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Barbara Whelehan writes Boomer Bucks for Bankrate.comThe other great Social Security debate

Sometime during this year, vanguard baby boomers -- those born in 1946 -- celebrate their 60th birthdays. They lead the boomer generation across the threshold into that so-called "golden" phase of life.

Most of these leading-edge boomers are satisfied with the way their lives are going, according to an AARP survey of 800 boomers released last month. An optimistic bunch, 70 percent or more of the respondents used upbeat words such as "exciting," "fulfilling," "confident" and "hopeful" to describe their feelings about the next five years.

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However, that's tempered with some apprehension. Roughly half of respondents characterized their feelings as "anxious," "stressful" and "uncertain." Life without uncertainties would be boring, wouldn't it?

The survey reveals a lot about the priorities of these leading-edge boomers. For instance, the two areas of life that they would most like to improve are personal finances and physical health. Other important goals are to improve relationships with family and friends, as well as their spiritual or religious lives. A negligible number wished to accomplish more or be more successful.

Isn't it funny how priorities change over time?

About 54 percent of those surveyed still work. Of those who are employed, 54 percent plan to quit working as soon as possible, while 37 percent say they'll work until they "drop." Of those who don't work, 14 percent intend to pound the pavement looking for jobs in the next few years.

Collecting Social Security benefits
Here's an anxiety-producing decision that these boomers will have to make: Assuming they've been shelling out money for years to OASDI, a fancy acronym for "old age, survivors and disability insurance," they can begin drawing Social Security benefits in two years if they wish. Or they can wait until age 66 -- their normal retirement age -- to begin collecting larger monthly checks. Or they can put it off until they're 70. If they wait until 70, they stand to collect a monthly payment that's about twice as large as the one they could collect at age 62. (Note: For boomers, "normal retirement age" ranges between 66 and 67, depending on year of birth.)

To illustrate, Social Security's "Quick Calculator" offers a rough estimate of monthly payment options (or you can slog through the more detailed calculator if you have a complete record of all your earnings since the beginning of time).

Assuming a salary this year of $50,000 (and $48,000 last year), a boomer who just celebrated his 60th birthday on the first of this month can begin receiving monthly checks in the amount of $980 on Aug. 1, 2008. If he waits until he's 66, he can collect $1,376 monthly. Or if he waits until age 70, he can receive a monthly benefit of $1,911. These figures are calculated in today's dollars and don't take into consideration future earnings.

Most Americans, roughly 70 percent, start drawing Social Security benefits early. Some can't find decently paying jobs; others can't work for health reasons. Others just do it without thinking it through. Who can resist collecting at the earliest opportunity, right? What if Social Security goes bust? Better to take the money and run, some might figure.

 
 
Next: "Most people are going to spend the money."
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