Every year, countless Americans voluntarily shrink their own retirement funds by claiming Social Security benefits too early.
And at a time when your dollar doesn’t have the same spending power and health care costs are creeping up, it’s leaving retirees at risk.
Now, a bipartisan group of politicians is looking to “improve retirement security” for Americans with legislation aimed at helping them better plan for retirement.
“We can make it easier for countless Americans to claim Social Security at the best time and get the most out of their retirement income,” said Sen. Chris Coons, one of four senators to introduce the “commonsense bill” earlier this week.
What’s the problem with Social Security?
The earliest Amercians can start claiming Social Security is 62. But those who opt to delay receive higher monthly payments, with the maximum benefits (and available to those who claim aged 70 or older.
The problem, say U.S. Senators Bill Cassidy, Tim Kaine, Susan Collins and Coons, is that most people don’t claim benefits at an age “that would maximize their income in retirement.”
For anyone born from 1943 to 1954, full retirement benefits are payable at age 66. The full retirement age increases gradually if you were born from 1955 to 1960 until it reaches 67. If you were born in 1960 or later, full retirement benefits are payable at age 67.
That means if you reach your full retirement age of 67 this year, your maximum monthly benefit is $3,627. But if you’re still a sprightly 62 this year when you decide to claim your Social Security, the maximum monthly payment you’ll get is $2,572 — that’s 29% less.
Let’s say you were very patient and waited until 70 to start collecting benefits. In that case, you can claim a maximum monthly sum of up to $4,555 — almost $2,000 more a month than those who are claiming at 62.
The estimated average monthly Social Security retirement benefit in January was $1,827, which is far less than the maximum monthly benefits — perhaps proving the senators’ point that Americans “forgo a significant amount of retirement income.”
In fact, according to a recent study, Americans forfeit nearly $200,000 in lifetime spending by claiming their benefits too early.
Senators seek to change terminology
To help people decide when to claim their benefits, lawmakers want to change the Social Security Administration (SSA)’s terminology from “early eligibility age,” “full retirement age,” and “delayed retirement credits” to to “minimum benefit age,” “standard benefit age,” and “maximum benefit age.”
Additionally, the new legislation would require the SSA, the government arm that administers retirement benefits, to provide workers with updates on how much they’ve paid into the Social Security and Medicare programs. For those aged 25 to 54, that should be at a cadence of every five years, and that increases to every two years between 55 and 59. Once you hit 60, you’ll get an annual update.
“Americans have earned their Social Security and should have the best financial information available when they retire,” says Cassidy. “Our bill ensures Americans planning for retirement get the most out of their benefit.”
You don’t have to sit back while politicians debate Social Security policy. Here are three ways to secure your retirement finances.
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Understand when to claim
Deciding when to claim Social Security is a personal decision. There are many reasons why people claim before their full retirement age.
Some need the money for essential expenses, to pay debts, or to weather financial shocks — and we’ve certainly felt those in the past few years.
Others don’t think they’ll live long enough to make the most of the benefits they’ve earned, while some people worry that Social Security will run out of money — a concern President Biden has promised to address in his 2024 Budget.
While you may be tempted to get your payments going early, keep in mind that waiting will secure you a bigger monthly check that will help you in old age, when you may be less able to go back to work to earn some quick cash.
If you’re worried about the size of your benefits, it’s worth looking into your spouse’s benefits. You are allowed to claim 50% of your spouse’s benefits — but you should first consider how much you earn.
If 50% of your spousal income is more than 100% of your income, you might as well go ahead and just retire to live out your retirement dreams together.
Plan for unexpected healthcare expenses
While you might have a clean bill of health when you retire, remember that no one is immune to unexpected health emergencies — and they can get very expensive.
An emergency fund can help retirees weather financial storms, like extended hospital stays or illnesses where insurance or Medicare doesn’t cover the full cost.
Remember that Medicare benefits don’t kick in until you reach 65. The sign-up process for Part A (Hospital Insurance) and Part B (Medical Insurance) is completed through the SSA.
If you decide to sign up for Part B, the cost will be taken out of your monthly benefit amount, so you should plan ahead for that reduction.
The SSA encourages people to sign up promptly for Medicare to avoid gaps in coverage or late enrollment penalties. But if you’re already covered through an employer group health plan, it might make sense for you to sign up for Medicare later or delay Part B.
Bridge your benefits
One strategy that some Americans are using to delay claiming retirement benefits so they get the maximum payout is the so-called “Social Security bridge”.
This is a phased approach to retirement income where people are tapping into their 401(k) or other assets as soon as they can without triggering penalties — instead of claiming Social Security benefits before their full retirement age.
Typically, people who use this strategy only withdraw an amount equal to what they would pull from Social Security at age 62.
But remember that bridging isn’t risk free. There are tax considerations and other consequences to dipping into your 401(k) assets early.
If you’re considering this option, or are unsure about how to maximize your retirement benefits, it might be worth seeking guidance from a financial adviser or planner who can help you to safeguard your retirement nest egg and come up with the best plan for your specific situation.
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This article provides information only and should not be construed as advice. It is provided without warranty of any kind.