Are you thinking of starting your Social Security benefits sometime in 2021? Before you decide to pull the trigger, take a few minutes to make sure you're really ready. Once you've started getting benefits, you don't have many options for reversing your decision, so it's best to make the right choice the first time.
To figure out if you should get the process of claiming your benefits underway, watch for these four signs you're ready to get your first Social Security check in 2021.
1. You know your full retirement age
Full retirement age (FRA) is the age you get your standard benefit. If you claim benefits before it, you'll see a reduction for every month you're early. If you claim after it, you'll see an increase for each month you forgo benefits up until age 70.
In order to understand how your age will affect the size of your checks, you need to know your full retirement age -- and the answer depends on your birth year. The chart below shows exactly at what age you'd need to retire to receive your standard benefit based on when you were born.
2. You understand how much income your benefits will provide
The average Social Security benefit in 2021 will be just $1,543 per month for retired workers. If you're expecting your benefits to provide you with enough money to live on, you may be very disappointed. Once you know how much money you can get from Social Security, you can make a more informed choice about whether you're really ready to retire.
By knowing the amount of your benefits, you'll have a better understanding of how your age at claiming time affects the size of your checks. If you'd have a benefit of $1,543 at FRA but would shrink your benefit by 6.7% by claiming one year before it, you'd end up with just $1,439 per month. You may decide you don't want to take a hit of more than $100 and choose to wait an extra year to start.
3. You've calculated your break-even point
If you're considering delaying your benefit to boost it, remember that you're giving up some income you could've received if you'd claimed ASAP. You may eventually end up making back that money -- and then some -- due to your higher benefit. But that happens only after receiving bigger checks for a while, and it won't happen at all if you don't live long enough.
To find out how long it'll take to make up for the missed money, calculate your break-even point. Determine how much income you'll miss out on by waiting and divide that by the extra amount you'll get each month. Based on the example above, if you'd miss out on a year of monthly benefits equaling $1,439, that's $17,268 in forgone cash. After waiting a year, your benefit would be $104 per month higher, so it would take you 166 months, or 13.8, years to break even.
Once you know your break-even point, you can make an educated guess as to whether you'll live long enough to reach it based on your family history and personal health status.
4. You've coordinated with your spouse
Married couples need to work together to decide what Social Security claiming strategy makes sense. It's often smart for the lower earner to claim benefits first to provide income to live on while the higher earner waits and grows their benefit. This can result in higher survivor benefits and more lifetime income, in many cases.
However, you may decide a different claiming strategy works for you. The important thing is to decide together after evaluating all your options.
Each of these steps can help you determine the most optimal time to claim your benefits. If it turns out to be 2021, that's great. But if it doesn't, you may just need to put off retirement for a little longer to end up in a better situation for the remainder of your later years.