, I believe the claim and switch option allows us to maximize our individual and combined Social Security income.