Family Checkbook: When do you take your Social Security benefits?

By Kathy Sweedler/University of Illinois Extension

Deciding when to take your Social Security benefits requires understanding your choices and recognizing the emotions that go into the decision.

Like many decisions about money, if we are not conscious of our feelings, we might be overly influenced by them and not pay enough attention to the numbers.

A recent study by the Retirement Research Consortium explored why many people choose to begin receiving their Social Security benefits before full retirement age. Full retirement age is the age at which you can receive full benefits without a penalty. This age varies depending on when you were born and might be between 65 and 67. The RRC study found that how long people expected to live affected when they started benefits: 10 years added to a person's life expectancy resulted in delaying filing for benefits by six months.

Before you make a decision about filing for Social Security benefits, you should clarify your life expectancy and when you will qualify for full retirement benefits.

You can do both with the Longevity Calculator at http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/population/longevity.html. You just might be surprised by how many years you are likely to live! (Of course, you need to consider your own health and family history when looking at these numbers.)

Another factor in the decision to take benefits early, according to the RRC study, is fear of loss. To many people, waiting to start benefit payments feels like a loss. But the reality is different. When you file early, your monthly benefit amount is permanently reduced. For example, if your full retirement age is 66 and you choose to file for benefits at age 62, your monthly benefit will be reduced by 25 percent. If your full retirement benefit amount would have been $1,200 a month, the choice to take it early will mean that the monthly benefit amount will be $900 instead: a $300-a-month loss for the rest of your life.

The other two factors identified in the study were fairness and patience. The more someone agreed with statements such as "I feel that I have earned these retirement benefits," the more likely they were to take benefits early. And the more impatient the person surveyed, the more likely they were to take benefits early, too. Does this sound like you?

Other factors also influence people's choices, including if they need Social Security benefits before full retirement age to meet basic needs — and how confident they are that the Social Security system will not change before they file for benefits.

To explore your choices, the Social Security website can provide you with details that take into consideration your situation. Visit Retirement Planner: Plan for Your Retirement at http://www.ssa.gov/retire2/index.htm.

At this website, you also can research how continuing to work while receiving Social Security benefits may affect your payments. Several calculators are linked to this website; these are helpful too. Before you decide when to start your Social Security benefits, take time to research your choices and to examine your feelings that may affect your decision.

On a related topic, last month, I reminded people that it is important to keep your Social Security number private to protect yourself from identity theft. But as more than one reader pointed out, Medicare insurance cards include people's numbers.

This is true, and I don't have a good solution. I realize people want their health insurance card with them. People who carry a purse might want to move their card from the wallet that comes out for every purchase and put the card somewhere else more secure in the purse. This reduces the risk of losing the card but is not a complete solution.

I appreciate people's comments and suggestions for this column.

Kathy Sweedler is a consumer economics educator at the University of Illinois Extension. Contact her at 333-7672 or email sweedler@illinois.edu.

Sections (1):Living
Topics (2):Economy, People

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