Most parents will face an important decision one day: when to give their child a cell phone. For me, the time to make the decision came when my daughters were involved in different after-school activities. We needed an easy way to communicate about drop-off and pick-up schedules, and a cell phone was the best solution.

My daughters probably got a cell phone before many of their friends, but that didn’t deter us from making a decision that worked for us. (And I have no regrets—constant contact can give busy parents some much needed peace of mind!)

The Social Security timing decision

Parents aren’t the only ones who face tough timing decisions. People who have worked will face a very important decision one day: when to collect Social Security benefits. There are a lot of factors to consider when you’re making this decision. But just like deciding when to give your child a cell phone, deciding when to collect your benefit ultimately comes down to what makes you and your family feel comfortable. Here’s some information to help you think through your options.

The facts

You can begin to collect Social Security when you have at least 40 quarters of reported earnings and you’re age 62 or older. Your benefit amount is based on your highest 35 years of earnings.

You can begin to collect your benefit anytime between ages 62 and 70. The amount you receive depends on your earnings record and the age you are when you begin to collect.

Collecting before full retirement age (FRA)

Age 62 is the earliest possible age you can begin to collect your benefit. You won’t be eligible to receive 100% of your earned benefit until you reach FRA, which depends on your date of birth.

If you start collecting Social Security before your FRA, your benefit will be reduced by about 6% each year. If you begin taking benefits at age 62 when your FRA is 67, you’ll receive about 70% of the monthly benefit you earned (and could collect if you wait until you’re 67). 

Collecting at FRA

You’ll receive 100% of the benefit you earned if you begin collecting your benefit when you reach FRA. 

Collecting after FRA

If you delay your benefit after FRA, it will increase by 0.67% a month, which is an 8% increase for each year you delay your benefit past FRA (until you reach age 70). There’s no monetary benefit for waiting beyond age 70 to begin to collect.

Questions to ask yourself

Some of these questions are applicable to everyone, while others apply only to those who are married. Your marital status can play a big role in determining the best Social Security strategy for you and your spouse. Luckily, our new online Social Security experience allows you to narrow down your best Social Security strategy based on your marital status.

  • What are you and your spouse’s anticipated life expectancies? It’s important to consider lifestyle, health, and genetics when estimating your potential longevity.
  • Which spouse will receive a higher benefit? (You can determine this by comparing your earning records on ssa.gov.)
  • Will you be relying on Social Security benefits to meet your current living expenses, or are there other assets you can live off of if you delay benefits?
  • Are you comfortable delaying benefits to receive a larger monthly amount during your lifetime (and possibly your surviving spouse’s lifetime)?

3 options for you and your spouse

If you and your spouse are eligible to collect Social Security benefits, you can each collect your own benefit (based on your earning record). Or the lower-earning spouse can collect half of the higher-earning spouse’s benefit (if it’s greater than his or her own benefit). Upon the death of a spouse, the surviving spouse can receive either his/her benefit or the deceased spouse’s benefit—whichever amount is higher.

If you have a spouse, you have 3 options:

  1. Both you and your spouse can defer your Social Security benefit to age 70. You’ll both receive your maximum benefit when you reach age 70. This option is usually most attractive to couples in which both spouses have a long anticipated life span and enough assets to meet their daily living expenses in the interim.
  2. The higher-earning spouse can defer his or her benefit while the lower-earning spouse collects. (An 8% annual increase on a higher benefit adds up to more over time.) Upon the death of a spouse, the surviving spouse will collect his/her benefit or the deceased spouse’s benefit—whichever amount is higher.
  3. Both spouses can collect before reaching age 70 (as early as age 62). Neither spouse will receive his/her maximum benefit, but they’ll receive a stream of income earlier.

If you defer your benefit until age 70, you’d probably need to live past age 82–83 to “break even” with the amount you would’ve collected had you taken your benefit at FRA.* So if you anticipate living fewer than 83 years, you may want to begin payments at FRA or even as early as 62. 

It’s a personal decision (but you don’t have to make it alone)

Life expectancy matters most in determining the best time to collect Social Security, but unfortunately, it’s the most unpredictable factor of all. Our new online Social Security resource can help you come up with a plan (or you can partner with an advisor for help), but keep in mind that nobody can predict the best time to collect with 100% certainty.

As a parent, I have years of making tough timing decisions ahead of me. My husband and I will have to think about when our daughters can get summer jobs, date (!), tour colleges, etc. When we make these decisions—just as when we’re making the decision about when to take Social Security—I trust that we’ll consider the facts, compare the pros and cons of each option, and make the decision we feel most comfortable with.

 

*This is an estimate. Several factors can affect your “break-even” age, including: the taxation of your benefit, your income tax bracket, the rate of inflation (which impacts the cost-of-living adjustment on your benefit), and your personal rate of return (if you invest some or all of your benefit).

Note:

All investing is subject to risk, including the possible loss of the money you invest.