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Should you take Social Security early? For some, coronavirus changes the math on waiting until you’re 70.

The coronavirus pandemic is upending conventional wisdom about when to start collecting Social Security payments. (N/A/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

There’s a point in your working career when Social Security, and when would be the correct time to begin collecting it, becomes a question at the top of your list of retirement decisions.

For many people, the quandary about when to start taking Social Security is being influenced by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Conventional advice is to wait until 70 to collect Social Security to maximize your benefits. But many seniors don’t have a choice. They need to begin taking Social Security as soon as it’s available, at 62. Fifty-seven percent of retirees rely on Social Security as their primary source of income, according to a 2018 Gallup poll.

The other 43 percent, those with enough income to get by, can play the long game. Delay Social Security payments until you’re 70, and you get more money every month. And since many people are living longer, the extra money might be needed to pay for health-care expenses not covered by Medicare, such as long-term care assistance.

If you claim your Social Security early, at 62, rather than waiting until your full retirement age, your monthly benefit drops by as much as 30 percent. However, every year you delay beyond your full retirement age, up to age 70, you get an 8 percent increase in your benefit.

For the past several years, my husband and I have been debating whether to take Social Security early. He thinks early is better because we could use the money to travel more while we are healthier. I want to wait and lock in the most money possible.

My husband did a spreadsheet. It showed that delaying until 70 would net us more Social Security money each year. His math also revealed how long it would take us to break even: to catch up on all the cash we missed out on by not collecting early, at 62. We would break even around age 79.

Discussing my family’s finances in 2018, I wrote this: “We’ve invested well enough that, barring some major financial catastrophe and assuming we pay off our mortgage before we retire, we can fund our senior years through savings and pension payments.”

Oh, how quickly circumstances can change. The catastrophe is here, and its name is covid-19.

Fed rate cut delivers more financial pain for retirees and other savers

The coronavirus crisis means waiting until 70 to collect Social Security may no longer be the best choice.

The stock market is not just in bear territory: Equities have seen Great Depression-like declines. Running to the safety of a federally insured bank or credit union deposit account, such as a certificate of deposit, may preserve your principal. But with interest rates so low — less than 1 percent — your money won’t keep pace with inflation.

The number of people having to file for unemployment has skyrocketed. The Labor Department said that in the first week of April, 6.6 million people filed for unemployment, bringing total new claims to 17 million in the past four weeks.

Many seniors have held on to full-time or part-time work to allow them to wait longer before taking Social Security. Some of them may now be forced to abandon their plans to wait until 70 — or at least their full retirement age — to collect their maximum retirement benefits. And, given this extraordinary time with an epic pandemic wreaking economic havoc, that’s okay.

“The optimal strategy is not always just getting the most benefit out of Social Security. It has to factor into your overall plan,” said Andrew Westlin, a certified financial planner with online financial adviser Betterment. “Now more than ever, everybody should be evaluating what their overall situation is with the rest of their assets, and what their spending needs are in retirement.”

Heed Westlin’s advice and determine whether you can afford to wait. Do you have other assets you can tap? Can you cut expenses? You don’t want to make a rash decision out of fear. No one knows how long it will take for the economy to recover, but it will improve.

“If you start at 62, you’ll only get 57 percent of what you would have gotten at age 70,” noted Ric Edelman, co-founder of Edelman Financial Engines. “But you might not have that luxury if you are unprepared otherwise. So start your Social Security benefits now, because that could be thousands of dollars a month that you are eligible for.”

There is something Congress could do as it weighs other stimulus measures, Edelman says. If Americans 62 or older are forced to start taking Social Security early for coronavirus-related reasons, Congress could allow them to temporarily receive their benefits and then stop when the coronavirus emergency ends.

“This will make it easier for households headed by someone 62 or older to manage the crisis without creating any long-term adverse economic impact to themselves,” Edelman said.

I think Edelman’s idea is worth exploring. But until there’s another solution don’t risk your financial security clinging to conventional advice that may not apply in your situation.

Have a question about retirement or personal finance? Join Michelle for an online Q&A every Thursday at 12 p.m. ET. Readers may write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or michelle.singletary@washpost.com. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to http://wapo.st/michelle-singletary.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.

Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

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