Don't Get Hung Up About Maximizing Your Social Security

By Tom Margenau

September 5, 2018 7 min read

Q: I am a single woman who is going to be 70 on Nov. 10, 2018. I have been waiting until I turn 70 to collect my Social Security because so many people have told me that's how I will get the maximum Social Security benefit. I am trying to fill out my application online and am confused. It is giving me options when to start. It said I could start my benefits this month or in November. Another option was to start my benefits in March. I don't want options. I just want the highest benefit I can get, which is supposed to be $2,740 per month at age 70. What do I do?

A: If you really want that $2,740 monthly Social Security check, then just say you want your benefits to begin effective with the month you turn 70. In other words, choose November.

But I don't know why you are so hung up about this. What's the big deal about getting "the maximum Social Security benefit?" Let's say you picked one of the other options. You'd get just a tiny fraction less in monthly benefits. But you would get several extra checks. Let's look at your choices.

Say you selected September (the month you are filling out the application form) as your starting month. Instead of getting your maximum benefit of $2,740 monthly, you would get about 1 percent less. In other words, you'd get about $2,713. That is $27 per month less. But you would get two extra Social Security checks — for September and October. That's $5,426 you would not get if you wait until age 70. You would have to collect 200 Social Security checks after age 70 to make up what you lose by not starting benefits in September. That's 16 years. In other words, you'd have to live until age 86 to come out ahead by waiting until 70 to start your benefits.

Any Social Security claim filed after age 66 comes with the possibility of six month's worth of retroactivity. That's why one of your other options was to start your benefits in March. If you did that, you would get about 5 percent per month less. So instead of $2,740, you'd get about $2,605 monthly. That is $135 less. But in this case, you would get 8 extra Social Security checks — from March through October. That is $20,840 you wouldn't get if you wait until you are 70 to start your benefits. It would take you 154 months, or almost 13 years, to make up the money you lose by not taking the full retroactive benefits.

If you really want that so-called maximum Social Security check of $2,740 per month, then go ahead and select November as your starting month. With these examples, I'm not really trying to tell you to select an earlier month. But I am trying to send you a message that you shouldn't worry so much. In fact, when it comes to your Social Security choices, you are not between a rock and a hard place. You are between a pillow and a soft place.

Q: I just read that the maximum Social Security check is $2,788 per month. But I am only getting $2,420 — and I paid the maximum into Social Security all my life. So why don't I get the maximum?

A: I sometimes wish the Social Security Administration would stop publishing the so-called "maximum" Social Security benefit amount, because it gets people like you into a big tizzy.

The maximum amount payable to someone turning 66 in 2018, who has paid Social Security taxes on the maximum taxable income for at least the past 35 years, is $2,788. My guess is that you turned 66 and retired a few years ago, so you are getting the maximum rate payable to someone who retired when you did.

When you think of it, there really is no "maximum" Social Security check. For example, I know someone in the town where I live who is a doctor. He is almost 90 years old, but looks and supposedly feels like someone in his 60s. And he is still practicing medicine. He has been getting a Social Security check for 25 years now. He is still paying taxes on the maximum amount of Social Security earnings and those extra earnings cause his benefit amount to be refigured upward every year. I have no idea how much he is getting, but I bet it is pushing the $4,000 per month mark.

Q: I have worked all my life and always paid Social Security taxes on the maximum taxable amount. Now, one year before I turn age 66, the company I work for is letting me go. I am depressed on so many levels. And one of those levels involves my Social Security. I've been expecting to get the maximum Social Security check, and now I won't. Can I simply send a check to Social Security to cover my final year's worth of tax payments?

A: No you can't do that. The only way you can pay into Social Security is by having a job where your employer deducts taxes from your paycheck, or by having your own business and paying Social Security self-employment taxes.

And please don't stress about this. I must repeat what I said earlier: stop fixating on this maximum Social Security business. It's not that big a deal. In fact, go to www.socialsecurity.gov and click on their retirement calculators. Plug in your actual earnings and see what retirement estimate shows up. And then do a second estimate, only this time add in one more year's worth of earnings. I will bet my next Social Security check that you will find almost no difference.

A correction and apology:

Last week, I wrote a column about not listening to friends when it comes to their Social Security advice, which is often wrong. Well, sometimes you shouldn't listen to me! Especially if I tell you to lie. Several weeks ago, I wrote a column about strange divorce cases and their affect on Social Security benefits. One situation involved a woman who had been married to the same man twice, for a total of 30 years, with a divorce in between her marriages. There was some question about whether she'd be able to verify the validity of her second marriage in order to claim spousal benefits on his record. I gave her some options to prove her second marriage was real. But then I rather flippantly told her she could file for benefits and simply not mention the divorce. Several readers took me to task for suggesting that someone lie to claim benefits. And they were right. I thought my tongue was in my cheek when I was writing that, but it turns out my head was in a cloud. I'm sorry. (And by the way, the woman was able to provide proof of her second marriage and didn't need to lie on her application.)

If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at [email protected] To find out more about Tom Margenau and to read past columns and see features from other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Photo credit: at Pixabay

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