Following is the first in a two-part series exploring the pros and cons of taking early Social Security payments.
I’ve written numerous articles over the years about strategies for maximizing Social Security benefits.
The most fundamental decision all retirees face is when to start taking payments. If you need the money, you may have no choice but to start taking payments as soon as you are eligible. But if that’s not the case, which is better: to start as early as possible and invest the proceeds or to wait and take advantage of higher payments?
It’s important to understand how Social Security payments work. Your Full Retirement Age (FRA), based on your date of birth, is the age at which you can begin collecting what the Social Security Administration calls your Primary Insurance Amount. This is the monthly amount the administration sends you for the rest of your life. The calculation of your Primary Insurance Amount is a bit complicated, but suffice it to say that it is based on your highest 35 years of earned income, adjusted for inflation.
To add to the complexity, the Social Security Administration allows some flexibility. You can choose to begin collecting your benefits at your FRA, as early as age 62 (even earlier in certain circumstances) or as late as age 70. If you choose to start early, you will receive reduced benefits for the rest of your life; if you choose to start later, you will receive expanded benefits (called delayed credits).
For every year you delay after age 62 until FRA, your initial monthly payment increases by 8 percent. The same is true for every year you delay between your FRA and age 70. For example, if you begin collecting benefits at age 62 and your FRA is age 66, your starting payment will be only 75 percent of your Primary Insurance Amount. If you wait until age 70 – the longest you can wait and still receive the 8 percent annual delayed credits – your initial payment will be 32 percent higher than your Primary Insurance Amount.
As you might surmise, the age at which you start can have a significant impact on the total income you receive over your retirement lifetime.
It’s also important to consider two other facts about Social Security benefits: If you start taking benefits before your FRA and you are currently working, your benefits will be reduced; and regardless of your starting age, your payments include cost-of-living adjustments that enable you to keep pace with inflation.
If you’re the analytical type, you might approach this question by doing a break-even analysis.
Calculate the age at which you would have accumulated the same total income regardless of whether you start collecting benefits at age 62 or at age 70. If you treat this as a simple mathematical exercise, the answer is age 82. That is, if you plan to die before age 82, it’s better to start your Social Security benefits as early as possible (i.e., at age 62), but if you plan to live longer, you should wait until age 70 to start.
However, such an analysis would be quite incomplete. Assuming that you plan to invest your Social Security income, realistically there are a couple of other factors you need to take into account:
• The return on investment of your Social Security income.
• The inflation rate, which impacts the growth over time of the Social Security payments.
• Your tax rate, which affects not only how much you may keep but also how much of your Social Security income is taxable.
Doug Lemons, retired Social Security Administration deputy assistant regional commissioner, recently completed the above analysis using various return on investment, inflation rate and tax rate assumptions. In part 2 of this series, I’ll share the very interesting conclusion he reached.
Artie Green, a Los Altos resident, is a certified financial planner and professional investment adviser. For more information, call (408) 747-1222.