There is nothing like a brush with death to make one realize what's important in life. And of course, what's important are things like family and friends and good health. What's not really all that important are things like "delayed retirement credits" and "file and suspend" rules and all the other Social Security benefit gaming tactics that have taken up so much of this column space, and my email inbox capacity, in the past couple of months.
About a week and a half ago, I found myself in a hospital emergency room. I was having difficulty breathing. In a relatively short span of time, I had gone from getting more winded than usual following a game of tennis to getting out of breath doing simple household chores like cutting the lawn to having trouble just walking across a room in our house. That's when we headed for the hospital. (Of course, I should have had this checked sooner. But I'm one of those big stubborn guys who thought I could simply shake this off!)
Anyway, doctors discovered two pretty significant blood clots in my lungs that they surmised grew out of several long plane flights my wife and I took in June. I spent a week in the hospital where for a time I thought I'd never be able to get out of bed again. For a guy whose most significant medical issues up until then had been several bouts of flu — a guy who had never been in a hospital in his life (other than for the birth of his children and grandchildren) — I was suddenly facing the grim reality of my mortality.
But I don't want to get too over-dramatic here, because long story short: I am back home now and getting around just fine, although I'm tethered to an oxygen hose and popping blood-thinning drugs like candy. The oxygen should come off in about a week. However, I'll be taking those anti-coagulants for some time to come.
What led to writing this column and sharing my medical woes is this: When I got home, I had about 500 email messages waiting for me. And easily, three-fourths of them were from readers who were fretting over decisions about when to start their Social Security benefits. A typical question went like this: "If I file for benefits at 66, immediately suspend those benefits and then decide to restart them at 68, will I get my age 66 benefit rate or a delayed retirement rate?" Another common question: "Can I file for my own Social Security at 66, suspend those benefits, and then claim a wife's benefit on my husband's account until age 70 — and then can I switch back to my own and get delayed retirement credits?" And almost all the questions exhibited some form of anxiety with readers pleading for me to tell them what to do!
As I've written before, this "gaming" of the Social Security system is a relatively new development. In the past, throughout almost my entire 32-year career with the Social Security Administration, most people simply claimed their benefits at age 62. They took an early retirement reduction for starting benefits before their "full retirement age." But lots of retirees decided they'd rather get benefits for a longer period of time at a reduced rate as opposed to waiting until 65 or 66 to claim full benefits.
A not insignificant portion of retirees waited until age 65 or 66 to claim full benefits. And a fairly small percentage of folks opted to wait until 70 to get full benefits plus a delayed retirement bonus of 32 percent.
But something has happened in the last five years or so, and all of that has turned around. Retiring baby boomers are either more financially savvy than their older colleagues, or at least they think they are more financially savvy, because millions of them are now gambling with their Social Security benefits. They are routinely delaying benefits as long as possible on the assumption that they will live long enough to beat the odds and win the Social Security game. They are giving up tens of thousands, sometimes more than a hundred thousand dollars in benefits between age 62 and 70 hoping that they will live into their mid 80s — usually the point at which they come out ahead by delaying starting full benefits until age 70.
I just want some of these folks to think about me. Prior to my recent blood clot calamity, I had never been sick a day in my life. I would have bet I was a sure candidate to live into my mid 80s, if not my 90s. Now I'm not so sure.
Regular readers of this column know that I am a proponent of taking your Social Security benefits early. I know that almost every financial planner in this country would disagree with me. But I've always been an "eat, drink, and be merry ... for tomorrow we might die" kind of guy. Now I know that's literally true!
I took my Social Security benefits at age 62. So did my wife. It might have been a knuckle-headed decision. It might have been the smartest move we ever made. Who knows? But here is my main point: we made that decision, and we're happy with it. We're not worrying about it one little whit!
That's why I wanted to write back to all these folks fretting over their Social Security benefits to tell them to relax. When it comes to their Social Security options, most of them are not between a rock and a hard place. They are between a cushion and a soft place. No matter which decision they make (take their Social Security at 62 or 66 or 70), they are on target to live quite comfortably in retirement.
Maybe it takes someone who was recently "knocking on heaven's door" to realize that whether or not you end up with a few extra nickels in the long run by delaying benefits until age 70 isn't really all that important in the bigger scheme of things!
Having made that pitch, I know that thousands of you at least want to be familiar with your options with respect to when to take your benefits. That's why once again I'm offering a free digital copy of my fact sheet, "When to take your Social Security benefits." To get one, send an email to email@example.com. And maybe add a "get well" wish!