Social Security Strategies: 15 Easy Tips for Making the Best Decisions
Signing up to start Social Security is simple. However, finding the right Social Security strategy for you can be complicated but VERY worthwhile.
Here are 15 tips for making the best Social Security decision:
15 Social Security Strategies For Almost Everyone
1. Delay the start of benefits for as long as possible
This Social Security strategy is not true for everyone, but it is true for the vast majority of everyone.
The longer you wait to start Social Security, the bigger your monthly paycheck (and lifetime payout) will be.
As a general rule of thumb:
- Don’t take Social Security at 62, unless you have a very short life expectancy due to illness.
- If you think that you’ll pass away before 80, then start taking it at your Full Retirement Age (FRA), which is between age 66 and 67, depending on when you were born.
- If you think that you’ll live beyond 85, then wait until age 70.
2. Understand claiming penalties and credits
The longer you wait to start benefits, the higher your monthly paycheck will be. There are penalties for starting before your Full Retirement Age (FRA) and credits if you wait until after.
Your FRA is based on your birthday. It is 66 for most baby boomers and 67 for everyone born in 1960 or later.
Social Security payments are reduced if you start before your FRA.
- If you start benefits at age 62, you will get a 25% smaller monthly paycheck than if you wait until your FRA if that is 66 (and 30% if your full retirement age is 67).
If you wait and start Social Security AFTER your FRA, then you will accrue delayed retirement credits.
- You will increase your monthly paychecks by up to 8% for each year of delay — up until age 70. (After age 70, there is no additional incentive to delay starting your payments.)
Get more detail from the Social Security Administration about delayed retirement credits.
3. Know that you don’t need to stop working and start benefits at the same time
Retirement (defined here as quitting all work) is NOT the same as starting Social Security. You do not need to do those two things at the same time. You can:
- Retire, but delay the start of Social Security
- Retire and start benefits
- Work (at an existing or new job, full-time, part-time, after a sabbatical) and delay benefits
- Work (at an existing or new job, full-time, part-time, after a sabbatical) and collect benefits at the same time. If you are under 70, this may trigger work penalties — see below.
4. Explore the many ways to cover costs after you stop work and before you start Social Security benefits
According to a NewRetirement Social Security survey, retirees would be more willing to delay the start of Social Security benefits if they knew how to retire early without that paycheck.
Respondents were not sure how to make ends meet while waiting to start benefits. Most people were worried about their yearly or monthly cash flow.
However, in retirement, what REALLY matters is your LIFETIME budget, not how much you spend or earn on a monthly basis. So, just as you will do well to calculate your lifetime Social Security payments and strive to maximize that benefit, you also can think about your savings, work earnings, home equity, and spending as lifelong values. (Use the NewRetirement Planner to visualize these amounts.)
A few ways you can bridge your way to a delayed Social Security start date are:
- Withdrawing from savings. (Though, you will want to consider potential lost interest or returns on the money you withdraw.)
- Reducing expenses. The less you spend, the less income you need. Downsizing or securing a reverse mortgage are popular ways to reduce expenses.
- Retiring, but working part-time.
It is important to try as many different scenarios as make sense to you and compare the impact on your finances in the short and long term.
The NewRetirement Planner makes this analysis easy. Every time you make a change, you can immediately see how various key financial metrics are impacted.
There are hundreds of different ways to retire. What is important is that you build a plan that is right for you and your resources, values, and goals.
5. Keep working: Higher salaries at the end of your working career can boost your benefit
Most people are earning much more in the years before they retire than they did at the beginning of their careers. In fact, your salary is probably at its peak right before you stop working — unless you go part-time or work a side gig after retirement.
Because your Social Security benefit is based on your 35 highest-earning years, working at the end of your career can significantly boost your Social Security benefit.
