When it comes to maximizing your Social Security benefits, there are a lot of elements to take into consideration. One factor that can be especially enlightening is your Social Security break-even age. Here’s how to calculate it, and how it could help you time when you take your Social Security benefits.
by: Ken Moraif, CFP® CEO and senior adviser at Retirement Planners of America
August 16, 2021
“When should I take Social Security?”
I may hear that question more than any other. It’s often followed by a related question: “If I start taking Social Security at 62, I’ll collect earlier but I’ll receive a smaller amount. If I wait, I’ll collect more but for fewer years. What is my break-even age?”
Social Security is an important part of any retiree’s income plan, so it makes perfect sense to do everything you can to maximize your benefit. For some folks, taking it early at 62 makes sense, but for many others, putting it off until full retirement age — or beyond, until age 70 — could be their best bet. Your Social Security break-even age is one tool to help you make your decision.
Calculating Your Social Security Break-Even Age
The timing of your Social Security benefits is important — it could make a difference of tens of thousands of dollars in your retirement income over your lifetime. And though there are many factors to consider when making a decision about Social Security (more about that later), it’s fairly simple to calculate your Social Security break-even age. Let’s use an example to illustrate the calculation:
Jeff has reached full retirement age and is deciding whether to begin collecting benefits now or to delay for one year. If he collects now, he’ll receive $1,000 per month. But like everyone else, if he waits to take his benefit, it will increase by 8% each year after his full retirement age (until he reaches age 70, when his benefit reaches its maximum possible). In other words, if Jeff waits a year to apply for benefits, he’ll get $80 more, for a total of $1,080 per month. If Jeff decided to wait that year, how long would it take him to break even?
Essentially, Jeff forfeited $12,000 ($1,000 times 12), but gained $80 a month. (For purposes of this illustration we’re ignoring the “time value” of money.) To find out his break-even age, Jeff would divide $12,000 by $80 a month, which comes out to 150 months, or 12½ years. So, if Jeff waits for one year to start taking his Social Security benefit, it will take him 12½ years to get back to even.
Therefore, if Jeff thinks he’ll live more than 12½ years, it could make sense to delay taking Social Security, because he would eventually come out ahead. If not, he may want to take his benefits now.
If you’d like to perform this calculation for yourself, first determine what an 8% increase would add to your monthly benefit. Then determine how much money in benefits you’d give up by waiting, and divide that sum by the first one. You’ll get the amount of time (in months) it will take you to break even.
Beyond the Social Security Break-Even Math: Other Factors That Matter
As I mentioned before, calculating your Social Security break-even age can help you decide when to take your benefit, but I strongly suggest you take other factors into consideration as well, including:
- Your health status. Make sure to consider the cost to your heath as well as your checkbook. You may want to retire early due to health concerns, or you may need to continue to be employed in order to keep your health insurance.
- Your life expectancy. There are several online tools that can help you estimate your life expectancy, including the one at Livingto100.com and Northwestern Mutual’s calculator.
- Your income needs. Do you still have a mortgage? Dependents? A business loan? Add up your expenses (don’t forget taxes) and be pragmatic about how much you’ll actually need.
- Any plans for part-time or full-time work. Working after retirement can bring in extra cash and keep you involved in your community. But if you work after retiring early, be aware that Social Security has caps on the amount you can earn without having your benefits reduced.
- Your other retirement resources. If you have a portfolio of investments, a pension, a 401(k) or other resources to rely on in retirement, that could change the equation for you. If you’re set up well financially, congratulations! You may be able to retire early. If you haven’t been so lucky, consider waiting so you can grow your Social Security benefits, and feel more comfortable about when you do retire.
If you are married, you should consider the same factors for your spouse, in addition to thinking about survivor needs. Remember, when one member of a couple passes away, the other will only receive the larger of the two people’s benefits. The smaller of their two Social Security benefits just disappears at that point. So, the higher-earning member of the couple may want to delay claiming as long as possible to grow their bigger benefit to its maximum for their spouse to live on.
And one more consideration about when to claim your Social Security benefit, in my opinion, is this: If you need the money now, by all means, take it.
Finally, How Does the Stock Market Figure into the Equation?
Generally speaking, the U.S. stock market has been on a record-setting run, but that is never a sure thing. What goes up can go down eventually, and a declining portfolio could have an impact on a retiree’s cash flow needs. If a retiree gets to a point where the declining value of their portfolio cannot sustain their cash flow requirements, then it would be an appropriate time to consider taking Social Security benefits earlier than previously planned.
Yes, deciding when to take Social Security is complicated, but it’s a decision that should be integral to your retirement planning. It’s also a decision that many retirees seem to disregard. According to Employee Benefit Research Institute’s 2018 Retirement Confidence Survey, only 23% of workers try to maximize their benefits by planning when to claim Social Security.
So, once you’ve determined your break-even age, I encourage you to take the next steps: Consider your individual circumstances, get some guidance, and make a plan. It could make a difference of tens of thousands for you over the years.