Social Security benefits are a major source of income for retirees, but far too many seniors have no clear idea how these benefits work. Even worse, many seniors have major misconceptions about Social Security benefits that could affect their plans for retirement in adverse ways.
To make sure you're not one of the millions confused about how Social Security will provide for you as a senior, consider these four signs you're thinking about Social Security benefits the wrong way.
1. You're expecting Social Security to provide all the retirement income you need
Social Security benefits are designed to replace about 40% of your pre-retirement income, while most financial advisors suggest you'll need at least 70% of the money you were earning prior to retiring.
If you aren't saving money to supplement Social Security, you're putting yourself into a position where your Social Security benefits may be your only source of funds as a senior. This is a recipe for financial disaster, as living on Social Security alone will leave you close to the poverty level.
Don't count on Social Security to provide you with all you need. Instead, invest in a 401(k) or an IRA so you'll have supplementary savings. Ideally, try to invest at least 15% of your income. If you can't start there, at least set up small automated contributions to make sure you're saving something. You can increase contributions over time as you get used to living on slightly less or when your income increases.
2. You're counting on taking Social Security at age 65 or later
As many as 70% of workers think they'll take Social Security benefits at age 65 or later according to Employee Benefit Research Institute. Almost 20% plan to wait until age 70, which is the last age at which you can earn delayed retirement credits to increase monthly Social Security income.
The reality, however, is that 62 is the most common age to claim Social Security, while age 63 is the median age at which retirees claim benefits. If you anticipate waiting to claim so you can increase your monthly income from Social Security, you could find yourself short of cash if illness or unemployment forces you to leave the workforce early.
To make certain you don't end up with a shortfall, assume you'll receive the monthly benefit amount you'd get at 62, and plan accordingly when deciding how much additional income you need from savings. If you're lucky enough to be able to work longer and put off claiming benefits, you'll simply have extra income -- which is far better than having too little.
3. You aren't considering your spouse when you make your plan for Social Security benefits
If you're planning on simply claiming Social Security benefits under your own work record, you could potentially be missing out on a higher payment if you're eligible for widow or spousal benefits. If your spouse earned more, you should carefully consider whether claiming under his or her work record could provide you with more funds than claiming on your own work history.
You can claim spousal benefits even after divorce as long as you were married for at least 10 years, so don't assume claiming under your own work record is your only option, even if you're currently single.
If you're the higher earner, you also need to think about your spouse when making a decision on claiming benefits. When one spouse dies, the surviving spouse could opt to earn either widow's benefits or their own benefits-- whichever is higher. If you've claimed your benefits early instead of waiting to earn delayed retirement credits, you've reduce the widow's benefits your surviving spouse would otherwise have received. This could leave your spouse with insufficient funds once you're gone.
4. You think taking Social Security at 62 won't impact your benefits over the long-term
Many people who retire at 62 have a major misconception about what claiming benefits before full retirement age does. In fact, 39% of pre-retirees think if they claim reduced benefits early their benefits will increase to a standard benefit at full retirement age.
This isn't the case, and the reduction in benefits that occurs when you claim before full retirement age affects your annual Social Security income throughout your retirement. Your future cost of living adjustments are based on your lower starting benefit amount, and your monthly income will never be as high as it would've been had you waited.
Make sure you aren't thinking about Social Security the wrong way
Since Social Security benefits are such an important source of retirement income, it's worth doing your research to ensure you don't make big mistakes when it comes to your benefits. Check out this guide to Social Security benefits, and ensure you know the answers to five key questions about Social Security before you claim your Social Security benefits as a senior.
The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.