Here is how the Social Security Administration describes its calculations:
“We base Social Security benefits on your lifetime earnings. We adjust or “index” your actual earnings to account for changes in average wages since the year the earnings were received. Then, Social Security calculates your average indexed monthly earnings during the 35 years in which you earned the most. We apply a formula to these earnings and arrive at your basic benefit, or “primary insurance amount.” This is how much you would receive at your full retirement age — 65 or older, depending on your date of birth.“
NOTE: The high earning boost can occur even if you are working past 70 and already collecting benefits. If those earnings fall into your top 35 earning years, your monthly average will rise, and so could your benefit. (Plus, there is also no Social Security work penalty after age 70.)
However, there is a limit. The maximum amount of taxable earnings changes almost every year. In 2021, the amount is $142,800. (See the full Maximum Taxable Earnings table.)
6. Compare what your monthly benefit will be at different start ages
Many people consider it interesting to compare what their monthly paycheck will be at different start ages. You can get this information from the Social Security Administration with their My Social Security account tool. The NewRetirement Planner can also help you make these estimates.
Comparing the differences in monthly paychecks may be enough to help you choose the right Social Security strategy — the right time to start benefits.
7. Carefully consider your own longevity
The best time to start Social Security can only be determined by knowing how long you are going to live. Instead of just considering your monthly benefit, it is also useful to calculate your lifetime benefits based on the total number of years you will be collecting.
Don’t forget that you will likely be collecting Social Security for a long time. Most people in their 50s and 60s have a relatively high chance of living into their nineties!
While not a crystal ball, consider using a longevity calculator to help determine your longevity.
8. Be especially careful with longevity if you are female
Women live longer than men — about five years longer, on average.
So, women can really get an even bigger lifetime Social Security payout if they delay the start of benefits. The average woman will collect an extra 5 years of benefits.
9. IMPORTANT: Compare the lifetime values of your benefits at different start ages
If you don’t automatically accept the Social Security strategy idea that you should delay the start of benefits, you should take the time to compare the lifetime value of your Social Security benefits at different start ages.
According to the NewRetirement Social Security survey, people near retirement say that comparing the lifetime values of their total payout at different start ages is the most powerful and convincing way to choose the best Social Security claiming strategy.
You see, when you start Social Security early, you collect benefits for a longer amount of time, but at a lower monthly paycheck. If you delay, you collect for a shorter time period, but at a higher monthly amount. You might be surprised to learn that collecting a higher amount for a shorter time period will usually net you a significantly higher total payment — some households can earn up to $100,000 or more in benefits.
A new tool in the NewRetirement Planner — the Social Security Explorer — can help you optimize your Social Security claiming strategies:
- Verify your Social Security benefit at your Full Retirement Age (we’ll help you verify the information).
- Select when you think you want to start benefits and your longevity age.
- Easily compare your monthly income and maximum lifetime payout for your desired claiming age vs. the maximum you could receive.
- Try different start and longevity ages to assess the impact on your benefits.
- See if you will have work penalties
- Assess spousal and survivor benefits
10. Reconsider conventional advice if you have underage children
If you have children who are unmarried and under the age of 18, the advice to delay benefits may (or may not) be true for you.
Qualified dependent children can receive up to half of the benefit of a parent that is receiving Social Security. This is a pretty big increase in your monthly paycheck. (Also, if grandchildren become dependents of their grandparents due to the death of their own parents or other reasons, they too can be eligible to receive benefits based upon the earnings record of either of their grandparents.)
If you have underage children, then you will want to consider if the increased monthly benefit you get because of them outweighs delaying the start of Social Security. You will want to think about how long you will collect for the child and whether the lifetime value of the dependent’s benefits is greater than the amount you gain by delaying your start to full retirement age or later. Also consider survival benefits for your spouse (see below), if you are married.
Learn more about the benefits for your family.
11. Know About Work Penalties
You are absolutely allowed to work while taking Social Security. In fact, there are many benefits to doing so, but also some penalties — depending on your situation.
After Full Retirement Age: There are no penalties for receiving Social Security and working at the same time IF you have passed your full retirement age. After your full retirement age, you can earn as much money as you like without incurring any penalties.
