Carrie Schwab Pomerantz
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You probably read it in the paper or heard it on the news - the first American baby boomer applied for Social Security last fall; some have said it is the start of the "silver tsunami." The baby boomer generation, over 75 million strong, is now lining up to collect their Social Security benefits.

My friend's husband was at the head of the line. He decided to bet on a sure thing and take the cash as soon as he turned 62. And he's not alone in his decision. According to an OASDI study released late last year, 76 percent of women and 71 percent of men took early Social Security. But is that the wisest decision?

It's an important question, since what you decide now will affect how much you can collect in benefits for the rest of your life. Before you start counting that added boost to your income, I recommend you carefully look at the facts and calculate the pluses and minuses in light of your own situation.

YOUR BASIC CHOICES

You have three choices for when to take Social Security:

- Take it as early as age 62

- Wait until what the IRS designates as your "normal retirement age" (between 65 and 67, depending on when you were born)

- Or wait as late as age 70

Take Social Security at your normal retirement age and it's simple enough. But collect it early or late, and things become a bit more complicated due to a penalty if you start too early.

If you begin using benefits before your normal retirement age, your monthly check will decrease by as much as 25 percent, and that reduction is permanent. The plus side, of course, is that you'll receive checks for a longer period of time.

Also, if you collect Social Security before your retirement age and you're still working, your benefits will be reduced $1 for every $2 you earn above the annual limit ($13,560 for 2008) - another important consideration. In the year you reach your normal retirement age, it changes to $1 in benefits deducted for each $3 you earn above a higher limit ($36,120 in 2008). Once you hit the appropriate age, your earnings won't impact the size of your benefit.

YOU GET A CREDIT IF YOU DELAY

If you postpone taking Social Security, your benefits go up by 8 percent for every year you delay until age 70. You'll receive bigger checks, but for a shorter period of time. Past age 70, there's no added advantage to waiting.

The actual dollar amount you receive depends on how much you've earned during your working years. Your annual Social Security statement lists your projected benefits at age 62, your normal retirement age, and at age 70. If you need a copy, you can request one at ssa.gov, which is a great resource for all kinds of information.

IS IT WORTH THE WAIT?

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Carrie Schwab Pomerantz

Carrie Schwab Pomerantz is a Motley Fool contributor.

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