3 key decisions to make before you retire

See when and how to take Social Security, pay for health care, and generate income.

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  • Retirement Accounts
  • Getting Ready to Retire
  • Living in Retirement
  • Health Savings Account
  • Planning and Guidance Center
  • Retirement Accounts
  • Getting Ready to Retire
  • Living in Retirement
  • Health Savings Account
  • Planning and Guidance Center
  • Retirement Accounts
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Key takeaways

  • The longer you can delay collecting Social Security, the higher your benefit.
  • Plan for health care costs and figure out how you will pay for them.
  • Match essential expenses like food, housing, and health care with guaranteed income.

As retirement nears, you will have 3 big decisions to make: when to take Social Security, how you will pay for health care, and how you will generate cash flow. The 3 are interconnected and will make a difference in your budget and lifestyle in retirement, and even on deciding when to retire.

1. How and when will you claim Social Security?

You can claim Social Security as early as age 62, but that may not be in your best interest financially. Why? Because Social Security payments increase if you delay claiming your benefits; your monthly benefit can go up until age 70. The difference between your check at 62 and 70 could be as much as 65%. For example, a monthly benefit of $1,500 if claimed at 62 could increase to more than $2,476 each month at age 70.1

Your Social Security benefit is guaranteed for as long as you live, and it will go up over time to keep up with inflation. So even though delaying means you would pass up some extra money in hand during your 60s, having a larger guaranteed source of inflation-protected monthly income for life is a big benefit for most people.

Of course, delaying isn't always better—or always possible—for everyone, particularly for people with health issues, because it can take years to reach the breakeven point. Other families may need the Social Security income right away. But if you can defer until age 70, and you live a long life, you will collect more by waiting to start your benefits.

Figuring out when to collect benefits isn't always as simple as deciding how long to wait. Married couples have a number of options to potentially boost their lifetime benefits by as much as $250,000, according to Fidelity research.1

2. How will you pay for health care?

It probably won't surprise you that health care costs tend to go up as you get older. What may be surprising is by just how much: Our research suggests that the average couple retiring in 2018 could expect to spend about $280,000 on out-of-pocket health care costs during their retirement.2

You probably can't escape health care costs, but you can plan for them. That starts with the government's retiree health care insurance program—Medicare. No matter when you claim Social Security, Medicare won't kick in until 65. So if you retire early, you will need to buy health insurance privately.

While you are still working, you should also consider a health savings account (HSA), in conjunction with a high-deductible health plan, to save for health care costs in retirement. You may want to buy supplemental health insurance or long-term care insurance to pay for expenses not covered by Medicare. Finally, it pays to be a choosy consumer of health care services, ask a lot of questions about the cost and necessity of services, and compare prices from different providers.

3. How will you generate cash flow once you stop working?

In retirement, Social Security will likely just be one of several sources of income. Others may include your savings, pension, annuities, rental income, or working part time. So how do you come up with a plan to make sure your money lasts? There are many approaches, but it starts with a budget that identifies your needs—essential expenses like food, housing, and health care—and your wants—discretionary expenses like travel, eating out, and entertainment.

The distinctions between needs and wants will be different for everyone, but once you have your list, it makes sense to match essential expenses with guaranteed income—money that you can't outlive—like Social Security, pensions, and lifetime annuities (which let you convert savings into guaranteed income). Then use your other savings and income for discretionary expenses.

One practical test to see whether you are financially ready for retirement is to try living off your retirement budget before you retire. If it's too tight, you still have time to make adjustments. For instance, you can work longer, use home equity, or find part-time work.

Get ready

You may be ready to stop working, or you may be getting ready to stop—financially and emotionally. Whichever is the case, consider your strategy for Social Security, health care, and cash flow. It can help you get where you want to go. For many people, the decision to retire is not just about money. It's about life, and the freedom to enjoy it.

Next steps to consider

See ways to combine guaranteed retirement income with flexible income sources.

Answer 6 questions to see if you are ready to retire.

Get claiming strategy tips for couples, singles, and divorcees.

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The information contained herein is general in nature, is provided for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as legal or tax advice. Fidelity does not provide legal or tax advice. Fidelity cannot guarantee that such information is accurate, complete, or timely. Laws of a particular state or laws that may be applicable to a particular situation may have an impact on the applicability, accuracy, or completeness of such information. Federal and state laws and regulations are complex and are subject to change. Changes in such laws and regulations may have a material impact on pretax and/or after-tax investment results. Fidelity makes no warranties with regard to such information or results obtained by its use. Fidelity disclaims any liability arising out of your use of, or any tax position taken in reliance on, such information. Always consult an attorney or tax professional regarding your specific legal or tax situation.
1. All lifetime benefits are expressed in today's dollars, calculated life expectancy of 88 and 90 for husband and wife, respectively, $75K and $70K annual income for husband and wife respectively. The numbers are sensitive to, and would change with, income level and life expectancy assumptions.
2. Estimate based on a hypothetical couple retiring in 2018, 65 years old, with life expectancies that align with Society of Actuaries' RP-2014 Healthy Annuitant rates with Mortality Improvements Scale MP-2016. Actual expenses may be more or less depending on actual health status, area of residence, and longevity. Estimate is net of taxes. The Fidelity Retiree Health Care Costs Estimate assumes individuals do not have employer-provided retiree health care coverage, but do qualify for the federal government’s insurance program, Original Medicare. The calculation takes into account cost-sharing provisions (such as deductibles and coinsurance) associated with Medicare Part A and Part B (inpatient and outpatient medical insurance). It also considers Medicare Part D (prescription drug coverage) premiums and out-of-pocket costs, as well as certain services excluded by Original Medicare. The estimate does not include other health-related expenses, such as over-the-counter medications, most dental services and long-term care.
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