Google “When to take Social Security” and 1.3 million hits will return a plethora of advice on the subject. It seems every financial journalist has written a column on the subject, as well as most investment companies.
In fact, there’s so much advice out there, I think oftentimes, Social Security participants (all of us) are generally more confused than we need to be about this important program.
So, I figured I’d take another shot at the subject, just to add to the fray.
First let’s get some of the easy logic out there. The longer someone waits to file for Social Security benefits the larger their eventual payment will be, eventually maxing out at the age of 70. And yes, in nearly every situation in life, bigger payments are better. So, if this was the only factor to consider, all of us should wait until 70 to claim our Social Security.
Obviously however, the issue is not this simple, which is why, according to the Social Security Administration less than 5% of retirees receiving Social Security waited until 70 to start benefits. So, in my opinion, any advice column that leads with this particular tip was probably not written by someone doing real world financial planning.
Second, yes, taking your benefit early can cost you over the long term. According to regularly accepted financial planning math, if someone takes their Social Security benefit at the earliest point available, age 62, instead of waiting for the full retirement age benefit available between 66 and 67, it will take 12 years to break even, considering the higher lifetime benefit against the four years or so of extra payments.
Which means after 12 years, it would have been more profitable to delay benefits, and this effect only grows the longer the recipient lives. In a world where individuals are regularly living beyond 90 it's easy to see how taking benefits early could cost recipients dearly over a life time.
OK, now that we have those two concepts out of the way, lets come back to reality. Perhaps no other government program evokes as much emotion and opinion as Social Security. After all, all of us have paid dearly into the program under the guise that we were buying a benefit, and I’ve never met anyone who didn’t want what was paid for.
Take this emotion, and add the constant media coverage of how the program is underfunded and involves some material structural flaws, and logic tends to fade further and further into the background.
So, my team at Oak Partners takes a different, less pure math-based approach, toward helping guide clients in this process. We do use a logical flow chart to help clients progress through this process, and the first question on the flow chart is: Do you NEED the money?
Not do you want the money, not do you think Social Security is broke and you may never get your money, but simply do you need the money?
The reason this question is first, is because if the money is needed it will have to come from somewhere such as an IRA or 401(k) or savings account, and I’m not a big fan of spending down liquid investment accounts to delay Social Security. I’ve been working in retirement planning a long time, and during this time I have observed that families just feel more secure in retirement when their liquid accounts are larger, and this effect cannot be offset by a Social Security benefit which is a few hundred dollars higher because they waited to take it.
After the need question is established, the next question involves intentions to earn money by working. Taking Social Security early and continuing to work is generally a bad idea. While the government does allow early recipients to earn up to $17,640 before benefits are reduced, the penalty of earning more than this is substantial and something to be avoided. Please note this rule only applies to money earned through employment or a small business, not investments.
From here, spousal considerations must be evaluated, which is when the really tough math starts to come back in. For this we use an advanced calculator tool that I would encourage everyone to use before they make this important decision.