If You Can’t Answer These 3 Questions, You’re Not Ready for Social Security

Signed into law back in 1935, Social Security has long been a critical part of the typical American retiree’s financial security in their later years. It’s most likely that you, too, can look forward to receiving regular payments from the government throughout your retirement.

But don’t make any Social Security decisions without learning more first, because some actions you take could have big, and perhaps undesired, consequences. Here are three questions you should be able to answer, for starters.

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1. What’s my full retirement age?

If you were to take a Social Security 101 class, one of the first things you might learn is that everyone has a full retirement age. For most people, it’s 66 or 67 — or somewhere in between. Your full retirement age is the age at which you can start collecting the full benefits to which you’re entitled, based on your earnings history.

The table below can help you figure out what your full retirement age is.

Birth Year

Full Retirement Age

1937 or earlier

65

1938

65 and 2 months

1939

65 and 4 months

1940

65 and 6 months

1941

65 and 8 months

1942

65 and 10 months

1943-1954

66

1955

66 and 2 months

1956

66 and 4 months

1957

66 and 6 months

1958

66 and 8 months

1959

66 and 10 months

1960 and later

67

Data source: Social Security Administration.

2. When should I start collecting my benefits?

If you’re wondering why you need to know your full retirement age, it’s because you can start collecting your benefits as early as age 62 and as late as age 70 — and you can make your benefits bigger or smaller by starting to collect them later or earlier, respectively, than your full retirement age. The following table illustrates this.

Start Collecting at:

Full Retirement Age of 66

Full Retirement Age of 67

62

75%

70%

63

80%

75%

64

86.7%

80%

65

93.3%

86.7%

66

100%

93.3%

67

108%

100%

68

116%

108%

69

124%

116%

70

132%

124%

Data source: Social Security Administration.

Don’t assume that delaying is a no-brainer, though, because while your checks will be bigger, you’ll be receiving a lot fewer of them than if you’d started collecting earlier. In fact, the program is designed so that those who live an average-length life will collect about the same amount, in total, over their lifetime.

Still, if you have long-lived relatives and are in good health, it can be worth trying to delay when you start collecting your benefits. Not everyone can delay, though — many people will simply need that income as soon as possible. Most retirees, in fact, start collecting at age 62 or 63.

3. Have I coordinated with my spouse?

Lastly, be sure to coordinate when to start collecting Social Security benefits with your spouse, as some strategies can be very helpful. For example, if you expect relatively small benefit checks and your spouse will be getting much bigger ones, you might have your spouse delay starting to collect as long as possible (up to age 70), in order to maximize those checks. Then, later, when one of you dies, the other will get to collect that maximized benefit instead of a possibly much smaller one.

The more you know about Social Security, the more you may be able to wring out of the program, making your retirement more comfortable and financially secure. For example, there are ways to increase your Social Security benefits — such as by boosting your income.

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