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The 7 Biggest Mistakes You May Be Making on Social Security

Trust but verify your earnings, plus other tips to maximize your benefits

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Paul Spella

When — and how — to take Social Security is arguably the most important financial decision people make in their lives. The lifetime benefits a 65-year-old couple with one average and one low wage earner typically receive total about $1.1 million — but depending on timing, they could be hundreds of thousands more, or less. Complicating matters are the scores of variations in how and when to claim. Do people make mistakes? You bet. But with the right information, you can avoid them. Here, with help from Social Security experts Laurence Kotlikoff, professor of economics at Boston University, and Marcia Mantell, author of Cookin’ Up Your Retirement Plan, are seven biggies. 

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1. Not understanding how benefits grow

By far the biggest mistake made is claiming too early. You can start benefits at age 62 but for every year you wait between 62 and 70, you get a bump in benefits of about 5 percent to 8 percent. That’s a guaranteed return that’s very tough to replicate any other way. Now, of course you should claim if you need the money to live on — or if you have a health reason to believe you won’t live especially long. Sometimes couples are also better off if one files while the other waits (more on that below). But in general, waiting can be very, very profitable.

2. Claiming early out of fears about the Social Security program

The latest report from the Congressional Budget Office says the Social Security trust fund will start to run short, if Congress does nothing to correct it, in 2033. But, notes Mantell, this doesn’t mean that no benefits will be paid. There are “four buckets” in the Social Security trust fund, she explains, and only one (the “reserve account”) is in danger of running dry. Should that happen, the country would still be able to pay about 80 percent of its Social Security obligations. Plus, she says, the likelihood that the government would let that happen is incredibly small. In her opinion, the matter hasn’t reached urgency yet. “In 1982, the reserve account went dry and only [then] did Congress bother to do anything,” says Mantell. “That’s the nature of the political machine.” 

3. Not coordinating with your spouse

Being married makes claiming Social Security more complicated. Although in a single-income family, it’s very likely more profitable for the earner to delay claiming benefits, when there are two earners it might be better for one (typically the higher earner) to delay while the lower earner claims early. That way you are bringing in some Social Security income if you need it, while the higher-earning spouse waits until age 70 to get the biggest possible benefit. And if the gap between your lifetime income and your spouse’s is significant, you might be eligible for a spousal benefit that’s higher than your retirement benefit would be. Figuring out the precise claiming strategy for couples is complicated. A financial adviser might have software to pinpoint the best date for you — or you can pay to run a calculator like the one Kotlikoff developed at It’s $39.


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4. Trusting (without verifying)

If you haven’t gone to and created a My Social Security account, it’s time. That’s where you’ll be able to see your earnings record and get an estimate of your benefits. Give that earnings statement a good look once a year, experts say. If it doesn’t match what you believe you’ve earned, fill out  this form  to request a correction. Finally, once your benefits start rolling in, make sure that they, too, pass the sanity test. Currently, the Social Security Administration is in the process of trying to “claw back” $8.6 billion in benefits it paid but thinks it didn’t really owe — sometimes to individuals who had pensions that disqualified them from benefits, or to those who didn’t pass the earnings test. (More on that below.) Having to repay money already spent is worse than not getting it in the first place. 

5. Being unaware of valuable benefits

First, if you are divorced, but were married for 10 years or more, you’re eligible to claim spousal benefits on your ex’s record. That can be a boon, particularly for stay-at-home spouses. You can’t be remarried, but it doesn’t matter if your ex is — both a current and a former spouse can draw on the same person’s record. Next, if you’re a widow/widower or a divorced widow/widower who remarries after 60, you can collect a survivor benefit. You can start these benefits as early as age 60 (or 50, if you’re disabled). As a widow(er), you can receive either your own retirement benefit or up to 100 percent of your deceased spouse’s benefit amount — whichever is larger. Young or disabled children can also collect survivor benefits. So can financially dependent parents. But the total benefits payable on a single deceased person’s record are subject to a family benefit maximum. Family benefit maximums also apply to living workers with respect to spousal, young and disabled child benefits. One good thing, though: What a current spouse receives doesn’t depend on what an ex-spouse receives and vice versa. 

6. Worrying about earning too much

Anyone who takes Social Security in advance of full retirement age but continues to work is subject to what’s called the “earnings test.” (Full retirement age is between 66 and 67, depending on your year of birth; under current law it will settle at 67 for people born in 1960 and after.) For 2023, for every dollar you earn over $21,240 while you’re receiving benefits, Social Security will penalize you by 50 cents. (You often hear this talked about as losing $1 on every $2 of income.) In practice, it’s often viewed as an incentive to not work. But Kotlikoff says it shouldn’t be. Why? Because all of those unreceived benefits are actually added on top of your benefits once you hit full retirement age — boosting your take for the rest of your lifetime payout. Importantly, it’s on you to let Social Security know that things have changed. And, if your return to work happens in the first year of receiving benefits, you may want to consider a do-over, which brings me to …

7. Not stopping the clock

There are two ways to get a do-over with Social Security if you start your benefits then decide you wish you hadn’t. The first is an opportunity you have to take before you receive your 12th payment in the first year. You can call Social Security and ask for a do-over. You’ll have to pay back all of the benefits you’ve received (including spousal benefits), but then Social Security will treat you as if you never started in the first place and your benefits will continue to grow. The second is an opportunity to suspend benefits. It hits at full retirement age: At that point, you don’t pay anything back, but your benefit amount will be larger when you start the clock again because it will have been supplemented with what Social Security calls “delayed retirement credits.” These credits will provide you with a higher monthly payment for the rest of your life. If you’ve gone back to work and don’t really need Social Security in the interim, this can be a good way to go. 

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