Deciding when you should begin collecting your monthly Social Security checks can be a daunting decision because of the math, the numerous variables and the long-term consequences.
In the last year, John Kimble has pondered early retirement so that he could spend more time with his wife on Vashon Island and end a punishing commute to downtown Seattle. The couple soon learned the answer is not so simple.
They struggled to make sense of the financial implications of the 61-year-old Kimble’s options, including whether he could get affordable health-care insurance until he qualifies for Medicare at 65.
“It just seemed like a total tangle, and you couldn’t figure out how to make sense of it,” said Valerie Willson, sitting with her husband on the deck of their island home.
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Then a volunteer financial planner examined the couple’s finances and explained Kimble’s retirement choices. Because of that advice, Kimble decided to work until he turns 65 in spring 2019.
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“The longer I can hold off taking Social Security,” he said, “the better off we’re going to be.”
Every year, millions of older Americans agonize over when they should begin collecting their monthly Social Security checks. It can be a daunting decision because of the math, the numerous variables and the long-term consequences. The unpredictability of the future doesn’t help.
Americans can sign up for Social Security benefits beginning at age 62, but the monthly payments are reduced for those who do so before their full retirement age. For those born between 1943 and 1954, for example, the full retirement age is 66.
The difference in benefits between early retirement and full retirement is significant. The average monthly Social Security check for those who opted for early retirement in 2013 was $1,168, or $444 less than the average monthly check for those who waited until full retirement age, according to the Social Security Administration. That’s a difference of $5,328 a year.
Nonetheless, 62 percent of the workers who signed up for Social Security in 2013 retired early and accepted the reduced benefit, federal data show.
Willson and Kimble are all too familiar with how difficult the decision can be.
Willson, 66, is an artist who has exhibited, published and sold her work for decades. But Willson’s sales took a hit during the Great Recession, and she began collecting Social Security at age 62 to help with the household finances.
She currently earns about $12,000 a year from art sales and collects about $7,000 a year in Social Security benefits. She is covered under her husband’s health insurance.
The big question
Ask financial planner Robin Tan how often clients seek his advice for when to begin collecting Social Security and he replies: “All the time.”
“Anyone who is turning 62, we always talk about it,” said Tan, a planner with KMS Financial Services in Kirkland.
The conversations can be complicated.
Americans can start collecting Social Security at age 62, but the benefits are reduced for those who sign up before full retirement age. For many of today’s older workers, that’s age 66.
As a result, workers who turn 62 must decide whether to take a lesser benefit now, or wait and take a larger benefit later.
Near retirees who expect to live well into their 70s and beyond are much better off if they wait, Tan said. That locks them into larger monthly Social Security checks for the rest of their lives.
Waiting is also a good strategy for older workers who have accumulated enough wealth to support themselves with savings, Tan said.
But some people can’t afford to wait; they need Social Security income the minute they turn 62. Early Social Security benefits may also make sense for people who do not expect to live into deep old age.
Others may opt to begin Social Security at age 62 so that they can afford to do enjoyable things, such as traveling or eating out.
In general, though, Tan advises his clients to wait. “If you live a long time,” he said, “you’ll be a lot better off.”
Kimble works full time as a receptionist for the Seattle Parks and Recreation department, taking home about $33,600 a year. Their combined take-home household income is about $52,600.
Despite Kimble’s modest salary, his job comes with an enormous retirement benefit: a pension plan. When Kimble retires, the plan would pay him between $1,995 and $2,226 a month, depending on which option he picks. The couple also have about $84,700 in retirement accounts.
They still owe $167,000 on their home mortgage, but the market value of the property is about $350,000, Zillow estimates. The couple’s remaining obligations consist of a car loan and about $1,200 in credit-card debt.
Robin Tan, a financial planner with KMS Financial Services in Kirkland, volunteered to help Kimble and Willson. The couple are essentially living paycheck to paycheck, Tan learned, although their home equity and Kimble’s pension are big strikes in their favor.
By working with Tan, the couple discovered that their combined monthly income could increase 8 percent to $4,747 if Kimble retired at 62 and began collecting his pension and reduced Social Security benefits. That’s an additional $362 a month.
But there was a hitch. Kimble would lose his employer’s health-care benefit at retirement, and he would have to wait three years before he could enroll in Medicare at age 65.
In that light, the extra $362 a month seemed woefully inadequate. Kimble could keep his employer’s health-care insurance for a limited time, but it would cost him about $1,300 a month. Buying a comparable plan from a private insurer could cost between $500 and $800 a month, or more, with higher deductibles.
It was a sobering moment not unique to Kimble. The challenge of paying for health care between early retirement and age 65, when Americans can enroll in Medicare, bedevils many older workers.
“A lot of people are in this situation,” Tan said.
Because of Tan’s analysis, Kimble decided to keep working. Then he can get health-care coverage through Medicare and collect a larger Social Security check.
By retiring at age 65 instead of 62, Kimble can increase his annual Social Security income by $4,272.
In a happy coincidence, the couple also expect to pay off their car loan in 2019, eliminating the monthly payment of $325.
“At 65,” Kimble said, “all of the pieces fell into place.”
Information in this article, originally published Aug. 22, 2015, was corrected Aug. 24, 2015. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated John Kimble’s salary and household take-home pay.