Social Security plays a vital role in every American's financial planning. It provides much-needed income in retirement that lasts the rest of your life, and it can also ensure that your spouse and certain other family members get the financial support they need. Because Social Security is a complicated program, it's easy to make mistakes about how best to get the most out of the program. Financial planners often hear the following three misconceptions about Social Security, and the mistakes that result from these erroneous beliefs can be costly. Knowing how to avoid them will make a big difference to how financially secure you are after you retire.
1. "I know I'm going to die early, so I'm going to claim Social Security at 62."
You can claim Social Security as early as age 62, but the earlier you take your benefits, the smaller your monthly checks are. For most of those born between the early 1940s and mid-1950s, claiming at 62 resulted in a 25% smaller retirement benefit than waiting until full retirement age of 66. If you could afford to wait still longer until age 70, you could boost your benefit an additional 32%. The net result is a nearly 75% increase by waiting the full eight years. Put another way, early filers build up an early lead in the amount of benefits they receive, but late filers start catching up as soon as they claim their benefits. If they live long enough -- typically between their late 70s and early 80s -- then they pass up their earlier-filing peers.
Many people claim Social Security early because they're convinced the odds of outliving their life expectancies are against them. But that mistake is based on two misconceptions. First, the typical 62-year-old man lives for 20 more years, while a woman of the same age typically can expect to live 23 more years. More importantly, your claiming decision can have an impact not just on your own retirement benefits but also on the amount of survivor benefits that a spouse or other family members might receive. It pays to run all the numbers before making a decision that you and your loved ones might regret later.
2. "Social Security is going bankrupt, so I should claim benefits early."
It's no secret that the Social Security system is facing financial challenges. For years, Social Security experts have looked at the future trajectory of the program and foreseen shortfalls once the large baby boomer generation reaches retirement age. The most recent report from the trustees of Social Security's trust funds predicted that Social Security will have spent down its available excess funds by 2034.
The misunderstanding most people have is what happens next. Many mistakenly think that at that point, Social Security will be bankrupt and stop paying benefits entirely. But even if lawmakers do nothing and the Social Security trust funds become entirely depleted, the program will still get tax revenue from payroll withholding. That money won't be enough to pay the full amount of benefits that recipients are supposed to receive, but it should be sufficient to give people three-quarters of their scheduled benefits. Combine that with the likelihood that Washington will find some solution to the problem within the next 17 years, and it makes more sense to choose a Social Security strategy based on your own needs rather than fear of the program's demise.
3. "My friend told me about a great Social Security trick."
When you're facing a tough decision, it's natural to talk to those who've gone through the same situation. Turning to friends or family members about Social Security might seem like a smart idea, and you can sometimes get useful information that way. Yet because every financial situation is different, the right answer for one person might be completely different from the best choice for you. There's also a lot of misinformation about Social Security that can confound even the loved ones you trust the most.
Consulting a financial planner with expertise in Social Security is the best way to ensure that you'll make the smartest choice for your particular situation. By finding out your priorities and looking at how Social Security fits into your overall financial picture, a professional can give you unbiased, informed advice that you can count on.
Social Security trips up a lot of people because of its complexity, but it's essential to know the ins and outs of how the program works and how to maximize your benefits from it. Leaving money on the table by making common mistakes simply isn't an option for those who want to be as financially secure as possible in retirement.