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3 Social Security Steps to Take 5 Years Before You Retire

By Katie Brockman – Jul 11, 2020 at 9:45AM

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Make sure you have a Social Security strategy well before you head into retirement.

Getting close to retirement age can be exciting -- but also nerve-wracking. Retirement should be something to look forward to, but enjoying your senior years comfortably takes a lot of financial planning.

Social Security benefits can be a lifeline in retirement, particularly if your savings aren't as robust as you thought they would be. Whether you've been having trouble saving or a stock market crash pummeled your investments, Social Security can bridge the gap between what you have saved and what you need to live comfortably.

Before you retire, though, there are a few things you need to do to ensure you're making the most of your monthly checks.

Social Security card

Image source: Getty Images.

1. Check your estimated benefit amount online

You don't have to wait until retirement to find out how much can collect in benefits. In fact, you can check your statements online at any time -- even if you're years away from retirement -- to see your estimated future benefit amount.

To check your statements, you'll need to create a mySocialSecurity account online. In the past, the Social Security Administration mailed statements to workers each year, but most people no longer receive paper statements. So for millions of Americans, the only way to check your benefit amount is to create an online Social Security account.

Your online account uses your real earnings to estimate your future benefit amount assuming you claim at your full retirement age. Not only can this information help you better plan for retirement, but it's also a good opportunity to check that your earnings record is correct. If the Social Security Administration has incorrect information about your past earnings, it's better to correct this mistake now rather than wait until you're about to begin claiming benefits.

2. Decide what age you want to begin claiming

Although many people choose to retire and claim benefits at the same time, you don't necessarily have to go that route. Because you'll receive more money in benefits each month by waiting longer to claim, some people may choose to retire and then wait a few more years to file for benefits. In that case, it's a good idea to decide ahead of time what age you want to begin claiming.

Those born in 1960 or later have an FRA of 67 years old, while those born before 1960 have an FRA of either 66 or 66 and a certain number of months, depending on the exact year you were born. If you claim before your FRA (as early as age 62), your benefits will be reduced by up to 30%. But if you wait until after your FRA to claim (up to age 70), you'll receive your entire benefit amount plus up to 32% extra each month.

The age you begin claiming can result in collecting hundreds of dollars more or less per month, so it's wise to take this decision seriously. If you have a healthy retirement fund or have reason to believe you won't spend decades in retirement, claiming early can help you make the most of your money. But if you need the extra cash or expect to live a very long life, delaying benefits can significantly boost your monthly retirement income.

3. Create a claiming strategy with your spouse

If you and your spouse are both entitled to benefits, it's a good idea to come up with a strategy for when you both should claim.

In some cases, for example, it's wise for the higher-earning spouse to delay benefits until age 70. Not only can that boost your overall retirement income, but if one of you passes away, the surviving spouse can collect the deceased spouse's entire benefit amount in survivors benefits. If the higher-earning spouse delays benefits to collect as much as possible, that could provide a healthy cushion for the lower-earning spouse.

If you're both the same age and want to retire at the same time, you might both choose to claim early to provide a little more spending money earlier in retirement. Or you might both delay benefits to collect as much as you possibly can from Social Security each month. Regardless of when you both choose to claim, it's important to think about this decision together a few years before you retire. That way, you both have plenty of time to strategize and ensure you're maximizing your benefits.

Social Security is an integral part of many retirees' financial plans. The more thought you put into your Social Security strategy, the more prepared you'll be for retirement.

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