It was October 15, 2007, and the cameras were rolling. At a media event hosted by the Social Security Administration, Kathleen Casey-Kirschling applied online for her retirement benefits. Born Jan. 1, 1946 at 12:01 a.m., she was officially America’s first Baby Boomer to file for Social Security.

Casey-Kirschling merrily pointed and clicked her way through the online application, saying: “It’s so easy! You can do this from home.”

Thus was launched the “silver tsunami” of retiring Baby Boomers filing for benefits, which would continue at a clip of more than 10,000 per day for the next two decades.

It was a momentous occasion to be sure – but its execution was arguably flawed. The message sent by the federal government to millions of boomers was at best ill-considered, and at worst down right bad for the taxpayer.  

To start, Ms. Casey-Kirschling was 62 years old when the video aired. Yes, this is the age at which Americans with a sufficient work history become eligible for retirement benefits from Social Security. But was Kathleen aware of how much she was forfeiting in benefits by not waiting until she reached her full retirement age (FRA) of 66? The answer is approximately 30 percent. And if she had waited an additional four years till age 70, her benefit would be 62 percent higher than what she got at age 62.

Next, as her hyphenated last name suggests, Kathleen was married. That fact alone opens up all sorts of possibilities for coordinating her claim with her spouse, to give her more in benefits than what she would receive based solely on her own work record.  Figuring out which spousal claiming strategy makes the most financial sense is difficult to do in a few minutes from home. It takes some real analysis, and yet it can lead to upwards of tens of thousands of additional dollars over retirement.

In all fairness, Ms. Casey-Kirschling may have known she would be penalized for taking benefits before full retirement age, and perhaps had done her homework on how she could coordinate her benefits with her husband’s. The reality, however, is that most Americans do not know that there are both smart and not-so-smart ways to take Social Security. Too many believe that it’s best to take the money at the first opportunity and run.

How I wish I could have added 20 more seconds to that 2007 Social Security media clip with a consumer-friendly message of my own. Here’s what I would say.

  • Think twice, or even three times, before claiming at age 62.  Make sure you have done some financial planning to account for your health, family longevity, and other resources before automatically signing up the minute you are eligible.  

  • If you are married, be aware that for married couples there are multiple strategies to increase combined benefits. These may include suspending benefits, or filing a restricted claim to spousal benefits.  The “best” strategy depends on the difference between the spouses’ ages and the amount each spouse would collect on his or her own record, as well as the couple’s basic financial and health circumstances.

  • If you are single and divorced but were once married for over 10 years, you still have the opportunity to make a claim based on your former spouse’s record.  

  • If you are widowed, widowed and remarried after age 60, disabled, and/or have a disabled spouse, there are even more possible strategies for claiming benefits.

Bottom line: Before you point and click to get your Social Security retirement benefits, spend some time getting good advice about your options. Be aware that the Social Security Administration, while extremely helpful, efficient and high-tech, cannot give you advice about how and when to claim.