By Christine Fahlund on November 14, 2012
One of the biggest decisions when developing your retirement income strategy is when and how to begin collecting Social Security benefits. Although you may begin drawing Social Security at age 62, there is no requirement to do so. In fact, your payment increases by approximately 7% to 8% for every year you delay, up to age 70. And if you're married, there are other good reasons to postpone as well.
Your decision about when to collect benefits should be based on several factors—including your age, marital status, income needs, and plans regarding work during retirement. If you are married, the estimated payments you'll receive at full retirement age—the age at which you are entitled to full benefits—will be another factor. You can receive the maximum benefit based on your work history by waiting to start payments at age 70. Identifying an effective strategy based on your personal goals for receiving an income stream from Social Security can help you maintain your quality of life and may result in a significant increase in the value of the total benefit amount you collect over your lifetime.
Your first step should be to figure out how much income you will need in retirement and where this money will come from. You should plan to replace approximately 75% of your preretirement income during your first year in retirement and be able to increase that amount for inflation in each subsequent year. One of the most predictable sources of income will be from Social Security.
The value in waiting to begin collecting benefits can be significant. Because your initial benefit increases approximately 7% to 8% every year you delay taking payments, the monthly amount you receive at age 70 in today's dollars could be about 80% more than the amount you would start collecting at age 62. Your benefits generally are adjusted each year for inflation—and, if you're married and the higher earner, they are increased for the survivor's life as well. This means that, unlike many other income sources, the purchasing power of your benefits should remain relatively constant throughout retirement, as the actual dollar amount of your benefits increases.
Your retirement plan includes making two important decisions: when to retire and whether to keep working in some capacity after you leave your career. If you leave your job before age 62, what will you do for income? And if you are under age 65, what will you do for medical insurance before you qualify for Medicare? Taking a part-time job can help fill any income gaps and cover health insurance premiums.
If you want to remain in the workforce part time after you turn age 62, it is generally a good idea to avoid collecting Social Security benefits at least until you reach your full retirement age, which is age 66 for most boomers. Until then, the Social Security Administration will temporarily deduct $1 from the benefits you receive for every $2 you earn above the annual wage limit. (In 2012, the limit is $14,640.)1 Most importantly, once you reach your full retirement age, there is no limit on how much you can earn without any temporary reduction in Social Security benefits.
In fact, like the majority of retirees today, you likely would come out ahead over the long term by continuing to work full time for even a year or two beyond your original planned retirement date. An employer's payroll and benefits program would help cover your expenses during that time, your investments could continue to compound, and by shortening the years you'll need to draw on your nest egg—even if it's only a few years—you can increase the odds of a successful retirement. Staying in the workforce until age 66, for example, could increase your annual combined retirement income from Social Security by more than 30% over what you'd receive at age 62, even without any additional contributions to your retirement plan.
If you are single, the decision about when to take benefits will only directly affect you, not your heirs. Your choice will depend primarily on the value of the other financial resources available to you in retirement, the lifestyle you envision, and your expected life span. If you have health issues that could affect your longevity, you may choose to take your Social Security benefits once you reach age 62. On the other hand, if you are in excellent health and expect to live a long time, you may choose to hold off on taking your Social Security benefits until as late as age 70—especially if you expect to be entirely supporting yourself in retirement.
If you are married, the decisions you make now as a couple may result in significantly different financial outcomes for each of you later in retirement. Generally speaking, it makes sense for the higher-earning spouse to delay taking his or her Social Security benefits until age 70 because, after the death of a spouse, the surviving spouse receives the larger of the two spouses' benefits and is not eligible to continue receiving both.
As you approach retirement, consider all your options and talk with a financial advisor who has an in-depth knowledge of Social Security benefits. This is especially important if you are considering taking spousal benefits, because various combinations of age, income, and employment histories can affect if and when you may be able to apply this strategy. Think about what kind of life you want to lead when you retire and how much it will cost and, if married, consider the effect of your decisions on the survivor when one of you passes away. It's best to assume a long and healthy life ahead for one or both of you—one that will require a lasting source of income. And while it may be tempting to rely on Social Security to boost your cash flow immediately, few strategies can do more to enhance your retirement income over the long term than delaying the payout of your benefits.