retirement

Checking in on Social Security

Social Security would like you to conduct your business online, but be prepared to navigate some speed bumps.

My most recent birthday was a significant milestone: I turned 62. And as every American within two decades of retirement knows, that’s when you can claim Social Security benefits.

Turning 62 prompted me to dig up my latest Social Security benefits estimate to incorporate into my retirement financial plan. I don’t intend to claim benefits until at least full retirement age (66 and 6 months for someone born when I was), when I can lock in a monthly benefit about 35% higher than I’d get at my current age. In fact, I may wait until age 70 so I can earn the 8%-a-year bonus for three and a half years. But it’s comforting to know that if I need the income sooner, it’s there. (We help you sort out the best time to file, among other common conundrums, in our collection of Social Security FAQs.)

In 2011, Social Security stopped mailing annual paper statements to beneficiaries younger than 60, and a few years back I signed up for a mySocialSecurity account at www.ssa.gov/myaccount. But when I went online to retrieve my statement, the password I had jotted down didn’t work. And that’s when things got discouraging.

Office, phone or online? More than 40 million people visit a field office each year, and according to a 2018 report from the Social Security Office of the Inspector General, the average wait time is 25 minutes—but more than 4 million visitors cool their heels for longer than an hour. Trying to get answers on the phone isn’t much better. In a recent exchange in a Facebook group for finances, users compared notes, and commiserated, over the frustratingly long times they spent on hold trying to reach customer service. (As a workaround, go to GetHuman.com and search for “Social Security.” If you type in your phone number, you will get a call back when the service connects with a live rep.)

The Social Security Administration would like you to conduct your business online, but be prepared to navigate speed bumps there, too. For example, to create a mySocialSecurity account online, you have to answer questions about your Equifax credit history. That isn’t necessarily a test you’ll easily ace. I’ve received questions about who serviced my kids’ student loans that I co-signed a decade ago. Plus, if you’ve frozen your credit files, you’ll have to remove the freeze on your Equifax report temporarily. (You won’t have to lift the freeze if you go to a Social Security office to open the account.)

Back to my saga: I followed the prompts to reset my password, which led me to the security questions I had set up years before: In what city did you meet your spouse/significant other? I knew the answer was Washington, D.C., but with or without capitals, periods and commas? Next one: What was the model name of your first car? Hmm. Did I say Volks­wagen (or VW) Super Beetle? Or perhaps superbeetle? None of my answers were correct.

I requested a temporary password, and a letter arrived a couple of weeks later—with one of the characters of the password illegible because of an ink problem. I called customer service, and a pleasant rep named Karen told me there was nothing she could do short of mailing another letter with another temporary password.

For most of the past decade, Congress reduced Social Security’s operating budget. But it recently reversed course and increased the agency’s funding. Most of the customer service improvements in the works will be for online operations. So whatever you do, don’t lose your password.

Tax help. See our cover story, You Still Have Time to Save on Your Taxes, for plenty of ways you can still trim your tax bill.

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