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Ready to Claim Social Security? Do These 4 Things First

By Maurie Backman - Jan 12, 2021 at 6:07AM

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Check these items off your list before filing for benefits. They'll help you avoid a world of regret.

The decision to file for Social Security is a big one. If you're gearing up to claim benefits, tackle these key items beforehand.

1. Know your full retirement age

Your monthly Social Security benefit is based on your average monthly wage, indexed for inflation, over your 35 highest-paid years in the workforce. Once you reach full retirement age, or FRA, you'll be entitled to that benefit in full.

Smiling older person wearing apron in a kitchen with vegetables on counter.

Image source: Getty Images.

You don't have to claim Social Security at FRA -- you can file earlier or later. But knowing your FRA will give you a starting point to work with when landing on a filing age. You can consult this table to see what your FRA is:

Year of Birth

Full Retirement Age

1943-1954

66

1955

66 and 2 months

1956

66 and 4 months

1957

66 and 6 months

1958

66 and 8 months

1959

66 and 10 months

1960 or later

67

Data source: Social Security Administration.

2. Understand the consequences of filing at different ages

You can begin collecting Social Security once you turn 62, or you can delay your filing up until age 70. In fact, technically, you don't have to sign up for benefits at 70, but there's no financial incentive to put off your filing past that point.

There's no such thing as the right or wrong age to claim your benefits -- the decision will boil down to your personal needs and circumstances. Before you make that call, make sure you fully understand the financial implications of filing at different ages.

If you claim benefits ahead of FRA, they'll be reduced by 6.67% a year for the first three years you file early, and then by 5% a year for each year thereafter. What this means is that if your FRA is 67 and you claim benefits at 65, you'll lose 13.34% of the amount you would've started collecting at FRA. File at age 62 with an FRA of 67, and you're taking a 30% hit.

On the other hand, you have the option to delay your filing past FRA. For each year you do so up until age 70, your benefits will increase by 8%.

3. Evaluate your health

If your health is poor and you're unlikely to live an average life span, you may be better off claiming Social Security as early as possible. Though doing so will shrink your benefits on a monthly basis, it could result in more total income from Social Security in your lifetime. The opposite holds true if your health is outstanding and you expect to outlive the average senior. In that case, it generally pays to delay your filing as long as possible to score the highest lifetime payout.

Be honest about the state of your health when making your filing decision. If you're an overweight smoker, those are factors you have the power to address to improve your life expectancy. If you have a chronic condition that's getting worse despite your best efforts to manage it, that's a very different story, unfortunately.

4. Assess your savings

If your plan is to get by on Social Security alone in retirement, you may be in for a rough time. Social Security will only replace about 40% of your pre-retirement wages if you're an average earner, and most seniors need closer to 70% or more of their prior income to live comfortably.

If you have a healthy amount of money set aside in a retirement plan, you may not be as reliant on Social Security -- and so you may decide to claim your benefits a little early and use that money to travel or do other things while you're younger. But if you're short on savings and will be counting on Social Security to cover most of your bills, then you may need to delay your filing as long as possible to boost your monthly benefits.

As a guideline, it's a good idea to enter retirement with 10 times your ending salary saved. If you're looking at, say, just twice your ending salary, you may want to wait until FRA or beyond to file for benefits.

Weigh your options carefully

You may have your mind set on a specific age to sign up for Social Security. Before you take that step, make sure it's really the right call. The last thing you want to do is claim benefits at the wrong time. 

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