You may apply for Social Security benefits no more than four months in advance of when you want them to start. The earliest you may start standard Social Security benefits is age 62. (Other types of Social Security benefits—disability and survivor benefits—may be available at younger ages.)
But should you start your benefits then? And if not then, when?
The answer is largely an actuarial one. The Social Security system is set up such that the earlier you choose to commence your benefits, the less money you will get each month. The amounts are determined according to average life expectancy, so that the typical person who dies at the typical age will end up having received roughly the same amount of total benefits regardless of when those benefits started.
So for instance, a person might get $1,000 a month for 210 months one way, or $1,400 a month for 150 months another way, but would still end up receiving a total of $210,000 regardless.
On the other hand, if you turn out not to have average life expectancy, these numbers will not come out equal. You might have been better off starting your benefits earlier, or waiting longer to start them.
To be more specific, each year you delay starting your Social Security benefits after you turn 62 increases your monthly payment by about 8%, until age 70, at which point waiting gives you no further increase.
So if, for example, you would get $1,000 per month for the rest of your life if you started your benefits at age 62, holding off for one year and starting them at age 63 instead means you’ll receive about $1,080 per month for the rest of your life. If you can wait until age 64, you’ll get about $1,160 per month, etc.
So in most cases life expectancy is the most important single factor in determining when it would be most advantageous for you to start your Social Security benefits. If you have health issues, and your parents and grandparents all died in their early 70s or before, then you would likely receive more total benefits by starting them as soon as you’re allowed. On the other hand, if all the evidence indicates you stand a good chance to live into your 90s or even break 100, then you’ll likely end up receiving more money if you wait till you’re in your late 60s or 70 and get that bigger monthly benefit amount.
That’s a big factor, but not the only factor to look at.
Another consideration that comes into play is whether you expect to work and receive substantial income. From age 62 until what is called “full retirement age” (which is gradually being raised from 65 to 67), if you work and make over a certain threshold amount (currently $14,160), then if you’re receiving Social Security benefits, these benefits will be reduced by 50% of the amount by which you surpass that threshold.
Let’s illustrate this with an example to make it clearer. Assume you are 63 years old, you have commenced your Social Security benefits, and your unadjusted benefit amount is $900 per month, or $10,800 per year.
* If you don’t receive any income from work, your benefits would be the full $10,800.
* If your income from work is $10,000, your benefits would still be the full $10,800 (because you made less than the $14,160 threshold).
* If your income from work is $20,000, your benefits would be $7,880 (because you exceeded the threshold by $5,840, and thus had $2,920 deducted from your benefits).
* If your income from work is $30,000, your benefits would be $2,880 (because you exceeded the threshold by $15,840, and thus had $7,920 deducted from your benefits).
* If your income from work is $40,000, your benefits would be zero (because you exceeded the threshold be $25,840, and half of that is more than the $10,800 you would normally have received in benefits).
So if you’re going to exceed the threshold in earnings any year prior to full retirement age, especially if you’re going to surpass it by much, it’s almost always better to wait to start your Social Security benefits.
Another factor to consider is other retirement accounts, assets, or sources of income you might have. If you don’t draw Social Security benefits, you’ll still have to get money from somewhere. Let’s say your assets are making you 10% a year in interest. If you use $10,800 of your assets this year instead of drawing out $10,800 in Social Security benefits, you have used up not just $10,800 but also the money you’d make in interest moving forward if you still had that $10,800 amongst your assets.
So, yes, your Social Security benefits increase if you wait. But normally so does the value of your other assets. In order to know which it’s better to use, you have to compare the two. For many people, this is an important factor in making it wise for them to start their Social Security benefits early, so that they can hold on to their other moneymaking assets longer.
As you’re thinking this through, you may also want to take into account such factors as how much you’ll need or really be able to enjoy spending money at different ages, the anticipated inflation rate, tax implications of different options, and so on.
The best decision of when to start Social Security benefits will differ from person to person because their circumstances differ.
Thomas M. Dalton, “Retirement at 62: Is Receiving Social Security Early Worth It?” The CPA Journal.
Eva Rosenberg, “Taking Social Security Early Can Be Expensive.” Wall Street Journal.
Jeanne Sahadi, “A Retirement Mistake Boomers Should Avoid.” CNN Money.
“How Work Affects Your Benefits.” Social Security Online.
“Retirement Benefits by Year of Birth.” Social Security Online.
“When to Start Receiving Benefits.” Social Security Online.