Oppenheim Bernhard—Getty Images
By Philip Moeller
October 21, 2014

Q: I am 60 and planning on withdrawing Social Security when 62. Due to a medical condition, I am not making $16.00 an hour anymore but only making $9.00. Do you know how income level is calculated on early retirement? Thank you.

A. Social Security retirement benefits normally may be taken as early as age 62, but your income will be substantially higher if you can afford to wait. If you are entitled to, say, a $1,500 monthly benefit at age 66, you might get only $1,125 if you began benefits at age 62. Defer claiming until age 70, when benefits reach their maximum levels, and you might receive $1,980 a month.

Still, most older Americans are like you—they can’t afford to wait. Some 43% of women and 38% of men claimed benefits in 2012 at the age of 62, according to a Social Security report. Another 49% of women and 53% of men took benefits between ages 63 and 66. Just 3% of women and 4% of men took benefits at ages 67 and later, when payouts are highest.

Why are people taking Social Security early? The report didn’t ask people why they claimed benefits. But academic research suggests that the reasons are pretty much what you might expect—retirees need the money, and they also worry about leaving benefits on the table if they defer them. There is also strong evidence that most Americans are not fully aware of the advantage of delaying benefits. A study last June sponsored by Nationwide found that 40% of early claimants later regretted their decisions.

So before you quit working, it’s important to understand Social Security’s benefits formula. To calculate your payout, Social Security counts up to 35 of your highest earning years. It only includes what are called covered wages—salaries in jobs subject to Social Security payroll taxes. Generally, you must have covered earnings in at least 40 calendar quarters at any time during your working life to qualify for retirement benefits.

The agency adjusts each year of your covered earnings to reflect subsequent wage inflation. Without that adjustment, workers who earned most of their pay earlier in their careers would be shortchanged compared with those who earned more later, when wage inflation has caused salary levels to rise.

Once the agency adjusts all of your earnings, it adds up your 35 highest-paid years, then uses the monthly average of these earnings (after indexing for inflation) to determine your benefits. If you don’t have 35 years of covered earnings, Social Security will use a “zero” for any missing year, and this will drag down your benefits. On the flip side, if you keep working after you claim, the agency will automatically increase your benefits if you earn an annual salary high enough to qualify as one of your top 35 years.

The figures below show how Social Security calculated average retirement benefits as of the end of 2012 for four categories of worker pay: minimum wage, 75% of the average wage, average wage, and 150% of the average wage. (The agency pulls average wages each year from W-2 tax forms and uses this information in the indexing process that helps determine benefits.)

  • Worker at minimum wage: The monthly benefit at 62 is $686 and, at age 66 is $915.50. The maximum monthly family benefits based on this worker’s earnings record (including spousal and other auxiliary benefits) is $1,396.50.
  • Worker at 75% of average wage: The monthly benefit at 62 is $975 and, at age 66 is $1,300.40. The maximum monthly family benefits based on this worker’s earnings record (including spousal and other auxiliary benefits) is $2,381.20.
  • Worker at average wage: The monthly benefit at 62 is $1,187 and, at age 66 is $1,583.20. The maximum monthly family benefits based on this worker’s earnings record (including spousal and other auxiliary benefits) is $2,927.40.
  • Worker at 150% of average wage: The monthly benefit at 62 is $1,535 and, at age 66 is $2,047. The maximum monthly family benefits based on this worker’s earnings record (including spousal and other auxiliary benefits) is $3.582.80.

In short, claiming at age 62 means you’ll receive lower benefits compared with waiting till full retirement age. But given a lifetime earnings history and Social Security’s wage indexing, receiving a lower wage for your last few working years will not make a big difference to your retirement income.

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. His book, “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security,” will be published early next year by Simon & Schuster. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

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