Retirement Income

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Baby boomers are facing a decision about when and how to take their Social Security benefits. The wrong decision could cost a married couple more than half a million dollars in future benefits. T. Rowe Price, the investment management company, recently unveiled a free online ?Social Security Benefits Evaluator? tool designed to make Social Security decision-making a more logical process. The tool focuses on your personal needs and specific goals ?whether you?re married or single ? and graphically demonstrates comparisons of the results from different strategies.?

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Getting started: Big decisions
Let?s start with the assumption that if you?re over 55, Social Security will be there for you in its present form at the time you start making choices. Then, your major decision revolves around when and how to start taking benefits. Some people are forced to take benefits as soon as allowable ? at age 62. They understand that their benefits will be permanently lowered by this decision, but simply need the money to be able to survive. Social Security says about 74 percent of retired workers claimed their benefits earlier than full retirement age.

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If you?re still working and decide to collect benefits before full retirement age, your Social Security check is temporarily penalized: $1 in benefits is deducted for every $2 you earn above the annual wage limit, which is $15,120 in 2013. Once you attain full retirement age you can earn as much as you want and there will be no reductions in your annual benefits. For those born from 1943 through 1954, full retirement age is 66. For those born in succeeding years, the age of full retirement benefits increases two months per year, until those born in 1960 and later will be able to collect full benefits when they reach age 67. Every year you delay taking benefits, until age 70, adds approximately 8 percent to your monthly check. Plus, since future Social Security benefits are indexed to inflation, the actual amount of your future checks could be that much larger if you wait to receive a larger base check.

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Clearly, this is an important decision to make if you can afford to delay taking benefits, and if you expect to live a long life based on your current state of health, and genetic family components. When you are a married couple, the decision about when each starts to take benefits becomes more complicated, depending on your goals: Is your goal to get a smaller benefit but start collecting as soon as possible? Is your goal to get maximum benefits over both lifetimes? Is your goal to make sure a surviving spouse doesn?t suffer as sharp a drop in income on the death of the first spouse? These are just a few considerations that might impact your timing decision.

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TRP Social Security Benefits Evaluator
Go to TRowePrice.com/SocialSecurity to get started. There is no registration and no need to reveal any personal information in order to use this tool, and the information is not saved on their website. Enter your gender, marital status and date of birth. Your benefits are estimated based on the current salary figure you input. (There is a link to the Social Security website where you can get your own personal estimate to use in the tool, if you want.) Some age assumptions are made in line with current actuarial guidelines: if you are single you will live to age 95; if you are part of a married couple, one of you will reach age 95 and the other will live to be 83. Choose a goal, similar to those listed above. Singles can select one of three goals; couples can select one of seven goals. Then with a click of your mouse, you can see graphically how different strategies can generate different income streams, and differing levels of total benefits, depending on the choices you make around when to start your benefits.

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The time to start making these decisions about Social Security is before you approach the first decision point at age 62.