The other day, a client of mine named Karen, a health-care professional, called me about her decision to retire sooner than we discussed a few weeks ago – at age 60, as opposed to 62. She wanted to know how this change would affect her financial plan and ability to live comfortably in retirement.

This was a big decision for Karen, not only because she had 32 years of dedicated service with a hospital, but she is a divorced widow who never remarried – meaning any choices she makes about her career, workplace benefits and Social Security have a significant impact on her financial security.

After Karen and I discussed her needs and options a bit further, we discovered that she can increase her lifetime income (assuming a life expectancy of age 90) from Social Security by $63,000 if she collects a survivor benefit early at age 60 and delays her own benefit until age 66 (her full retirement age). If Karen waits until age 70 to start her own benefit, the extra lifetime amount would increase by $103,000.

My conversation with Karen was yet another reminder that the question of when to start a Social Security benefit is intensely personal. In Karen’s circumstance, yes, it made financial sense for her to collect a survivor benefit early at age 60 and delay her own benefit until at least age 66.

Yet, while Karen’s financial circumstances may be different from yours, the process used to review her Social Security benefit options has broad application. The process includes an in-depth review of three common factors – why, who and when – imbedded in the benefit decision.

Here’s a brief summary of these factors:

Why
Sometimes, there is a desperate need for individuals to start a Social Security benefit early, say at the common age of 62. When asked why they started their benefits early, top reasons current retirees cited include living expenses (58 percent), unemployment (24 percent), a health issue (16 percent) and even as a way to start saving money (9 percent).1

Whether there is a desperate need or not, this is a current trend among the 41 million retirees who now receive Social Security benefits—and it’s costly. Seventy-one percent of retirees receive a reduced benefit for life because they started their Social Security benefits prior to their full retirement age (e.g. age 66).2 There is an additional cut for those who start their benefits early, but continue to work and earn income above $17,040 in 2018. If you are considering whether to take your own Social Security benefit early, here are few questions to consider: 
  • How much money would you lose by taking the benefit early?
  • If your stack of bills is heavy, is there a way you can lighten the load  to budget for lower expenses?
  • If you plan to work, how would your income impact your benefit?

Who
Now, let’s consider others in your family who might be affected by your benefit decision?

There are 5 million widow(er)s aged 65 or older who receive retirement benefits based off their deceased spouse’s earnings record.3  For many widowed individuals, Social Security benefits represent as much as three-quarters of their personal income.4

If you are married, think carefully about when you start your Social Security benefit and how your decision may impact your spouse’s survivor benefit, if she or he survives you.

When
Do you know what the fastest growing demographic in the U.S. is today? Centenarians. There are more than 72,000 Americans over the age of 100 now – a 55 percent increase since 1980, and a 44 percent increase since 2010. Also, the projected growth rate of Americans over age 85 is expected to triple to nearly 15 million by 2040.5

Since more than 5 out of 10 mature Americans rely on the Social Security benefit as their main source of income in retirement6, a longer-than-expected life creates a paradigm shift in how we  might think more practically about the benefit – from when to start the benefit to making sure you have enough of it when you need it the most.

If you would like to learn more about how to plan effectively for your Social Security benefit, please reach out to the Social Security Administration at 1-800-772-1213 or contact a CFP® professional in your area to discuss what makes most sense for your financial plan.

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[1] Consumer Social Security PR Study, Nationwide/Harris Poll, February, 2018
[2] Social Security Administration, Annual Statistical Supplement, 2017
[3] Social Security’s Benefits Planner: Survivors, 2018
[4] Fact Sheet: Widowed Individuals Receiving Social Security Retirement Benefits, 2016
[5] A Profile of Older Americans: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2015
[6] Consumer Social Security PR Study, Nationwide/Harris Poll, February, 2018