Social Security beneficiaries often depend on their payments for the majority of their retirement income. In fact, among elderly Social Security beneficiaries, 21% of married couples and 44% of unmarried people rely on the government program for 90% or more of their retirement income.
This is why it's important for pre-retirees to figure the best time to take Social Security and how to plan for retirement. If you're close to retirement age, here are four simple questions you should ask yourself before you file for your Social Security benefits.
1. When would be the best time for me to file?
The answer to this question will be specific to your age, health, and the amount of money you have in other retirement accounts, etc. But, in general, filing for Social Security at 62, the earliest age you can do so, isn't necessarily a bad idea.
That's because many people end up retiring earlier than they had planned, and they need their Social Security check to help pay for their monthly expenses. Yes, working a few more years so that you reach your full retirement age (FRA) -- which ranges between 66 and older, depending on your current age -- will give you a larger monthly Social Security payment. But, in some cases, the extra money you receive each month may not be worth the extra years of work you'll put in.
Therefore, the answer to when you should file for benefits will ultimately come down to when you can afford to retire, how much money you need from Social Security, if you're in good enough health to continue working, and whether or not you'll receive Social Security benefits from your spouse, in addition to your own.
2. Am I ready to live on a tighter budget?
Most retirees have to cut back on their expenses in retirement, whether they're entirely dependent on Social Security for their income or not. But if you plan on using Social Security to cover the vast majority of your monthly bills, then consider that the current monthly check amount is just $1,413.
How much you receive each month from Social Security is based on your top 35 highest earning years (adjusted for inflation) and at what age you file for benefits. If you think you might file for benefits soon, it's a good idea to set up an account on the Social Security website and see what your estimated monthly benefit will be.
Keep in mind that the average length of retirement is about 18 years these days. And even with Social Security's annual cost of living adjustments (COLAs) -- which attempts to keep benefits increasing to keep up with inflation -- there's evidence showing that Social Security's purchasing power is still shrinking.
3. Do I have any other sources of income to access in retirement?
It's often suggested that retirees will need at least 80% of their annual pre-retirement income to live off of. But the actual amount will vary on your circumstances, of course, and some people will need more or less depending on how they want to live, or how much they plan on downsizing in retirement.
If you have a pension, or your spouse does, that can go a long way toward making up the difference between your monthly Social Security check and your bills. The growing number of Americans who retire without a pension will need to offset their monthly benefits check with their own savings.
Before you file for benefits, make sure you've done your math to figure out how much retirement savings you have, what expenses you'll be paying for, and factor in how long you believe you'll be in retirement.
There's no hard and fast rule for how much money you need saved up before you retire, though $1 million or more is a great goal to work toward. If you're nowhere near that amount, don't be too discouraged. A recent Fidelity Investments survey found that the average 401(k) has just $104,000 in it, and that's up from about $81,000 in 2013.
The point here is that whatever amount of time you have left before you retire, you should be adding as much as you can to your retirement savings. Social Security will help to cover costs, but it falls far short of the $48,885 that people age 65 to 74 spend on average each year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
4. Would working a few more years be better?
After you've worked through these questions, you may conclude that working a few more years might be better for you in the long run. Working a little longer may not sound like fun, but it will allow you to earn additional income that you can throw into your retirement savings, and it will help you maximize your monthly Social Security payments the closer you get to your full retirement age.
There are also other benefits you'll receive from working longer. Research shows that delaying retirement could prolong your life. This, of course, depends on what type of job you do, but if you're able to keep working, you'll not only benefit from the additional money and a higher Social Security payment, it could make you feel more connected to your peers and help your health as well.
Don't be overwhelmed
Deciding when to take Social Security can seem like an overwhelming decision, but asking yourself these questions first will help get you started. The more time you spend planning out your strategy and figuring out how much money you'll need in retirement, the more comfortable you'll feel when the day comes.