Financial milestones come with growing older. Turning 59½ means penalty-free withdrawals can be taken from 401(k) accounts. Reaching 65 marks the arrival of Medicare eligibility. As of Feb. 1, I reached another: full retirement age—66 and 2 months, in my case—for Social Security.
I’ve held off claiming Social Security with some reservations, but it remains a lively topic of conversation with friends who were former co-workers. After all, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, about 50% of people take Social Security before full retirement age and less than 10% wait until 70 when benefits reach their maximum.
“Get the money now. You’ll never make up the difference if you wait until you’re 70,” advised a friend, who turned 70 in September and began taking it at 66.
A friend from upstate New York, who turned 66 in November, expressed similar sentiments. “I am about to apply for SS benefits since I’m of full retirement age. Decided not to wait until I’m 70 as the break-even point would not come until I am 82,” she wrote in an email. “Hardly seems like the biggest benefit is worth waiting for.”
A third friend, who came through a battle with cancer and the removal of 25% of his stomach last summer, chose to begin receiving his benefits in February, three months before his 64th birthday. While the cancer wasn’t the primary reason for taking Social Security, he admitted “it’s in the back of your mind.”
It’s evident that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all strategy for taking Social Security. Financially, I can afford to wait as my wife, Elizabeth, and I are in good shape. Another factor to consider is delaying Social Security will allow Elizabeth’s survivor benefit to grow. It’s a strategy our financial advisor has recommended.
For me, the decision on when to claim Social Security comes down to three areas that all start with the letter H.
Except for Crohn’s disease, an ailment of the digestive tract that led to the loss of 45 pounds over 11 months as a teenager in my junior and senior year of high school, I have been in good health. Bouts with Crohn’s have led to three hospitalizations, including one where I had an intestinal bypass, between 1973 and 1980. Since then, I’ve managed to stay healthy, but that could change in an instant after a visit to a doctor.
My parents were a study in contrasts in terms of longevity. My dad died of a suspected heart attack at 41, two weeks before his 42nd birthday, in May 1965. (My mom opted not to have an autopsy done.) She went on to outlive him by just over half a century, dying in October 2015, five months after her 90th birthday.
They lived a combined 132 years, which averages out to 66, my current age. That has gotten me to consider taking Social Security.
Waiting to take Social Security is an exercise in delayed gratification. Can you put taking X amount of dollars a month now for the opportunity to receive a higher monthly amount down the road? It’s the adult version of the marshmallow experiment in which children are asked to delay eating a treat now for the chance to consume two later on. I’ve been willing to wait but also am keeping my options open.
After seeing an obituary for a 65-year-old high school classmate in mid-February, I realized all my planning could be for naught. He was at least the 15th person in my class of 130 to have died.
In the end, the future is unwritten and I’m left feeling like a character in a Shakespearean play. To file or not to file early for Social Security? That is the question. The answer is to be determined.
Tom Wilk, a retired newspaper reporter and copy editor, is a freelance writer in Pitman, N.J.
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