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When to start Social Security retirement benefits

AgeUpMoney

If you’re eligible for Social Security retirement benefits, you have an important choice to make. Should you take the early retirement or wait as long as you can? If you’re approaching that decision, a MassMutual survey, done in collaboration with AgeFriendly.com, may give you something extra to think about.

You can start receiving reduced Social Security retirement benefits as early as 62 or hold off as late as 70 for increased monthly benefits. (There’s no extra benefit to waiting past 70.) While an early retirement certainly sounds nice, it comes with a cost. For a married couple who both live into their 90s, filing at 62 could cost upwards of $500,000 compared to waiting until 70.

According to the MassMutual survey, 30% of retirees filed at age 62 or younger, and 38% wish they’d waited until later to start taking benefits. Of those who filed early, over half did so out of financial necessity (like not saving enough), and 30% were forced to because of health issues or employment changes.

As important as Social Security retirement benefits are to millions of Americans, the monthly benefit is rarely enough to actually live on. That’s because Social Security is meant to supplement retirement savings, rather than replace your income entirely.

Because it’s meant as a savings supplement, many people reaching retirement age find they’ll need to continue working, at least part time. But is that allowed? Fortunately, the answer is yes: you can collect Social Security retirement benefits while working. But depending on how much you earn, you may not want to – at least not before full retirement age.

“Full retirement age”?

Like we said, the earliest you can begin collecting Social Security retirement benefits is age 62. If you take an early retirement, you’ll receive benefits for longer than you would otherwise, but your monthly check will be permanently reduced to make up the difference. To get your standard benefit, you’ll need to wait until “full retirement age,” which depends on the year you were born.

When Social Security was created, workers could receive their full retirement benefits at age 65. But because life expectancies have increased, the age you can begin receiving full retirement benefits has gone up to match. For anyone born in 1937 and before, you’ll still reach full retirement at age 65. If you were born in 1960 or later, you’ll be eligible to receive your full benefits at age 67. And for those born between 1938 and 1959, you’ll find your age in the chart below.

Year of birth*Full retirement age
193865 and 2 months
193965 and 4 months
194065 and 6 months
194165 and 8 months
194265 and 10 months
1943-195466
195566 and 2 months
195666 and 4 months
195766 and 6 months
195866 and 8 months
195966 and 10 months

*If you were born on January 1st of any year you should refer to the previous year. Click here for more information.

Collecting benefits before full retirement age

The choice boils down to this: get a smaller amount for a longer period of time, or a larger amount of money for a shorter period. There isn’t a right answer across the board—it all depends on your financial situation and how long you expect to live.

One thing we can say with certainty is this: if you’re still working and have a normal life expectancy, you should try to delay taking benefits until at least your full retirement age. First, you’ll increase your monthly Social Security benefit for life by waiting, which you’ll likely need more of once you’re no longer drawing a paycheck. But more importantly, if you make above a certain earnings threshold prior to full retirement age, your benefits are reduced even further.

Currently, you can earn up to $17,640 a year before your full retirement age without affecting your monthly benefit. This only includes regular income though, so pension payments, annuities, interest or investment income, or veterans benefits don’t count towards the income limit. If you earn more, your benefits might be affected, so you should check with an advisor before making any decisions. Once you reach full retirement age, there’s no limit on earnings and no penalty, so working won’t reduce your Social Security benefits.

The bottom line

If you haven’t yet reached full retirement age, you should consider avoiding early Social Security retirement benefits. Getting money earlier sounds nice, but may hurt you in the long run, especially if you still earn an income from work. But if you plan on working beyond 65 anyway, earn enough to cover expenses without Social Security, and don’t have a medical condition that could cut your life expectancy short, you might want to delay benefits all the way to age 70 to maximize your monthly benefit.

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