Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: What millennials get wrong about Social Security. Also in the news: How to save more money for your next vacation, the best rewards credit cards for family travel, and why you should think of your finances in terms of what you’re not buying.

What Millennials Get Wrong About Social Security
The danger of believing the myths.

Save More Money for Your Next Vacation With This Simple Trick
Using a travel savings account.

Which Rewards Credit Cards Are Best for Family Travel?
The top picks.

Think About Your Finances in Terms of What You’re Not Buying
It could help to build longterm wealth.

What millennials get wrong about Social Security

Few issues unite millennials like the future of Social Security. Overwhelmingly, they’re convinced it doesn’t have one.

A recent Transamerica survey found that 80% of millennials, defined in the survey as people born between 1979 and 2000, worry that Social Security won’t be around when they need it. That’s not surprising — for years, they’ve heard that Social Security is about to “run out of money.”

The language doesn’t match the reality. In my latest for the Associated Press, why the myths surrounding Social Security could cause problems for millennials and their retirement.

Q&A: Divorced spousal benefits

Dear Liz: I never expected to be where I am financially. I work as an independent piano teacher and my present earnings are just enough to get by (which isn’t saying much in Southern California). I was married for 18 years and am now single, with no plans to remarry.

After I turn 66 next year, I intend to apply for Social Security benefits as a divorced spouse because my personal Social Security benefits would amount to just $875 a month and my ex is doing quite well (with earnings somewhere in the six-figure range). I anticipate the divorced spousal benefit will be greater than my own.

But I have a lot of questions. Will waiting until my former husband is 66 or 70 (he is 64) do anything to maximize my benefits? Will my Social Security be taxable? How much am I allowed to continue earning if I also receive Social Security?

Answer: Spousal and divorced spousal benefits can help lower earners get larger Social Security checks. Instead of just receiving their own retirement benefit, they can receive up to half of the higher earners’ benefits. But divorced spousal benefits are different in some important ways from the spousal benefits available to married people.

If you were still married, your benefit would be based on what your husband was actually getting. If he started benefits early, that would reduce the spousal benefit you could get. You also couldn’t get a spousal benefit unless he was already receiving his own.

Divorced spousal benefits are available if your marriage lasted at least 10 years and you aren’t currently married. If you meet those qualifications, you can apply for divorced spousal benefits as long as both you and your ex are at least 62 — he doesn’t need to have started his own benefit. Your divorced spousal benefit will be based on his “primary benefit amount,” or the benefit that would be available to him at his full retirement age (which is 66 years and two months, if he was born in 1955). It doesn’t matter if he starts early or late; that doesn’t affect what you as his ex would receive.

Spousal and divorced spousal benefits don’t receive delayed retirement credits, so there’s no advantage for you to delay beyond your own full retirement age (which is 66, if you were born in 1954) to start. Your benefit would have been reduced if you’d started early, though, so you were smart to wait.

Also, waiting until your full retirement age means you won’t be subjected to the earnings test that otherwise would reduce your checks by $1 for every $2 you earn over a certain amount ($17,640 in 2019).

Q&A: Resetting the Social Security clock

Dear Liz: I read that you can pay Social Security back the payments you’ve received in order to “reset the clock” and get a larger benefit. Is that true or did I misunderstand the article? My husband started two years ago to claim Social Security benefits at age 67, but if he had waited until he was 70, of course the checks would have been higher for all future payments. Can he pay back to the Social Security administration the amounts already paid to him in order to now claim the higher rate as if he had delayed receiving monthly payments?

Answer: It’s not just his own checks that could have been higher. If he was the higher earner, then the survivor benefit that one of you will receive when the other dies would also have been higher.

Unfortunately, the “do over” option is now only available in the first twelve months after someone begins receiving benefits. People who change their minds during that period can withdraw their Social Security applications, pay back the money they received and then restart their benefits later, when the amounts they get would be larger.

For more information, check out Social Security’s page “If You Change Your Mind” (www.ssa.gov has all sorts of information). After the first year, people can’t withdraw their applications.

Your husband still has the option of suspending his benefit, however. He wouldn’t be able to completely reset the clock, but he also wouldn’t have to pay back all the benefits he received. Instead, every month he waited to restart his checks would increase his benefit by two-thirds of 1% each month (or a total of 8% a year) until he reached age 70, when the benefit would max out.

Social Security representatives have been known to falsely tell people that this option no longer exists, but it’s still available to anyone who has reached full retirement age, which is currently 66.

Q&A: Sorting out the ex’s benefits

Dear Liz: I am 68 and plan to delay starting Social Security until I’m 70. I was married for 15 years prior to an amicable divorce 15 years ago. My ex just turned 60 and remains unmarried but may possibly marry at some future time. Does she qualify for survivor benefits? If so, what can I do to help ensure that she can efficiently apply for that benefit? We have already reviewed her option to assume my benefit upon my demise, but our benefits are virtually at identical levels and so that option does not seem applicable.

Answer: You seem to have confused divorced survivor benefits with divorced spousal benefits. She may well be eligible for both, but the only way you can help her get survivor benefits is to die. It’s great that you two are still friends, but that may be taking friendship a little too far.

Your ex is too young to claim a divorced spousal benefit, which isn’t available until she turns 62. She wouldn’t be able to get the full amount, which is 50% of your benefit at your full retirement age, until she reaches her own full retirement age. If she was born in 1959, then her full retirement age is 66 years and 10 months.

Furthermore, she would get a divorced spousal benefit only if that’s larger than her own benefit. If your benefits are “virtually identical,” that’s not likely to be the case.

