Several competing programs can also help you with the analysis. The simplest one to use and the most graphically clear and pleasing is from Social Security Solutions. You put in your birthdate and that of your spouse, use links to the Social Security Administration's own website to estimate how much money you'll get from Social Security at full retirement age, and the software instantly analyzes the most advantageous scenario for you, delivering an explanation in a lengthy and useful report. It's slick, fast and perfect for those who are reluctant to sort through columns of numbers. A printed result that is mailed to you without alternatives, graphs or charts is available at $19.95, with a more flexible online version selling for $49.95.
Unfortunately, the program isn't Mac-friendly, so I didn't get as good a look at this one as I did others. The developer of Social Security Solutions, William Meyer, whose background includes building calculators for several major investment companies, says he's working on this problem.
The third major competitor is Maximize My Social Security, developed by Laurence J. Kotlikoff, a professor at Boston University and president of Economic Security Planning. The program, which sells a one-year license for $40, requires you to dig up how much money you made every year since you started working -- age 15 or 16 for many people. The information is available from Social Security, but finding and typing it into the program is time-consuming, although it might be worth it if you must deal with the windfall elimination or the government offset provisions that affect some government employees. This program does these calculations well.
You can also find some free calculators on the market.
SSCalc.net does a lot of the things the pay calculators do, but it's not quite as versatile or easy to personalize. But if you don't want to spend any money, this calculator will definitely provide a good way for you to compare options.
The free calculator that has received the most attention is AARP's Social Security Benefits Calculator, which estimates benefits and tells you when to claim. Its mantra is "Later is better," but that's a very unsophisticated approach. It doesn't take into account any of the ways couples -- current or former -- can consider filing to increase their Social Security benefits. Its calculations are really only useful for never-married singles.
If you don't think you can manage these calculations on your own, Maximize My Social Security and Social Security Solutions offer access to advisers who will do the calculations for you. Both charge about $125, with more expensive services also available.
As Meyer says, "This is the most financially significant retirement planning decision most people will ever make."
It behooves those nearing retirement to consider all the options to get this decision right.