Understanding Social Security: Have a question about Social Security? These 20,000 people might have an answer

Devin Carroll knew that Social Security is the backbone for many Americans’ retirement security, and yet, because it’s wildly complicated to understand, and everyone’s situation is different, people often lose out when they claim these benefits. 

As a result, there was a “tremendous appetite” for information about Social Security, so Carroll, founder of Carroll Advisory Group, created a blog called Social Security Intelligence and, in 2015, began a YouTube channel, though it didn’t get much traction at first. Two years after abandoning the YouTube project, he noticed one of his videos had 40,000 views, so he decided to try it again. His videos and blogs eventually brought in so much traffic—with thousands of hits—that he was bombarded with questions. 

“It got to the point I wasn’t able to help people,” he said. “It would have taken all day and then some to respond to these emails.” Instead, he created a group on Facebook in 2019, where people could ask and answer questions. It is one of many groups dedicated to personal finance. 

See: Reframe the decision over whether to delay claiming Social Security into ‘reversible’ 6-month choices

The group, called Social Security Intelligence Member’s Group, has 21,300 members, who discuss strategies and scrutinize the extensive rules under the Social Security Administration. Carroll has administrators who run the page, and they provide answers to users’ questions. Other members also join in to give their perspective. “It gives them a community,” Carroll said. “The community is answering. And if someone gives a wrong response, someone calls them out on it.” 

Although there is always the potential someone gets something wrong, the crowd is large enough that someone will be able to step in when something doesn’t sound right, Carroll said. “As far as risks, it’s assumed that none of the conversations in this group actually constitute qualified ‘advice’ but just conversations with other people who may know a little more,” he said.

Carroll spoke with MarketWatch about his group, the complexities of Social Security and what individuals can do to help themselves. This interview was edited for clarity and length.

MarketWatch: What are some of the most asked questions in the group? 

Devin Carroll: There are two that we see a lot. One — about spousal benefits and how they’re calculated. Questions like, “I’m 66 and my wife is 62. If I wait to file for benefits but she files now, how is that going to affect spousal benefits later?” or some variation of that. The common overall topic there is how do you calculate a spousal benefit? The other one we get a lot is, “If I file before Full Retirement Age, what actually counts as earnings?” Because there is an earnings limit that applies. 

MW: Do users also share their experiences? 

Carroll: They’ll share the good and the bad. In many cases they’ll say things such as “I went in to file for X benefit and was told this, but I knew it wasn’t right so I went back and was told this again, so I went back after printing out the rules.” That’s a common thing we’ll see, as well as “I was given bad information by a technician at the Social Security Administration, I showed them to prove I was right.” In many cases, they’ll also say “I had an appointment today and they told me this but that doesn’t sound right. What do you think?” And the community will pile on with their thoughts, sharing the links of the SSA rulebook or maybe the code of federal regulations that pertains to that specific part of the law. 

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MW: Social Security is very complex. What are the best strategies for people to get acquainted with these rules? 

Carroll: Once they get through the free stuff, like the Facebook group and YouTube and blog—if they haven’t answered their questions, it’s time to take it to the next level with a consultation with one of my registered Social Security analysts. There is the National Association of Registered Social Security Analysts, so they can go to that website and find an adviser or they can use my link and talk to someone who is on my dedicated team. Not everyone needs these services. Sometimes it is truly simple and I do see a tendency among a lot of people to overthink things. It’s not too difficult to do when you’re in the Social Security rulebook because that can lead to some complications and a lot of double speak. It’s like reading the Bible sometimes. 

MW: Do you ever see questions about Social Security being around in the future? I know a lot of younger generations worry about that. 

Carroll: It’s not just younger generations asking that. A lot of people, including those getting into the initial ages of eligibility, who just turned 62 or are within a few years, are basing their decisions around the idea that Social Security won’t be there. That is a flawed assumption for a number of reasons. The trust funds are being exhausted, at which point 75-78% of benefits will still be paid. That’s if nothing is done. But I really think that what is most likely going to happen is that there will be some changes to the system but I don’t think it will impact anyone who is close to Social Security age right now. The Social Security Administration has a long history of making changes that are phased in. 

For those people who aren’t close to Full Retirement Age, I do think Social Security is going to go through some changes and I don’t know what those changes are going to be exactly. 

MW: I know having an account with the Social Security Administration is important. Is that something you also suggest people do? 

Carroll: That should be part of your annual financial review. Every year you need to log into your Social Security Administration account and check earnings to make sure they’re right. 

There are a number of reasons information is missing but the truth is it just happens. There are billions of dollars that go into the earnings and the administration can’t always match it up, so every year I tell people by September they should be checking the prior year because if you get 10-15 years down the road and then try to fix missing earnings, you can do it but you really have to chase it. One year of missing earnings can make a difference in your benefit amount. 

Also see: Social Security recipients are getting a big raise—but also are falling further behind

MW: Why is it important to have a community about something as complex as Social Security?

Carroll: Being able to figure out how the rules apply to their individual and specific circumstances is probably the most valuable part of it. We hear a lot about the rules of thumb. For example, one that I absolutely hate is that you can afford to delay Social Security. That’s an awful rule. What if you have children at home, or a spouse with a different age, and by waiting until 70, you make them delay receiving benefits? There are a number of ways the rules of thumb should be challenged and the group is really good at that. 

We see comments all the time with people coming back thanking the group saying they just filed for benefits they wouldn’t have received or known if not for that group. It is hard to say that the Social Security Administration would have told them the same thing.

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