When can I collect Social Security benefits: Calculating breakeven age

min read

Most people don’t know how long they will live. For the purposes of Social Security planning, that presents a challenge. But knowing the right timing for collecting Social Security, you could help maximize your benefits.

When can I collect Social Security?

While your monthly Social Security retirement benefit will increase with every year you wait to begin collecting between ages 62 and 70, pledging to wait until age 70 may turn out to be a poor strategy if you step in front of a bus at age 69. Conversely, you may regret beginning to collect at age 62 if you live to sample the cake at your 95th birthday party.

But should you collect Social Security before you reach retirement age?

This is where the concept of a “breakeven age” comes into play.      

What is breakeven age for collecting Social Security?

In Social Security terms, a breakeven age is the age you’ll be when the cumulative payouts for two benefit start dates equal each other.

Breakeven age can help you weigh the decision to collect Social Security now or wait to collect if you're undecided on when to begin collecting your benefits.

Theodore Sarenski, CEO and president of Blue Ocean Strategic Capital in Syracuse, New York, highlighted the need to consider longevity when deciding when to start collecting. For example, people in ill health or have a family history of shorter lifespans may wish to consider taking their benefits before their full retirement age.

“If no one in your family has ever made it to 77, maybe you don’t want to start (collecting benefits) at 66,” Sarenski says.

Example of when can you collect Social Security

If the concept of breakeven age sounds complicated, consider this example: John has decided to take his Social Security retirement benefits early at age 62. His monthly benefit is $1,500, or 75 percent of the $2,000 he would have gotten each month had he waited until his full retirement age of 66. So from the time he starts collecting until his full retirement age of 66, he’ll collect $72,000 in benefits.

Now – had John waited until full retirement age to begin collecting and started collecting that $2,000 monthly benefit then, how long would it have taken before that extra $500 per month equaled the $72,000 he collected the first four years? The answer is 144 months – or 12 years.

In other words, if John lives to exactly age 78, he’ll have effectively “broken even” on his decision to collect Social Security at 62 versus waiting until his full retirement age of 66. If he lives past age 78, he would have gotten more from waiting until full retirement age. If he dies before age 78, his decision to collect Social Security at 62 will have netted him more than he would have gotten by waiting until his full retirement age.

Doing your own math for breakeven age

The above example is simplified. The precise numbers on annual Social Security benefit increases vary according to when you were born and how long you wait to delay your benefits, and the impact of spouse’s benefits and taxes can also impact your situation drastically.

But performing a similar calculation with the exact numbers you get from Social Security – the official U.S. Social Security Administration website at SSA.gov offers some helpful tools here – may help if you feel conflicted about taking your benefits at a given age.

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Consider lifespan before collecting Social Security

While it may be a morbid task, considering the likely span of your life is an important part of this process. Mike Genovese, a certified financial planner and founding partner at Genovese, Burford & Brothers in Sacramento, California, says that an honest look at your health and family history is in order before you make the decision to begin collecting.

“If you’ve got longevity in your family and you think you can leg it out longer than the average bear, defer your benefits, especially if you are still working,” Genovese says. “You might as well let those 8 percent annual gains accrue. If you don’t believe you’re going to live that long, start taking it sooner rather than later.”

Genovese adds that he sometimes runs calculations for clients to illustrate breakeven ages that they may wish to be aware of.

“I’ve got a young guy who’s developed a spreadsheet here, so we can run those numbers based on rate of return assumptions,” Genovese says. “We also factor in income taxation of the benefits. We can say ‘80 years old is the breakeven point,’ and (our clients) can then make their decisions based on what their end game is.”

Caveats on breakeven ages, when to collect Social Security

Sarenski says that it’s worth remembering how variables like health care improvements can impact your lifespan when you think about breakeven ages.

“We talk about family history,” Sarenski says of his Social Security discussions with clients. “How long did your parents live? How long did your grandparents live? But in today’s world, some things like heart disease and other things can be controlled, so the current generation may live longer (than past generations).”

He adds that thinking strictly about the overall benefits you receive from Social Security can distract you from other important considerations, such as whether old age will allow you to fully enjoy the higher monthly payments you gain by starting your benefits later.

“When you’re between 62 and 66, you’re more likely to want to do things like travel,” Sarenski says. “So it may be more important to have that money then instead of when you’re in your rocking chair at 70. You may have beaten the system (by drawing later), but would you have had a better lifestyle (by drawing earlier).”

hotajax 11 September 2016 at 3:01 am

Question for Icarus: Are you talking about the above article for quality of life issues, or is there another article or two you are aware of?

Marie Miller 10 September 2016 at 11:27 pm

I agree with some of ICARUS' comments. And I might nobody controls when they leave this world; just because your parents and grands lived to be 100 has no indication of your life span. Everybody's time clock is set by a power greater than us. Tomorrow never was, and never will be promised to ANYBODY!! Starting your social security benefits earlier while you can enjoy the extra is something to consider but please also consider that if you are still working and start SSI benefits before full retirement age, your benefits will be reduced.

Icarus 13 August 2016 at 12:15 pm

YES! Finally there is an article that addresses the quality of lifestyle. Spending your social security money from 62-66 will give you much more enjoyment than getting more money at 82 when you can't enjoy it because you have slowed WAY DOWN. Including medical expenses, after age 70 your expenses decline by 7% a year, not to mention that social security is being cut 4 to 6 % a year due to understating inflation. That means it's cut in half every 15 years. Why wait to get money 15 years from now when it's only worth half of what it is today! And it may not be here 20 years from now. TAKE IT AS SOON AS YOU CAN!