More Americans are following this smart Social Security strategy

Fewer workers are taking Social Security early. (Photo: Flickr/usaghumphreys)

American workers may be finally taking the hint about the best time to cash in on Social Security benefits.

In 2012, 37.2% of men and 42.4% of women took advantage of early retirement benefits at age 62, according to new data released by the Social Security Administration. That’s compared with more than half of both men (50.3%) and women (54.3%) who couldn’t wait to get their hands on their retirement benefits in 2004.

Those who waited heeded the warnings of countless financial experts who advise retirees to delay their benefits for as long as possible. The earliest beneficiaries can start collecting Social Security is 62. The later workers start collecting benefits, the higher their monthly income will be (the average monthly benefit in 2014 for a 62-year-old who began working at age 22 is $1,992 vs. $3,425 for a 70-year-old).

But as positive as this new data may be, it still paints a grim picture of our reliance on Social Security as a source of income in retirement. Only 5.2% of men and 11.4% of women managed to wait until age 66 (considered “full retirement age” for workers who turned 65 after 2008) to start taking their benefits in 2012.

Even fewer managed to hold out until age 70 — just 1.2% of men and 2% of women, rates that have barely budged since the Social Security Administration began keeping tabs in 1940. It's too bad, because the advantages of delaying are hard to debate: after full retirement age, Social Security benefits earn 8% in guaranteed interest for each additional year you hold off on claiming them up to age 70.

Experts can preach as much as they like about delaying retirement and stretching Social Security benefits, but the reality is that many older workers just can’t afford to stick it out.

More workers today (33%) say they expect to retire after age 65 than ever before, and another 10% say they won’t retire at all, according to a recent report by the Employee Benefit Research Institute.

But expectations don’t always jive with reality. The same report found nearly two-thirds of workers retired before they even hit age 65 (35% by age 60 and 32% by age 64).

And 22% of workers may have dreams of waiting until age 70 to retire but less than 10% actually manage it.

Most workers leave the workforce by due to circumstances beyond their control, according to EBRI.

Nearly half of retirees said they left the workforce unexpectedly, with the majority (61%) blaming health problems or a disability, while 18% said they left to care for a sick spouse. Only 26% said they retired early because they could actually afford it.

Linda Barnett, 62, was working full-time as a human resource manager at a nursing home when her husband was diagnosed with cancer last year. She tried to keep working, but as his health deteriorated, maintaining a nine-to-five schedule became impossible.

“[My husband] had to have massive surgery and he ended up being disabled and not able to go back to work,” she said. “I took family medical leave at first but then I had to retire [five months later] because of the intensive care he needed. We ended up both being out of work.”

What if you can’t afford to wait?

If you are married and can’t delay your benefits at least until after 62, experts generally advise couples to take the lower-earning spouse’s claim first.

T. Rowe Price’s Judith Warde, senior financial planner and vice president investment services, calls this the “wait and take” approach.

“The higher-earning spouse could plan to start taking Social Security benefits at age 70, while the lower-earning spouse could begin whenever he or she chooses to retire, at age 62 or older,” she says. “This means you may have to draw more from your [savings] for a short time period if retiring prior to age 70, but you can decrease those withdrawals once the higher-earning spouse's Social Security benefits begin.”

The benefit of this type of approach is that you get a steady stream of income from one spouse and you still get to maximize the benefits for the other down the road.

For singles, stretching Social Security income can be more challenging, especially if you haven’t managed to build a large enough nest egg. For those who can prove financial hardship, you may qualify for supplemental nutrition assistance programs, Medicare Savings Programs or Extra Help, a special program offered by the Social Security Administration that reduces some prescription drug costs.

Do you have a question about retirement or Social Security? We're all ears.

Read more:

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