No Advantage Taking Social Security Early

Dear Dr. Don,

With all the talk of "means testing" Social Security, doesn't it make sense to retire early and stop saving?

-- Steve Stoppage

Dear Steve,

A means test for Social Security retirement benefits would reduce benefits for individuals with incomes above certain levels. Denying rich people Social Security because they're rich doesn't do much for Social Security's funding issues.

A recent paper on the potential savings to Social Security from means testing by Dean Baker and Hye Jin Rho for the Center for Economic Policy and Research suggests that the benefit from means testing is likely to be very limited, unless the means test is applied to individuals who are very much middle class by any reasonable definition. They hold that the percentage of benefits that go to affluent seniors is too small to make very much difference to the program's finances.

In an ideal world, Social Security is just one component of your retirement income. The others could include distributions from your retirement savings and a pension. Trying to maximize Social Security payments by minimizing your income isn't much of a retirement strategy.

I understand the perspective people have about wanting to maximize what they collect in Social Security retirement and survivor benefits. You just don't want this to be the tail wagging the dog when it comes to providing a comfortable retirement for you and a spouse.

A comment in a Social Security Administration fact sheet made it clearer for me that claiming retirement benefits early to maximize your Social Security retirement benefits isn't a better strategy than waiting to collect. A government publication on when to start receiving retirement benefits states, "If you live to the average life expectancy for someone your age, you will receive about the same amount in lifetime benefits, no matter whether you choose to start receiving benefits at age 62, full retirement age, age 70 or any age in between."

To me, it reinforces the idea that the worker should look at his or her overall retirement-income projections and not just what he or she can get from Social Security.