Between A Velvet Glove And A Straw Pillow

Q: I am 64 years old and have just been laid off. Instead of looking for another job, I’ve decided to retire. But I am struggling so much with my Social Security choices, and I hope you can help.

I went to the Social Security office, and they presented me with some options. They suggested I take widow’s benefits — my husband died several years ago — of about $2,000 per month. Then they said that at age 66, I could switch to my own Social Security and get $2,400 per month. Or they said I could wait until age 70 and collect $2,900 per month. Another option would be to take my own retirement benefit now (foregoing any widow’s benefits) and get about $2,200 per month.

I really don’t need the money, and I come from a family of people who live into their 90s. I just don’t know what to do, and I’m worried sick that I’ll make the wrong decision. I feel like I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place! Can you help me?

A: You aren’t between a rock and a hard place. At least with respect to your Social Security decisions, you’re between a velvet glove and a soft pillow! So I think you should relax and not worry about this decision so much. Frankly, no matter what you choose to do, you’ll come out way ahead of what most people can expect to get from Social Security.

You could keep things simple and just start drawing your own retirement benefit now. A monthly stipend of $2,200 is a very high Social Security check. And for someone who doesn’t need the money, that’s a lot of icing on your retirement cake.

But if you want to maximize your Social Security “investment,” then you should go with one of the other plans presented by your local Social Security representative. You should take your widow’s benefits now and collect $2,000 per month. You could keep getting that rate and then at age 70 switch to your own retirement benefits, which would come with a delayed retirement bonus (for waiting until age 70 to start your own Social Security). That’s why you’d get $2,900 per month.

You could make the switch from widow’s benefits to your own retirement at age 66 at the lower $2,600-per-month rate. But because you’ve got good genes that should keep you alive into your 90s, you’re probably ahead to wait until 70 to make the switch.

Q: I am a 72-year-old single woman who gets $980 per month from Social Security. That’s my only income. My local Social Security office is trying to get me to sign up for Supplemental Security Income (SSI). It would apparently mean about $100 extra per month for me.

But I don’t like the idea of going on welfare. They told me SSI isn’t welfare. They said it’s a “needs-based program for low-income seniors.” I don’t really need the money so I’m not really concerned about the issue. But I am feeling pressure from Social Security and my family to take the SSI. What would you do?

A: I purposely printed your letter following the email from the much more well-to-do widow, because I was struck by the fact that both of you said you don’t really need the money, yet you seem to have entirely different financial circumstances. I was also intrigued by the fact that the rich widow is apparently giving herself an ulcer over her Social Security decision, while you seemed to not really care. Isn’t it interesting that the more money you have, the more you tend to worry about it?

Anyway, let me help you make your decision. First, let’s call a welfare program a welfare program. And SSI is definitely a welfare program. But because that term has such negative connotations, Social Security Administration employees have been trained to use softer and more politically-correct terms like “needs-based program” when discussing SSI with potential clients. You get SSI if you’re poor and if your income and assets are below certain limits. Those are the general rules for any kind of welfare program.

But don’t let that dissuade you from applying for benefits. One hundred dollars is one hundred dollars, and to someone who has less than $1,000 per month in income, that would be a healthy addition to your financial well-being.

But more important, most people who qualify for SSI automatically get free Medicaid benefits. And Medicaid provides much better and more extensive coverage of your health care expenses than the Medicare program does. (Medicare generally goes along with Social Security benefits and Medicaid accompanies SSI payments.)

If I were you, I would apply for SSI. There is nothing to be ashamed of in taking a government benefit for which you are eligible. You are 72 years old, and you are living on less than $1,000 per month — and even though you say you don’t need the money, I say take the extra hundred bucks a month and live it up a little. You deserve it!

If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at


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