Millions of seniors depend on the income they receive from Social Security to cover their retirement expenses. If you're gearing up to file for benefits, it's imperative that you really understand what you're getting into, because the age you claim Social Security at could determine what your retirement income looks like. With that in mind, here are three key numbers you should keep in mind when weighing your options.
Social Security doesn't pay seniors a single universal benefit. Rather, the amount of money you'll be entitled to will hinge on your specific income history: namely, your average monthly wage, adjusted for inflation, during your 35 highest-paid years in the workforce.
But here's what that also means: For each year within that top 35 that you don't have earnings on record, you'll have $0 factored into your personal benefit calculation. That's why it's a good idea to aim to work a full 35 years. For many people, that's not a problem, but if you took a career break, you could end up being shy a year or two by the time you reach your 60s. If that's the case, postponing retirement a bit could leave you with a higher monthly benefit -- for life.
Though you're allowed to sign up for Social Security as early as age 62, you won't get to collect your full monthly benefit based on your wage history until you reach full retirement age, or FRA. It's a function of your year of birth, and if you were born in 1960 or later, it's 67.
If you don't have much in the way of retirement savings and you'll therefore be heavily reliant on Social Security once your time in the workforce ends, then you'd be wise to wait until age 67 to file for benefits (assuming that's your FRA) to avoid a lifelong reduction. In fact, you can even delay your benefits past FRA and boost them by 8% a year, up until age 70. That boost will then remain in effect for the rest of your life.
Many people assume they'll manage to get by on Social Security alone -- until they realize how little it pays. The average beneficiary today collects $1,519 a month, which amounts to an annual income of $18,228. Coupled with withdrawals from a retirement plan or a pension, that's not terrible. But living on $18,000 and change is a difficult thing to do, especially given the cost of healthcare today.
It's for this reason that it's so important to save well for retirement, and if you've already missed the boat on that -- say, you're nearing your 60s and have little to nothing in an IRA or 401(k) -- try compensating by delaying your Social Security filing until age 70. That will give you a 24% boost, or an extra $4,375 of income per year.
The more you know about Social Security before you claim benefits, the happier you're likely to be with your decision. Keep the above numbers in mind as a starting point, and keep reading up on the program to educate yourself as much as possible.