My wife has a little plaque hanging on the wall of her art studio. She’s a fiber artist who makes quilted landscapes and something called “temari,” which are decorative Japanese thread balls. She sells her wares in a local art gallery. If you want to see her work, just go to FiberArtsByBecky.com. Anyway, that plaque, which she got when we both retired in 2005, says: “Help me! My husband retired and he doesn’t have a hobby!”
I was thinking of that plaque when I opened my email inbox today. There were scores of letters from readers of my column. I probably get hundreds of emails every week from across the country. And for the most part, I’m not complaining—and my wife is rejoicing. Answering those emails has become my hobby. It keeps me out of her hair. My wife can work on her little crafts in peace upstairs while I work on my “hobby” downstairs. (That’s part of the secret to a 47-year marriage!)
You’ll note I said I’m not complaining “for the most part.” I like helping people understand Social Security’s rules and regulations. And I like answering their general questions about the program. But frankly, I’m perplexed when people come to me with questions or issues that I simply cannot help them with.
For example, one of the emails I got today went like this: “I get a small Social Security check and my husband’s benefit is much larger. How do I find out if I can get any extra benefits on his record?” Well, the obvious answer (obvious to me anyway) is to contact the Social Security Administration. Simply call them at their toll-free number: 800-772-1213.
Another email said: “I am about to turn 62 and I want to file for my Social Security. Can you help me with this?” Well, no I can’t. Once again, you’ve got to call SSA at 800-772-1213. Or better yet, file online at their website: SocialSecurity.gov.
Still other readers send me long emails that, because of the high volume of mail I get, I simply do not have time to decipher. These long emails usually take two forms.
One kind comes from readers who are looking for financial advice. They provide me with their entire work history, marital history, earnings history, and a spouse’s work and earnings history. They frequently tell me about all their assets and liabilities. They ask me to help them make retirement plans and tell them when they should file for Social Security benefits.
While I do appreciate their thoroughness, I really only have time to quickly scan their email, and I almost always tell them: “I am not a financial planner. I’m just an old retired Social Security guy. As such, all I can do is explain Social Security rules. And I just can’t do that in a quick email. So I strongly recommend you spend 10 bucks and get my little Social Security guidebook called ‘Social Security—Simple and Smart.’ One of the chapters in that book explains when and how to file for Social Security. I think it will answer all your questions.”
The other kind of long email I get from readers are the kind that are ranting and raving about some perceived injustice with the Social Security system. (I got one this week that went on for three pages!) There really is nothing I can do to help these people other than just give them a chance to vent!
Still other readers send me emails in which they are complaining about service they got, or that they are trying to get, from the Social Security Administration. Sometimes they tell me they can’t get through to SSA’s toll-free service line (800-772-1213). Or they talked to someone at SSA and didn’t like the answer they got. Or they are trying to resolve some problem with their benefits, and they think the resolution is taking too long. They usually ask me to intervene or “do something” to resolve their problem.
But frankly, there is nothing I can do in these situations. With respect to getting help at the 800 number, all I can suggest is patience. You might have to wait on hold a while, but someone will eventually answer the phone. With respect to intervening in their case, these folks should know that I have been retired from the agency for 16 years now and I have absolutely no clout with anyone there. I simply can’t pick up the phone, call some official at SSA, and say, “Fix this guy’s problem now!” What I usually do is suggest they ask to speak to a supervisor or manager at their local Social Security office.
And speaking of dealing with someone at the local office, I always recommend you do that. Some people think they are being smart by “going to the top”—by trying to deal with someone at one of SSA’s regional offices or even at their headquarters’ complex in Baltimore, Maryland. That is a big waste of time. You are always better off dealing with local staff.
To illustrate what I mean, let me share this with you. I worked for many years at SSA’s headquarters outside of Baltimore. There were about 10,000 people working there. And each of those folks had some sort of administrative job to do. They were not there to help individual Social Security recipients. (Again, that’s what local Social Security offices are for.) Still, every day, people would walk into the main headquarters’ building—some of them having traveled across the country to do so—and demand to speak to “someone at the top about my problem.”
These folks were ushered into a little office where I assume they thought they were talking to a headquarters’ big shot. In actuality, this office was staffed by representatives from the Randallstown, Maryland, Social Security office—the closest field office to SSA headquarters. If that Randallstown rep couldn’t handle the situation, the case was always referred back to the local office in the town where the visitor lived—the place the person should have gone to in the first place to handle the problem. (I realize that things are different for the time being with many offices partially closed due to COVID-19. So, consider this long-term advice when the world gets back to normal.)
Or if you simply can’t get help from the staff or management of your local office, then I suggest you contact your local congressional representative. They always have someone on staff who handles Social Security issues.
So, to sum up, come to me if you’ve got general questions about Social Security or if you can briefly present your own personal issue. (As I said, it really would help if you read my book first.) But if you’ve got business with SSA, you’re going to have to call them at 800-772-1213 or go online at SocialSecurity.gov. And if you have a problem, ask to speak to a manager, or contact your local member of Congress.