Q&A: Social Security and break-even math

Dear Liz: You recently wrote about the complexity of retiring with a government pension and Social Security. You left out one very important resource: the Social Security Administration. Going into a Social Security office and sitting with a representative who can explain exactly how much a person will get (almost impossible to determine online using formulas) was the most helpful thing I did. I retired with a government pension at 60 years of age, and at 63 I went to the SS office to chat. I learned that if I waited until full retirement age (67) my break-even point would be 18 years! I slept on the numbers, discussed that with a trusted advisor and filed to take my Social Security benefit. Couldn’t be happier. The employees in the local office were wonderful, knowledgeable about the windfall elimination provision and could give exact numbers.

Answer: It sounds like the representative you consulted encouraged you to make your decision using a simple break-even calculation. That’s unfortunate for a number of reasons.

Break-even calculations typically purport to show the point at which the larger checks you get from delaying your Social Security application outweigh the smaller checks you pass up in the meantime. But the calculators usually don’t include important factors, such as inflation, tax rates and the impact of your filing decision on survivor benefits. These calculators also don’t include pertinent information about life expectancies. According to Social Security actuarial tables, for example, 63-year-old females in the U.S. can expect to live an additional 21.24 years.

That’s average life expectancy, of course. The more educated you are and the more income you make, the more years you can probably add to that tally. And the longer you live, the more likely you are to run through your savings. Many people who are able to make ends meet in their 60s and 70s wind up struggling financially in their 80s because they started Social Security too soon, says actuary Steve Vernon, a former research scholar at the Stanford Center on Longevity.

Of course, you’ll be much less dependent on Social Security than most people, thanks to your pension. It’s possible your trusted advisor took that into consideration, along with your longevity profile, tax situation and other possible income sources, when suggesting you apply for a permanently reduced check. Most people can’t afford such reductions.


  1. […] be for waiting until full retirement age to start her benefit. My response pointed out that break-even calculations aren’t the best way to determine when to start Social Security, since they don’t include important factors such as […]