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Don't Make These 4 Social Security Mistakes

You pay into Social Security during your working years -- and not a small amount -- so that it's there for you in the future. It therefore makes sense to approach Social Security strategically so that you end up with the maximum amount in benefits you're entitled to. With that in mind, here are four Social Security mistakes to avoid.

1. Not knowing your full retirement age

Your Social Security benefits are based on how much you earned during your career, but that number is by no means set in stone. If you wait until your full retirement age (FRA) to file for benefits, you'll get to collect your base benefit amount in full, but if you file sooner or later than FRA, your benefit amount will go up or down.

IMAGE SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES.

Your full retirement age is based on your year of birth, as follows:

Year of Birth

Full Retirement Age

1943-1954

66

1955

66 and 2 months

1956

66 and 4 months

1957

66 and 6 months

1958

66 and 8 months

1959

66 and 10 months

1960

67

DATA SOURCE: SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION.

Knowing your full retirement age will give you a baseline of when to file for benefits, so it pays to familiarize yourself with the above chart. Furthermore, whatever initial benefit amount you lock in from Social Security will remain in effect for life, so whether you file at FRA or another age, be sure to keep that in mind.

2. Claiming benefits too early

Many workers rush to file for Social Security at 62 because it's the earliest possible age to take benefits, but in some cases, that can end up being a very bad idea. For every year you file for benefits prior to reaching FRA, you'll lower your payments by a certain percentage. For instance, if your FRA is 66 and you claim Social Security at 62, you'll cut your benefits by 25%. If you don't reach FRA until 67 and you file at 62, you'll be looking at a 30% reduction.

If you're not counting on those benefits to pay your bills, but rather want the money early to spend on travel and the like, then by all means, claim when you please. But if you're counting on Social Security to stay afloat financially in retirement, slashing your benefits could put you at risk later on. It's estimated, for example, that more than 40% of single seniors 65 and over get at least 90% of their income from Social Security, so if you expect those benefits to cover the bulk of your living expenses, you'd better not do anything to compromise them.

3. Filing for benefits too late

While claiming Social Security early can hurt you, waiting too long can also be a bad idea. Currently, you're allowed to accrue delayed retirement credits by postponing your benefits until age 70. For every year you hold off past full retirement age, you'll get an automatic 8% boost in your payments, which means that if your FRA is 67 and you wait the maximum amount of time, you'll wind up with 24% more out of Social Security.

That said, this formula really only works in your favor if you live a long life and end up collecting benefits for a number of years -- because while you will be getting more money in each payment, you'll also end up with fewer payments.

Say your full retirement age is 67, at which point you'd be eligible for $1,600 a month in benefits. If you hang tight until age 70, you'll increase each payment to $1,984, which means you'll need to live until 82.5 just to break even. If you're fairly confident you'll live past that age, then holding off on benefits might work out in your favor. But if you have a known illness, or a family history of dying young, you could end up lowering your lifetime payout by waiting too long.

4. Using Social Security as an excuse to neglect your savings

It's estimated that more than 40% of baby boomers aged 55 to 64 have no retirement savings to show for. And that means countless soon-to-be retirees are headed for trouble, because Social Security will only get you so far in covering the bills. In fact, your monthly benefits are designed to replace only 40% of what you were earning prior to retirement, but most people need at least 80% of their former income to cover their bills once they stop working. Furthermore, almost half of senior households wind up spending more money, not less, during their first two years of retirement than they did in years prior.

Counting on Social Security in the absence of independent savings means putting yourself at risk of running out of money in the future. While your benefits can, and should, play a role in determining your retirement budget, they shouldn't be the only source of income you have access to.

Knowing how to get the most out of Social Security will make for a more comfortable and stable retirement. Avoid these mistakes, and you'll be better-positioned to avoid financial stress as a senior.

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