Social Security is America’s number-one retirement plan. For many Americans, it’s their only retirement plan. With that much at stake, it’s time to do your homework before you determine when and how you’re going to file.

Retirement planning is not a do-it-yourself activity. You need to engage a financial advisor who has real knowledge of the Social Security system to maximize your benefits.

Before having a conversation with a retirement consultant, complete your homework. There are seven basic assignments you need to prepare for your meeting. Two of these assignments are related to each other; your health status and life expectancy. If your health is poor and your family history has below-average longevity, you may consider taking your benefits as early as age 62. But if your health is good and longevity runs in your family, you may determine waiting until age 70 is optimal.

The next two assignments also relate to one another: how long you plan to work and what the number of work credits you already have accumulated is. You need 40 quarters of wages subject to payroll taxes. Your benefits are calculated on 35 of the highest-earning years. Determining your work credits may alter your retirement date based on these numbers.

If you’re married, your next assignment is to collect the same information as you did for yourself and calculate the spousal benefit. If you can, you should delay the benefits of the higher earner to age 70. You’ll need to create an inventory of other financial resources that can be tapped if you’re gong to wait until age 70 to maximize your benefits. This assignment is a critical component that can help you assess you last assignment, which is to determine your necessary retirement income.

As an example, let’s say your benefit is $1,000 a month at your full retirement age of 66. You’re almost age 62 and contemplating when to take your benefits. At age 62, your monthly benefit will be $750, at age 66 your monthly benefit will be $1,000 and at age 70, your monthly benefit will be $1,320. The eight-year difference between age 62 and age 70 is almost twice the amount—and that amount doesn’t take into account the cost-of-living adjustment added along the way. In this example, your break-even age when comparing taking benefits at age 66 versus age 62 is age 76. The break-even age when comparing taking benefits at age 70 versus age 66 is age 81. The break-even age when comparing age 70 versus age 62 is age 79. The average life expectancy for males is age 86.6 and females age 88.8.1
Let the math argue with your mind.
1 Changes in life expectancy for 65-year olds in the U.S. 2010 versus 2014 Wall Street-Journal 10/28/2014.

Syndicated financial columnist and talk show host Steve Savant interviews Tom Hegna, popular platform speaker; best selling author and retirement expert. Tom hosted the PBS Television Special “Don’t Worry Retire Happy.” The television special was designed after Tom’s latest book, “Don’t Worry Retire Happy.” Tom’s first book, “Playchecks and Paychecks” drew critical acclaim from financial advisers and insurance professionals. Right on the Money is a weekly one hour financial talk show for consumers ( and is underwritten by CreativeOne, Inc.