Letcher County residents who are nearing retirement age can increase their lifetime income if they can wait a bit to start drawing Social Security benefits.
In Letcher County 3,676 residents – or 15.3 percent of the population – are aged 55 to 64. Those are the years when folks start thinking seriously about retirement.
Workers can start taking Social Security at age 62. But for those who can wait, the benefits go up.
“If you need Social Security early, take it – you’ve earned it,” said Virginia Reno with the National Academy of Social Insurance, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. “But waiting even a year or two can make a big difference in the long run. The extra benefits are there for life.”
Payments increase by 5 to 7 percent for each year of delay between ages 62 and 66, and by 8 percent for each year of delay between ages 66 and 70. The increases stop at age 70.
For someone who can wait until age 70 to take Social Security, the reward is a lifetime monthly benefit that is 76 percent higher than if taken at age 62.
For example, a worker who qualifies for a Social Security benefit of $750 at age 62 would receive $1,000 by waiting until full retirement age (66 for people born in 1943 to 1954). By waiting until age 70, the retiree would receive $1,320 a month.
The higher benefit would also be the basis for future inflation adjustments.
Around Kentucky, only about one in four residents who are currently receiving Social Security retirement benefits waited until full retirement age to start their payments, according to the Social Security Administration.
In Letcher County, 2,875 residents received retirement benefits from the federal system, according to 2012 figures.
The average recipient of Social Security retirement benefits in Letcher County received $1,070 a month in December of that year. On an annual basis, that brought $36,900,000 in income to the area – 5.5 percent of all personal income in the county, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Getting the most out of Social Security benefits becomes more important the longer retirees live, said Leticia Miranda, a policy adviser with the National Council of La Raza, a nonprofit that focuses on Hispanic issues, including retirement.
“You may be here longer than you think,” Miranda said.
About half of seniors aged 65 to 69 get most of their income from Social Security. Many have other assets or work part time. But for three out of four seniors in their 80s, Social Security is the main source of income.
Nationally, a woman who is 65 years old today can expect to live until she is 86. For men, it’s 84 years.
Another consideration is how the timing of benefits will affect a spouse’s income, Reno said.
“If you are the higher earner in a couple, delaying benefits not only means a higher benefit for you for the rest of your life,” she said. “It also means a higher benefit for your spouse if she or he outlives you in old age.”
In more than half of couples who are 65 today, one spouse will live beyond 90, she said.
But residents of nonmetropolitan areas like Letcher County may have a harder time delaying their retirement.
“In rural areas there is often a challenge as folks move toward retirement,” said Deanna Sharpe, a personal finance professor at the University of Missouri. “They are more likely to face unemployment. Jobs are not as available. And when they are, they tend to pay less.”
Economic downturns can also affect when people decide to start receiving Social Security, Sharpe said.
“One of the coping mechanisms during the recent recession was to pick up Social Security at age 62, even if they might not have planned to do that before the recession,” she said.
Retirees need to make informed decisions, Sharpe said, but too often that doesn’t happen.
“We find in surveys of financial literacy that quite a large portion of folks don’t understand the basics,” she said. “That’s a concern.”
But retirees can easily find free or low-cost advice. Sharpe said many USDA Extension Service offices can provide information on retirement planning. She also recommended nonprofit organizations such as the National Endowment for Financial Counseling and Financial Education (www.nefe.org).
The Social Security Administration website (ssa.gov) has a calculator that allows workers to estimate their retirement earnings based on their own work records and estimated retirement age.
And the National Academy of Social Insurance has materials online about the impact of delaying Social Security benefits (www.nasi.org/WhenToTakeSocialSecurity).
With national discussions about Social Security frequently in the news, some workers may worry whether the system will be there when they need it. Sharpe said people should stay abreast of the issues. “That’s part of making an informed decision,” she said.
But Reno said that should not influence a personal decision about when to draw benefits.
“Social Security will be there if you wait,” she said. The system is fully financed for about the next two decades and is three-quarters financed thereafter, she said.
“Despite what you may hear, lawmakers have some good options to fix the system for the long haul,” she said.
Tim Marema is editor of the Daily Yonder (www.dailyyonder.com), a national website that covers news about small cities and rural America.
Roberto Gallardo is an associate professor at the Mississippi State University Extension Service.
Support for the research and production of this article was provided by the National Academy of Social Insurance. The content of this article is solely the responsibility of the Daily Yonder, which is published by the Center for Rural Strategies, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based in Whitesburg.