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Coming out of the Social Security closet

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POSTED July 25, 2014 8:05 p.m.

Well, I’ve written another column that sure touched a nerve. I’m talking about the column that appeared a couple weeks ago in which I shared an email I got from a woman who was upset because her good friend died at age 69 without ever collecting a nickel of her Social Security benefits. She was angry at a financial planner who advised her friend to delay benefits until age 70. Sadly, in this woman’s case, that turned out to be bad advice.

I then used part of that column to share my own personal story. It’s one I’ve discussed many times over the years. And the story is that my wife and I both took our Social Security benefits at age 62, bucking the trend to delay benefits as long as possible. And I gave some reasons why we thought that was a good decision for us.

My inbox was flooded with emails as soon as the column appeared in newspapers around the country. Almost all of them were well thought out and reasonable responses to what I wrote. (I point this out because oftentimes when people disagree with something I’ve said, they send me diatribes that are more rant than reason!)

But these thoughtful responses involved two decidedly different trains of thought. Some folks took me to task for allegedly handing out poor financial planning advice. Others thanked me for offering some balance to the conventional retirement wisdom that says that anyone who takes their Social Security before age 70 is making a big mistake.

I learned quite a bit from reading the emails from the latter group. I was really surprised by the number of folks out there who, for a variety of reasons, chose to take benefits before age 66, sometimes as early as age 62, and who are now almost embarrassed to admit they had done so.

Here is part of one email from a reader in Tucson. “Like you and your wife, my husband and I both took our Social Security at age 62. But it seems like almost every day, we hear radio ads that tell people to maximize their Social Security by delaying benefits until age 70. We were so sure we had made a dumb decision until we read your column. Thank you so much for allaying our fears.”

And this came from a man in Dallas: “I made what I thought was a conscious and well-thought-out decision to take my Social Security at age 62. But ever since, I’ve felt like hiding in the closet because all my friends tell me I made a huge mistake. Most of them are not taking their benefits until 70. But after reading your column, I’ve decided to come out of the closet and face my friends with my story!”

And these are just two examples of many emails I received with similar messages. I did not write that column to bring anyone “out of the closet” or to “allay the fears” of readers who took early and reduced Social Security benefits. I was merely sharing my own personal experiences about our decision to take Social Security benefits at age 62.

And for those readers who thought I was handing out poor advice, let me make some points I’ve made hundreds of times in past columns

One: I am NOT a financial planner. I’m merely a retired Social Security Administration employee who knows a lot about all the Social Security programs and who likes to share that knowledge with my readers through this column.

Two: No one really knows when is the best time to take his or her Social Security. And of course that is because no one knows when he or she is going to die. You simply have to weigh all the options (your finances, your health, your marital status and your tax situation) and then make the best decision you can.

Three: And once you make that decision, don’t fret about it! You would not believe the number of emails I get from readers who are worrying themselves sick wondering if they made the right decision about their Social Security start-up date. As I pointed out in my column several weeks ago, my wife and I chose to take our benefits at age 62. And we’ve been having a wonderful time ever since spending our reduced Social Security benefits. And even though we are getting older, we are not worrying one little whit about our decision.

Four: Even though my wife and I chose to take our benefits early, that does not mean I am an advocate for taking early and reduced Social Security. As I said earlier, we all have to consider our personal circumstances and do what is best for each of us.

Five: There is a lot of hoopla out there now about maximizing one’s Social Security benefits. Some of it is over-the-top and misleading. I’ve heard radio ads and seen advertising mailers that tell people they are “missing out on hundreds of thousand dollars in hidden benefits.” Although that is baloney, there are definitely some strategies folks can employ to maximize their Social Security benefits. Many of these tactics involve one member of a married couple (who is 66 or older) claiming benefits off of the spouse’s Social Security account for a while and then later switching to higher benefits on his or her own account.

I have written a fact sheet that spells out these strategies in detail — along with offering other helpful advice about Social Security. It’s called: “When to take your Social Security benefits.” I’ll email you a free copy if you just ask for it. My email address is thomas.margenau@comcast.net.

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