If you should keel over tomorrow, though, she would be eligible to receive a divorced survivor benefit and put off receiving her own. Survivor benefits are available starting at age 60, or age 50 if the survivor is disabled, or at any age if the survivor cares for the dead person’s child who is under 16. Your ex also could marry at 60 or older without losing her survivor benefit. People who receive divorced spousal benefits, on the other hand, lose that benefit if they remarry.

Q&A: Claiming an ex’s benefits

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question pertaining to divorced spousal Social Security benefits. Social Security told me years ago that I had to wait till my former husband died before receiving a part of his benefits. We divorced after a long-term marriage, and I remarried after age 60. Is this still true for remarried former spouses? My ex does collect Social Security, and I collect my small benefit (both of us started at full retirement age).

Answer: The information you received was correct. You can’t get spousal benefits from your ex’s work record if you’re married to someone else. You can, however, get survivor benefits if your ex dies, as long as you remarried after you turned 60.

Q&A: About the ex’s Social Security

Dear Liz: I’ve been divorced since 2004. My ex received half of all my pension funds and lives off that and his Social Security. I have not yet drawn Social Security, but I am retired. Am I eligible to receive part of his Social Security? How does that work?

Answer: Yes, if your marriage lasted at least 10 years. If you were born before Jan. 2, 1954, you also have the option of filing a “restricted application” for divorced spousal benefits while allowing your own benefit to continue growing.

Divorced spousal benefits, like regular spousal benefits, allow you to get an amount of up to half your ex’s benefit. The amount would be reduced if you start before your own full retirement age, which is currently 66 and rising to 67 for those born in 1960 and later. If you start at age 62, for example, you would get about one-third of his benefit, rather than half. (Your claim doesn’t take money away from him or any of his current or former spouses, in case you were concerned.)

Regular spousal benefits require that the primary worker has started his or her own retirement benefit. Divorced spousal benefits don’t have that requirement: You both just need to be at least 62. Also, the divorced benefit is based on the primary earner’s benefit at his or her full retirement age. With regular spousal benefits, the amount is typically based on what the primary earner actually receives, which could be less if the primary earner started benefits early.

If you were born on or after Jan. 2, 1954, you can’t file a restricted application. Instead, you’ll be deemed to be applying for both your own benefit and the divorced spousal benefit, and given the larger of the two amounts. You can’t switch to your own benefit later.

If your ex should die before you do, you also would be eligible for a divorced survivor benefit that is up to 100% of his. That has the unfortunate effect of making your ex worth more to you dead than alive.

Q&A: Social Security minors’ benefits

Dear Liz: One thing I rarely see mentioned in discussions of when to take Social Security is the benefit for minors who are still in school. I took my benefit at 62. Social Security called me and told me that my daughter was eligible as well. We collected over $60,000 by the time she graduated high school.

Answer: Child benefits can indeed change the math of Social Security claiming strategies.

To get a child benefit, the parent must be receiving Social Security retirement or disability benefits. The child must be unmarried and benefits stop at age 18, unless she is still in high school — in which case checks stop at graduation or two months after she turns 19, whichever comes first. Child benefits are available for those 18 or older with a disability that began before age 22.

The child can receive up to half the parent’s benefit, although both benefits are subject to the earnings test if the parent started Social Security before his or her full retirement age. The earnings test reduces checks by $1 for every $2 the parent earns over a certain amount, which in 2019 was $17,640. Also, there’s a limit to how much a family can get based on one person’s work record. The family limit is 150% to 180% of the parent’s full benefit amount.

Many free Social Security claiming calculators don’t include child benefits as one of the variables they include, so if your child would be eligible it can make sense to pay $40 for a customized strategy from a more sophisticated calculator, such as the one at Maximize My Social Security.

Q&A: Don’t fall for Social Security phone scams

Dear Liz: I have just received a phone call advising me that my Social Security number “is about to be suspended” and that for help, I should call a certain number. Is this legitimate?

Answer: No. Your Social Security number can’t be locked or suspended or any of the other dire-sounding consequences these robo-callers threaten. If you did call the number, the scam artist on the other end would try to trick you into revealing personal information or convince you to wire money or buy gift cards, which they can quickly exchange (or “wash”) to erase their trails. People lost $10 million to these Social Security scams last year, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

Q&A: Working after retirement

Dear Liz: My profession was one of the hardest hit by the Great Recession. I retired by default when I turned 62 in 2012. My Social Security payment was reduced because I started it early. I’ve found it necessary to return to the workforce part time to move beyond just surviving and have some discretionary funds. What does my employment mean for future Social Security payments?

Answer: You’re past your “full retirement age” of 66, so you no longer face the earnings test that can reduce your Social Security benefit by $1 for every $2 you earn over a certain limit ($17,640 in 2019).

Sometimes returning to work — or continuing to work after you start receiving Social Security — can increase your benefit if you had some low- or no-wage years in your work history. Social Security uses your 35 highest-earning years to calculate your checks. The amounts are adjusted to reflect changes in average wages, which is somewhat similar to an inflation adjustment. If you should earn more this year than you did in one of those previous years, your current earnings would replace that year’s earnings in the calculation and could increase your check.

Another way to boost your benefit if you’ve reached full retirement age but are not yet 70 is to suspend it. That means going without checks for a while, but your benefit earns delayed retirement credits that can increase the amount by 2/3 of 1% each month, or 8% a year. It may not be practical for you to do this: You probably need the money, and you could be too close to 70 to get much benefit. But perhaps that’s not the case for someone else reading this.