Navigating Social Security can be cumbersome, to say the least. Even basic questions such as when you should retire can come to take on an immense and sometimes desperate tone.
Bankrate spoke with some experts to get their take on what some of the biggest mistakes are that you can make with Social Security. Here’s what you should try to avoid doing as you navigate Social Security’s labyrinth.
Sticking to a one-size-fits-all strategy. The biggest mistake people make is “they do a quick Google search and take information that is meant to be very much at the macro level, and thus not individualized,” said Daniel Milan, managing partner of Cornerstone Financial Services. Often they “fail to take into account their own household budget, financial needs and outside investment income.”
Social Security is complex. Many retirees need and can receive specialized aid from the program.
“Creating a financial plan and understanding the inner workings of it should be a prerequisite before making the decision to file to collect benefits,” said Cory Bittner, co-founder and COO of Falcon Wealth Advisors. He suggested that people look for a financial adviser who is a fiduciary and is experienced at planning for retirement.
Misunderstanding how much money you will receive. If you have been contributing to the Social Security fund, then you have likely received a statement of benefits, an estimate of what you might likely receive in the future. But that figure can be misleading in several ways.“The amount reflected on the front page of a Social Security statement is typically the amount someone will receive if they wait until their full retirement age to begin collecting benefits, and it assumes they work until that age and contribute to Social Security,” Bittner said.
So if you stop working at the earliest age to collect your benefits and don’t wait, don’t expect the full amount. In addition, you will have to figure how much tax will be stripped from your monthly check before you receive it.
Assuming Social Security will fully cover your expenses. After a lifetime of working, many people assume that Social Security will meet their needs in retirement. But unless your budget is minimal, that probably won’t be the case.
“Social Security is only designed to replace about 40% of your income,” said Tony Drake, a CFP and founder of Drake & Associates. “Most people will need at least 80% of their pre-retirement income to maintain the lifestyle they want in retirement.”
And with all that free time in retirement, you may be inclined to increase your spending well beyond that 80% level, Drake suggested. Health care is another expense that may consume a much larger portion of retirees’ budgets than they initially suspect.
Not making extra preparations, as a woman. Women typically earn less than men over their working careers, and studies have shown that women have longer life spans on average, leaving many widows with substantial financial needs, for example.
“Women who work outside the home typically miss an average of 11.5 years of employment due to child care and care of elderly parents,” said Mary Ann Ferreira, a certified financial planner at Viridian Advisors. She also notes the substantial gender pay gap.
And those lower lifetime earnings add up to smaller retirement accounts and a lower Social Security payout.
She said she sees many women working longer and saving more to cope with the challenge. “Many women are considering retiring at 70 rather than the full retirement age of 66 or 67. In doing so, they may boost their Social Security benefits by as much as 24%,” she said.
In addition to spousal-support benefits that surviving spouses may receive, divorcees may also receive benefits.
“I find that women typically forget that they are eligible for divorced spousal and survivor benefits if they were married for over 10 years,” said John Foxworthy, director of financial planning at Foxworthy Wealth Advisors.
Taking Social Security at the wrong time. And the question that keeps soon-to-be retirees up at night: when should they take their benefits? That depends heavily on their situation, but one of the biggest blunders is even simpler — failing to calculate what the best option is.
“The biggest mistake that I see most regularly is when people elect their benefits without doing the math first,” Foxworthy said. “There really isn’t a ‘do-over’ when it comes to Social Security, and the vast majority of people are leaving money on the table.”
Foxworthy detailed a situation involving a married couple, both of whom turned 62 and were planning on filing for benefits immediately. “We ran an analysis and uncovered a strategy to elect benefits that will get them $221,000 more money over their lifetime,” he said. “That much money can have a significant impact on their retirement picture.”
Retirees who can go a few extra years without claiming their benefits can continue contributing to the program and increase their benefits at the same time.
James Royal writes for Bankrate.com.