When to Claim Social Security Benefits

Should you claim Social Security benefits at early retirement age, full retirement age, or later?

By , Attorney UC Law San Francisco
Updated 1/31/2023

Deciding the age at which you'd like to claim Social Security retirement benefits is tricky: Should you go for the lower-dollar option at age 62 or wait until full retirement age and get bigger monthly checks for the rest of your life? It's important to learn about your different options and benefit amounts before you start receiving Social Security benefits to make the most of your retirement money.

Here's how to determine what your Social Security retirement benefits will be at different ages and whether you should take early retirement benefits or not.

Your Social Security Retirement Options: Early, Full, and Late Retirement

You may opt to receive benefits early (at age 62), at full retirement age, or after full retirement age. Your full retirement age varies between 66 and 67 depending on when you were born. (To determine your full retirement age, visit the Social Security Administration's website and use the Retirement Age Calculator.)

If You Claim Benefits Before Full Retirement Age

Almost 40% of retirees claim benefits as soon as they turn 62 (referred to as "early retirement"). If you claim early retirement, you'll receive up to 25% less than you would have if you'd waited until full retirement age (this number goes up to 30% for people born in 1960 or later).

If You Claim Benefits at Full Retirement Age

Although claiming at full retirement age entitles you to "full" retirement benefits, you're actually given an incentive to wait even longer, as described next.

If You Claim Benefits After Full Retirement Age

From your full retirement age until you reach age 70, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will increase your benefits by 8% per year.

Let's see how this plays out. Imagine that you'd receive $21,180 annually if you retired at your full retirement age (let's say it's 66). If you retired early, at age 62, you'd receive only about $15,885 in Social Security annually from retirement until the end of your life. If you waited to retire until age 70, you'd receive about $28,000 annually, an 87% increase in monthly payments over claiming them at age 62.

Curious about the grand totals?

If you lived to be 75, you would receive a total of:

  • $206,505 if you started at age 62, or
  • $190,620 if you started at full retirement age
  • $140,000 if you started at age 70.

But if you lived to be 85, you would receive a total of:

  • $365,355 if you started at age 62
  • $402,420 if you started at full retirement age, or
  • $420,000 if you started at age 70.

Of course, these annual amounts will vary based on cost-of-living increases built into the payment system.

Calculating Your Retirement Benefits for Each Option

To find out how much your benefits will increase or decrease depending on the age you retire, visit Social Security's Early or Late Retirement Calculator. The SSA also offers online calculators to help you estimate your retirement benefits at each age.

You can also see a personalized comparison of retirement benefits at age 62, at full retirement age, and at age 70 on your Social Security Statement. Go to www.ssa.gov/mystatement to view your statement (you'll need to set up a Social Security account).

Social Security no longer sends out printed statements to everyone; the agency only sends paper statements to those over 60 who don't have a Social Security account.

Determining Which Retirement Age Is Best for You

Should you take the money and run at age 62? Or hold out until you're 70? About 40% of people don't wait past age 62, usually because they need the money, are convinced that Social Security might collapse at a later date, or are fearful of a short life span.

But is early retirement a good option for you? The questions below will help you decide.

Are You Still Working?

Some people, especially construction workers, movers, and other physical laborers, are less physically able to handle work at 62, even though they don't qualify for disability benefits. They may be good candidates for early retirement. But if you're still able-bodied and interested in working, you might want to avoid claiming early retirement benefits. If you're earning a high salary when you stop working, you'll miss the opportunity to boost your Social Security payment amount. (Your monthly payments are fixed based on the average of your top 35 earning years. Once you elect to receive benefits, your average stops increasing based on later Social Security contributions.)

Second, if you work while receiving benefits, you'll lose one dollar in benefits for every two dollars you earn over the SSA's earnings limit ($21,240 in 2023). There are no such deductions if you work after reaching full retirement age. The SSA provides an online earnings test calculator to determine whether working will lower your retirement benefits.

How's Your Health?

If you're convinced—either by genetics, research, or the amount of time you spend in doctors' offices—that you'll have a shorter lifespan than your peers, it doesn't make much sense to delay your retirement benefits.

What's Your Break-Even Point?

If you had a good idea of when you were to die, you could compare your total benefit payments under all three common scenarios:

  • age 62
  • full retirement age, and
  • age 70.

Financial planners prefer to calculate your break-even point—that's the age at which two of your total lifetime benefit amounts become equal to each other. (Social Security claims that if you live until your average life expectancy, your total lifetime benefit should be roughly the same whether you choose to retire at age 62, 66, or 70.)

Your personal break-even point will depend on a combination of factors, including your earnings record and when you were born. If you believe you'll live past this age (referred to as the "break-even" age), you should consider delaying claiming benefits until the later of the two dates, in order to give yourself an overall higher total.

To get specific information about your personal break-even point, you can call Social Security at 800-772-1213 and ask them to do the calculations for you.

Are You Married?

Social Security has reduced a number of strategies that couples used to get higher lifetime benefits for one or both spouses. But carefully choosing when to claim benefits can make a difference in monthly payments and in one spouse's survivors benefits.

If one spouse has contributed far less to Social Security than the other, for example, the greater-contributing spouse should ideally wait longer to claim benefits—at least until full retirement age. Then if the higher-earning spouse dies first, the survivor can claim the spouse's full benefit.

And since, statistically, men die first, for some couples, it makes sense for the husband (or for a spouse with health problems), to wait to collect, while the other spouse begins collecting at age 62. When the first spouse dies, the widow can collect survivors benefits based on the higher benefit.

Read more at Nolo's article on how spouses can maximize their retirement benefits.

Do You Have Dependents?

Keep this in mind: Your family's survivors benefits, which they can collect after your death, will be reduced if you claim early retirement benefits. But your family's spousal or dependent benefits, which they can collect while you're still living, won't be decreased if you claim early retirement benefits.

What Will You Do With the Money?

Claiming early benefits makes sense if you need the money for necessities—though that's also a sign that you're not saving enough and should continue working longer, if you're physically able to.

But claiming early benefits simply to augment an already-comfortable annual income doesn't make much sense. If you planned to invest the money, your investments would need to earn more than 7% annually to equal what you'd make by delaying benefits until full retirement age. If you can, withdraw money from tax-advantaged retirement accounts before starting to collect Social Security benefits.

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