It's unfortunate, but the past few years the Social Security Administration has made some major budget and staff cuts that have greatly increased their phone service and field office wait times for their customers. With that said, here's an alternative option and some tips that can help make your access to Social Security a little faster and easier.
With the evolution of the Social Security website, the quickest and most convenient way to work with Social Security these days is to do it yourself online. Depending on what you need, most tasks can be done at SocialSecurity.gov like getting your Social Security statement, estimating your future benefits, applying for retirement or disability benefits, signing up for direct deposit, replacing a Medicare card and much more. See a complete list of what you can do online at ssa.gov/onlineservices.
You can also get information and answers to most of your Social Security questions at faq.ssa.gov if you're patient enough to read through the information yourself.
But, if you need more help than their website offers, you can always call Social Security's toll-free service line at 800-772-1213 Monday through Friday between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. and ask your question over the phone, or make a scheduled appointment with your local field office. To reduce your wait time, avoid calling during their rush hour times, which are the first week of the month, and daily from about 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.
If you're seeking advice on when you should start taking your Social Security benefits, you need to know that while Social Security employees do provide information on how the system works under different circumstances, they aren't allowed to give case-specific advice on when you should start drawing your benefits.
If you want help with this, you'll need to turn to some of the free or fee-based Social Security tools that are available online through private financial service companies or AARP.
Depending on the service, these tools take into account the different rules and claiming strategies that can affect your benefits, and some of them can crunch hundreds of calculations to compare your benefits under various scenarios and different ages to help you figure out the best time to start claiming.
Some of the best free tools are AARP's Social Security Calculator (aarp.org/socialsecuritybenefits); SSAnalyze which is offered by Bedrock Capital Management (bedrockcapital.com/ssanalyze); and Analyze Now (analyzenow.com - click on "Computer Programs") which offers a "Free Strategic Social Security Planner" but requires Microsoft Excel to use it.
Or, if you don't mind spending a little money, there are higher-level services you can use like Maximize My Social Security (maximizemysocialsecurity.com), which charges $40 for their report, and takes into account the thousands of different factors and combinations to help you maximize your benefits.
And Social Security Solutions (socialsecuritysolutions.com, 866-762-7526), which offers several levels of service (ranging between $20 and $250) including their $125 "Advised" plan that runs multiple calculations and comparisons, recommends a best course of action in a detailed report, and gives you a one-on-one session with a Social Security specialist over the phone to discuss the report and ask questions.
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit www.savvysenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of "The Savvy Senior" book.