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3 Reasons to File for Social Security on Time

Kailey Fralick, The Motley Fool

You don't get a say in how much you pay into Social Security during your working years, but you do have some say in how much you get out of it. The age you begin taking Social Security affects how much you'll receive per month, so you have to give some thought to when to start claiming benefits.

You become eligible for benefits at 62, but you can delay retirement benefits up to 70 in order to get larger checks. There are no right or wrong answers, but if you aren't sure what to choose, filing at your full retirement age is a safe bet.

Social Security card with statement and calculator

Image source: Getty Images.

What does it mean to file for Social Security "on time"?

Before we get into the benefits of filing at your full retirement age (FRA), it's helpful to discuss what that actually means. The Social Security Administration assigns everyone a FRA based on the year you're born. Here's where things currently stand:

Birth Year

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 and later

67

Source: Social Security Administration.

If you want the full benefit you're entitled to based on your work record, you must wait until your FRA to begin claiming. You can start as early as 62, but the Social Security Administration will reduce your checks to account for the extra months you're receiving benefits. Claiming benefits at 62 will get you 70% of your scheduled benefit per check if your FRA is 67, or 75% if your FRA is 66.

You can also delay retirement benefits past your FRA and your checks will increase until you hit the maximum benefit at 70. This is 124% of your scheduled benefit per check for an FRA of 67, or 132% for an FRA of 66. 

There are pros and cons to starting benefits at any age, but here are a few reasons you should consider choosing the middle ground and filing at your FRA.

1. You're unsure how long you're going to live.

If you don't anticipate living long, it makes sense to start benefits at 62 and claim them while you can. But if you expect to live into your 90s or beyond, delaying benefits until 70 makes the most sense if you can afford to do so because you'll get more money overall. But people can't be sure how long they'll live, and many don't want to take the gamble of delaying benefits and shortchanging themselves.

Starting benefits at your FRA is a nice middle ground. You'll have to cover your living expenses on your own for a few more years, but then you'll get larger checks each month when you do start claiming benefits. The larger checks will also bring larger cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) that help Social Security keep pace with inflation, so your checks will grow more than they would have if you'd began Social Security at 62.

2. You expect a long life but can't afford to wait to start benefits at 70.

Sometimes delaying benefits isn't financially feasible. While the larger checks could help cover more of your expenses later in retirement, you'll carry a greater financial burden in the early years when you have to pay for everything on your own. If your retirement savings don't allow for that, try to at least wait to claim benefits until your FRA. This will help you avoid the big hit your Social Security checks will take if you begin at 62 while still shortening the amount of time you have to cover all your living expenses independently. 

But no matter when you begin Social Security, it's probably not going to cover all of your expenses. Social Security was only ever designed to replace about 40% of pre-retirement income for average earners, though the Social Security Administration gives no definition of what this means. Higher-income seniors may find it covers less than that, while low-income seniors might find it covers more. Regardless, you need to prioritize retirement savings on your own while you're young to ensure you have enough money to get you through your retirement comfortably.

3. You're still working.

Those who plan to continue working in their early to mid-60s or beyond should consider delaying Social Security benefits at least until their FRA. There's no rule saying you can't claim Social Security while working, but if you do and you're under your FRA, the government can dock your benefit checks if you make over a certain amount. 

If you'll be under your FRA for all of 2019, you'll lose $1 for every $2 you make over $17,640. If you'll reach your FRA in 2019, you'll lose $1 for every $3 you make over $46,920 if you hit this amount before your birthday. Once you reach your FRA, these restrictions go away, though you could still owe taxes on your Social Security benefits if you earn too much. 

The money the Social Security Administration takes out of your benefit checks while working and claiming under FRA isn't lost forever. Once you hit your FRA, it recalculates your benefits to account for what it took out, and you may see a slight bump in your checks. But if your job provides enough income to live on, you're better off just delaying Social Security until you're ready to retire.

You'll never be sure if you're picking the best age to begin Social Security benefits, but waiting until your FRA is a smart choice if you want to hedge your bets. Revisit this decision as you near retirement. Your circumstances may change, and this could cause you to start benefits earlier or later than you anticipated.

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