Before or During Full Retirement Age: If you are collecting Social Security and working at the same time when you are younger than or at your Full Retirement Age, there will be penalties. For 2021:
- If you are under your full retirement age for the entire year when you are working, then Social Security will deduct $1 from your Social Security paycheck for every $2 you earn above the annual limit. That limit is $18,960.
- In the year that you reach your full retirement age, Social Security will only deduct $1 for every $3 you earn above $50,520 until the month you reach full retirement age.
However, according to Social Security, “Your benefit will increase at your full retirement age to account for benefits withheld due to earlier earnings. So, even if you are working and incurring “penalties,” you can kind of think of the penalties as another way to save for your future.
Learn more about work and Social Security.
12. Choose the right benefit: Spousal benefits and beyond
You don’t necessarily need to file for your own benefit. If you are married or divorced and even if you have never worked under Social Security, you may be eligible to collect based on your spouse’s or ex-spouse’s earnings.
In fact, you get to choose to file for benefits based on your own earnings, your spouse’s earnings, or an ex spouse’s earnings (assuming you were married for 10 years or longer and are currently unmarried). You will want to choose whichever benefit is the highest for you.
If filing as a spouse or ex-spouse, you are eligible to receive an amount of up to 50% of their full retirement benefit amount. However, if you file between age 62 and your full retirement age, then your benefit amount is reduced by a percentage based on the number of months up to your full retirement age.
You will want to compare your benefit amounts for these various options.
13. IMPORTANT Social Security strategy: Delay the higher-earning spouse’s benefits as long as possible
If you are married, this is the best thing you can do to maximize your payout:
Make sure the higher-earning spouse waits until at least their full retirement age to start benefits. You don’t need to focus on who is older, or who retires first. The key is to make sure the highest earner grabs the highest possible payout.
Why? The reasoning lies in understanding survivor benefits.
While delaying benefits is a good Social Security strategy for anyone — you just get more money every month the longer you wait to start getting payments — it is especially useful for married couples because of survivor benefits.
You see, if one of you dies before the other then the surviving spouse will get to make a choice about which Social Security benefit to continue receiving. (A surviving spouse is entitled to just one benefit — not both.)
- If the high earner lives longer, he or she gets to keep collecting his or her own high payout.
- If the lower earner lives longer, he or she will be entitled to switch from their own benefit and start claiming the deceased’s maximum benefit.
So, having the highest earning spouse wait to maximize their benefit ensures the biggest lifetime payout for your household — not just you.
Learn more about the single smartest Social Security decision you can make if married.
14. Review convincing analysis about why the highest earner should delay the start of benefits
Not convinced by the logic above? You are not alone. Most households fail to get this right.
The NewRetirement spousal benefit survey tried to figure out what convinces people to delay benefits in order to assist spouses. The following tactics were considered effective:
Comparing lifetime values:
You might try comparing your total lifetime Social Security benefit as a household using different claiming strategies. The Social Security Explorer, part of the NewRetirement Planner makes this easy. You might be surprised by the differences!
Review your spouse’s income after your possible death:
Many people told us that they found it motivating to review what might happen to their spouse’s income after their death. The cut in resources can be pretty dramatic. Again, the Social Security Explorer makes it easy to review this information.
Other helpful tactics:
Besides the above, other tactics that people found useful for convincing themselves to maximize their benefit for the long-term benefit of the household included:
- Imagining themselves and their spouse as being quite old — research indicates that you are more likely to care for your future self if you can imagine yourself as a real person.
- Feeling confident about making ends meet without Social Security benefits (see above).
- Talking with their spouse about what different start ages mean for both spouses.
15. Be wary of “advice” from the Social Security Administration
The Social Security Administration is not trying to scam you and they will give you accurate information.
However, you need to know enough about your own situation and what is possible in order to ask the right questions to get useful answers.
Don’t blindly trust their advice, and do ask a lot of questions. Always run the numbers yourself using a tool like the NewRetirement Planner.