Applying for Social Security is a pretty big deal. While it's technically possible to undo your claim if you regret signing up, it's much easier to just make the right call in the first place. Before you submit your application to the Social Security Administration, ask yourself these questions to make sure you're actually ready.
1. How will claiming now affect your checks?
The age at which you apply for Social Security determines how large your checks are. You must wait until your full retirement age (FRA) -- between 66 and 67, depending on your birth year -- to claim the benefit you've earned based on your work history. But you can start as early as 62.
Claiming under your FRA shrinks your checks up to 25% if your FRA is 66 or 30% if your FRA is 67. But this can still be the right play if you need your checks to help pay your bills. Many who have serious health conditions also choose to sign up early so they can claim checks for as many years as possible.
Delaying benefits increases your checks a little at a time until you reach your maximum benefit at 70. This gives you an extra 24% per month if your FRA is 67 or an extra 32% if your FRA is 66. Waiting until then to sign up for Social Security could lead to a larger lifetime benefit, especially if you live to your mid-80s or beyond.
2. How will claiming now affect your family members?
If you're single with no dependents, when you claim Social Security only affects you. But this isn't the case for married couples and those with dependent children. Since child and spousal benefits are based on your Social Security checks, when you claim affects them as well.
Say, for example, you decide to claim Social Security after working for just 30 years. The government looks at your 35 highest-earning years when calculating your benefit, and if you haven't worked that long, it includes zero-income years in your calculation.
Even one of these can drop your monthly benefit by several dollars. And your spouse and any qualifying children will also get less per month when they apply for benefits on your work record than they would if you'd stuck it out for 35 years in the workforce.
That's why it's a good idea to make Social Security claiming decisions with all affected family members. Come up with a claiming strategy that maximizes your household benefits. But remember, if you're the only person who's worked long enough to qualify for Social Security, you have to sign up yourself before anyone else can claim benefits on your work record.
3. When will your benefits start?
Your first Social Security check won't show up on the day the Social Security Administration approves your application. It pays benefits in the month following the month benefits are due. So, for example, if you sign up in August and you're already 62 or older, you'll receive your first check in September.
Things are a bit trickier for those signing up at 62. You're not considered eligible until you're 62 for an entire month. If you were born on the first or second of a month, then your birth month counts as your first month of eligibility. But if you were born on any other day, you're not eligible until the next month.
Someone born on August 17, for example, wouldn't be eligible for Social Security until the September after they turn 62, and they wouldn't receive their first check until October of that year. But you can apply for Social Security up to four months in advance of your first month of eligibility.
When you'll actually get your benefit depends on the day of the month you're born on. Here's the current schedule:
- Birth date between the 1st and 10th: Second Wednesday of every month.
- Birth date between the 11th and 20th: Third Wednesday of every month.
- Birth date between the 21st and 31st: Fourth Wednesday of every month.
Make sure you understand exactly when you'll begin receiving checks so you don't run into problems in the interim. Have a financial plan to cover your expenses on your own between when you apply for benefits and when you actually receive them.
If any of the above information is new to you, you may want to rethink your decision to claim Social Security right now. That doesn't mean you have to change your mind. Just take some time to review your options to see if there's a better claiming age for you.