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Social Security Tips to Maximize Your Benefits

Answers to real-life questions about Social Security claiming strategies.

Question: If I take Social Security at age 62 and then pay back the benefits within 12 months to erase the penalty for claiming early, is it true I get to keep the interest I earned while I had the money?

Answer: Yes, but don’t get too excited. Prior to 2010, when Social Security imposed the 12-month limit for withdrawing an application and repaying benefits, it was often advised that people who didn’t need the money use this “do over” procedure to get what amounted to an interest-free loan from the government. If you claimed benefits at 62 and repaid them at 66, you might be playing with $100,000 or more of “house money.” The 12-month window restricts that opportunity. Also, note that if you receive benefits in one calendar year and pay them back in the next, you’ll likely have to pay tax on the benefits in year one. You can recoup the tax, but it’s complicated.

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[QUESTION2]I understand how delayed-retirement credits boost Social Security benefits by 8% for each year that one delays claiming between age 66 and age 70. But do cost-of-living adjustments during the years you wait amplify the advantage to more than 8% a year?[QUESTION2END]

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Answer: Yes. COLAs are built into benefits starting at age 62, the earliest age at which you can claim benefits, even if you don’t claim at that time.

Here’s an example worked up for us by Baylor University professor William Reichenstein, head of research for consulting firm Social Security Solutions. Let’s say your benefit at age 66 is estimated at $2,000 a month, but you decide to wait until age 70 to claim. You’ll get eight years of compounded COLAs based on the full retirement age benefit of $2,000—bringing the monthly benefit up to $2,533, assuming an average annual COLA of 3%. You’d also get four years of 8% delayed-retirement credits calculated on the $2,533 benefit. That extra 32% brings the total monthly benefit at age 70 to $3,343. (Yes, a 3% COLA may seem high considering 2016’s 0% and 2017’s 0.3%. But the annual average COLA since automatic adjustments started in 1975 is 3.8%.)

 

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