Report: 5 Things Most Americans Don’t Understand About Social Security

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About 75% of U.S. adults over age 50 are concerned about Social Security running out of money in their lifetimes. That’s according to a study from the Nationwide Retirement Institute, part of the Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company.

The Institute’s 10th annual Social Security Consumer Survey details key points that many Americans don’t understand about Social Security.

The survey was conducted online by the Harris Poll on behalf of Nationwide between May 18 and June 13, 2023.

5 Social Security Facts That Many Americans Don’t Know

In this article, I’ll discuss some knowledge gaps highlighted in the survey pertaining to retirement benefits. To fill in those gaps, I’ll source information from SSA.gov, the official website of the U.S. Social Security Administration. And of course, we’ll get some tips from money expert Clark Howard.

1. Social Security Benefits Can Extend To Children or a Former Spouse

According to the survey, there’s a major knowledge gap when it comes to what people should know about Social Security surrounding their children and former spouses.

  • 73% of those surveyed say Social Security may offer benefits to their children. In 2014, that figure was 84%.
  • In the new survey, only 48% of respondents agreed with the statement: “If you are divorced, you may be eligible for Social Security benefits based on your ex-spouse’s record. In 2014, that figure was 61%.

When it comes to Social Security benefits being extended to your children, SSA.gov says, “When a parent receives Social Security retirement or disability benefits, or dies, their child may also receive benefits. Under certain circumstances, a stepchild, adopted child, or dependent grandchild or step-grandchild also may qualify.” Read about the qualifications.

As for former spouses, SSA.gov says, “If you are divorced, your ex-spouse can receive benefits based on your record (even if you have remarried) if: Your marriage lasted 10 years or longer. Your ex-spouse is unmarried. Your ex-spouse is age 62 or older.”

2. The Eligible Age for Full Retirement Benefits

Only about 13% of U.S. adults correctly guessed their full retirement age based on their year of birth. The survey says, “50% incorrectly stated a lower age and 4% incorrectly stated a higher age. 33% said they did not know.”

So at what age can you start claiming Social Security benefits? Age 62, according to SSA.gov.

However, the agency has an important clarification: “We’ll reduce your benefit if you start receiving benefits before your full retirement age. For example, if you turn age 62 in 2023, your benefit would be about 30% lower than it would be at your full retirement age of 67.”

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For his part, Clark says he’s going to wait until he reaches his full retirement age to collect Social Security — and he wants you to wait as well.

“I’m still working in my 60s,” Cark says. “There’s a disadvantage to me taking Social Security now working because of the way Social Security punishes you to a certain point if you are still working. So especially for me, it’s smart to wait the full run.”

Read about the best time to collect Social Security benefits.

3. A Social Security Claiming Decision Can Be Undone

Only 29% agreed with the statement, “You can undo a claiming decision within the first 12 months.”

According to the Social Security Administration, “If you change your mind about receiving benefits, you may be able to withdraw your Social Security claim if it has been less than 12 months since you were first entitled to benefits. To withdraw your claim, you must meet all of the requirements, including making the request in writing and repaying the benefits that you received.”

SSA.gov: How to cancel your Social Security application.

4. Social Security Benefits Need To Be Supplemented

Over half say they have or will have retirement accounts and savings as additional sources of retirement income beyond Social Security benefits.

According to the survey, the top four sources of retirement income in addition to Social Security are:

  • Retirement accounts (401(k), IRA, etc. – 49%
  • Savings – 43%
  • Pension – 31%
  • Individual Stocks and Bonds – 24%

Clark is adamant that you need to have more than Social Security benefits working on your behalf when you retire. Saving money now can lead to a nice nest egg in your later years.

“Savings are key to freedom as a senior,” Clark says. “If you don’t have sufficient savings then it typically means that you’re going to have to keep working or you’re going to have to lead a very spartan life.”

What are some popular retirement accounts that Clark loves?

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Clark absolutely loves the Roth IRA

“A Roth IRA is the most efficient place for you to have money grow for your retirement because the money in it grows tax-free and is spent tax-free,” Clark says.

He’s also a big fan of employees contributing to a 401(k) plan with a company match, which is a great way to build your savings for retirement.

 A Guide: IRA vs. 401(k): Which is better?

If you’re an entrepreneur, Clark wants you to look seriously at opening a SEP IRA.

“The SEP is great for the self-employed. It requires almost no paperwork to get started and is incredibly flexible,” Clark says. “It is the easiest way for someone who has a side gig or works for themselves full-time to reduce current tax and to save big toward retirement.”

5. Professional Advice Is Available on How and When To File for Social Security Benefits

About two-fifths of those surveyed say they still have not been given professional advice on how and when to file for Social Security benefits.

  • 62% say they have been advised on Social Security specifics by their financial professional.
  • 38% say they have not been advised about Social Security by their financial professional.

Clark says depending on where you are in your financial journey, you may not need a financial professional (advisor).

“The reality is, the biggest problem for most people is just getting the money into an account and getting it invested,” Clark says. “For most people starting out, you don’t need professional advice.”

On the other hand, if you’re nearing retirement or have a complex financial situation, a financial advisor may be right for you.

Read our guide on how to find and choose a financial advisor.

If you do need to go with a financial advisor, Clark strongly recommends that you use a fee-only fiduciary, which is a financial professional who is legally obligated to work for your interests and earn money only via fees and not commission.

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“The time I want somebody to hire a commissioned salesperson or a traditional stockbroker to handle their investments is never, never, never, not ever,” Clark says. 

Is a fiduciary right for you? Read our guide to see whether you need a fiduciary financial advisor.

Final Thoughts

If you take away anything, Clark wants you to know that the longer you live, the more beneficial for your wallet it will be to wait to file for Social Security.

Clark also wants you to save and invest for your financial future by opening retirement accounts if you don’t have them already. You may have heard about a 401(k) or an IRA, but what about a Roth 401(k)? Read our guide on how to open a Roth 401(k).

Want more tips? Read our guide on How To Start Saving and Investing for Retirement.

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