For many of us, Social Security will provide much, if not most, of our retirement income. It's rather critical to understand how it works, then, so that you can make smart decisions about it.
For starters, know that most people can start collecting benefits as early as age 62 and as late as age 70, though we each have a "full retirement age" somewhere in between. Your checks will be smaller if you start collecting before your full retirement age, and they'll be bigger if you delay.
Here are three reasons to consider collecting your benefits early, at age 62 or close to it.
Reason No. 1: Your life may be shorter than average
It can seem like delaying until age 70 is the best bet, as you'll maximize your checks. Remember, though, that while the checks will be bigger, you'll be receiving far fewer of them than if you'd started collecting early. In fact, the system is designed so that those who live average-length lives will collect roughly the same total benefits, no matter when they start collecting.
Few of us know how long we'll live, though. If your family is chock-full of people who have lived into their 90s, and you're in the pink of health yourself, you stand a good chance of living a long life, and it can make particular sense for you to delay collecting, if possible.
But if not, starting to collect early means you'll be getting some income from Social Security sooner, and that can help you retire early, or just enjoy life more, with less financial stress.
Reason No. 2: You need the money
Speaking of financial stress, there's a good chance you'll simply need your Social Security income earlier than expected. It's smart to have a retirement plan, knowing how much you'll save and accumulate and when you'll retire, but life doesn't always go according to plan. It's not uncommon to lose a job earlier than anticipated, be confronted by a costly health issue, or have to care for a loved one instead of working. If, once you turn 62, you find that you're having trouble getting by, consider starting to collect your Social Security benefits.
Don't do so without considering all other options, though, and perhaps consult a financial advisor as well. For example, if you're married, you should coordinate a plan with your spouse. If you've been earning much more than your partner for a long time, you might want them to start collecting benefits early, while you delay your checks in order to maximize them. That can be a good strategic move because when one of you passes away, the survivor will get to collect one set of benefits, whichever spouse's are bigger.
It's best to avoid being financially pinched later in life, so aim to save aggressively and invest effectively starting now, no matter how far from retirement you are. The table below shows how much you might amass if you're determined and diligent:
Growing at 8% for:
Investing $1,000 per month or $12,000 per year
Investing $1,200 per month or $14,400 per year
Investing $1,500 per month or $18,000 per year
Reason No. 3: You don't need the money
If you're financially independent or have accumulated enough money for a comfortable retirement, it might not matter too much just when you start collecting benefits. You could start early to collect more in the event your life ends up being shorter than average. Or you could start early to have extra money in the early years of your retirement, which could allow those years to be extra nice, perhaps with extensive -- and expensive -- travel.
Collecting early can also be part of a greater strategy. If, for example, you have annuity or pension income that will start at age 65, receiving Social Security income starting at age 62 can help you get by until the annuity income starts, perhaps helping you retire earlier.
The more you know about Social Security, the better decisions you can make regarding it, and the more money you may be able to collect from the program.
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