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Should You Claim Social Security as Soon as You Can?

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It almost doesn't seem fair for me to provide an answer to this question. I'm 35 years old, decades away from even having to consider this question. But I've been researching retirement, Social Security, and contentment for a long time, and all of the research points in one key direction: Yes, you should claim Social Security -- or, essentially, retire -- as soon as you can.

The devil, however, is in the details. These are the two biggest caveats to my sweeping assertions.

If you want to "buy" a life insurance policy for your spouse, wait to claim Social Security benefits

To explain how this works, I'll be referring to the husband as the higher earner, even though that's clearly not always the case.

When it comes to claiming Social Security benefits, it's important to coordinate with your spouse. The important rules to be aware of are the following.

1. Each spouse is entitled to his/her own Social Security benefits based on their own earnings record.

2. When one spouse passes away, the surviving spouse assumes the deceased's benefit -- assuming that it is of greater value.

This is especially important when we consider that wives often outlive their husbands. Because of this, husbands often want to get the largest Social Security benefit possible. When they pass away, their household will automatically be getting fewer benefits (one beneficiary instead of two), so the couple wants to make sure it has the largest benefit possible.

To help bridge this gap, wives can often claim their Social Security benefits as soon as they can, and the couple can use that cash to help them make ends meet while they wait for the husband to turn 70.

If you need more money, wait to claim Social Security benefits

One of the key reasons that folks wait to collect Social Security is because your monthly benefit increases for every month that you wait to file. For instance, a retiree who has a full retirement benefit of $1,000 per month at age 66 would only get $750 if she filed at 62 but as much as $1,320 per month if she filed at 70.

But what I want to point out is that you must need the money to meet some basic need -- be it shelter, food, to pay for healthcare, or some type of transportation. That's because when we make the trade-off of working longer -- especially if we don't enjoy our work -- in order to simply maintain the same lifestyle, we're making a Faustian bargain that we'll always lose.

We think we'll be miserable if we have to give up certain creature comforts. And in truth, we will be -- for a short time. But this is where the flip side of hedonic adaptation comes in. Typically, we have a negative connotation of the "hedonic adaptation": It causes us to always want something bigger and better, never letting us be satisfied. But it works both ways: While hedonic adaptation can be the cause of a vicious lifestyle of continuous consumption, it can also help us adjust to less extravagant circumstances and be perfectly happy.

Remember, researchers have spent years investigating what actually makes people happy. What they've come up with is that it's 50% genetics, 40% intentional behavior, but just 10% life circumstance (i.e., your job, how big your nest egg is, etc.).

Data source: The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky. Author illustration.

By claiming Social Security sooner, you're giving yourself time to focus on those intentional activities that can really add life to your years. This doesn't mean that they cease "working." They just work on their own schedule, and they work on things that are truly important and meaningful to them. Across the board, retirees report lower levels of anxiety and higher levels of happiness, contentment, and relaxation as a result.

In the end, that's what'll matter the most to you and your family -- so the sooner you can get to that point, the better.

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