When Should You Start Claiming Your Social Security Benefits?

If you want to start a lively discussion among a group of retirement experts, just casually toss out the question, “What’s the best age to start taking Social Security?”

The reason the answer to that question is so debatable isn’t because Social Security benefits are some vague mystery. Studies have shown that there is an optimal age to start taking them. But it’s because individual circumstances may well dictate that a person should begin claiming their benefit at a different age.

Before we look at the factors that go into choosing when to start claiming your benefit, here’s some quick background on how it is calculated. Basically, four components go into determining the monthly amount you are eligible to receive from Social Security: Your work history, earning history, full retirement age, and claiming age.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) looks at your 35 highest-earning years to calculate your full retirement benefit. Your full retirement age is the age at which you can begin receiving this full amount. (This can vary. For example, for those born in 1960 or later, full retirement age is 67.)1

You have the option of retiring early, for example at age 62, and receiving a reduced benefit. Or you can begin your benefit later than your full retirement age, for example at age 70, and receive a larger benefit.

The SSA has tables where you can see how much your benefit will increase or decrease based on your age when you start taking it. There’s enough of a penalty for taking it early, that waiting is an attractive option.

A study of 20,000 retired workers using data from the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study, found that if the goal is “highest possible lifetime income,” then for a majority of those studied (57%) it would have been best to wait until age 70.

But just because this was the optimal age for a majority of people, doesn’t mean that this is the right age for everybody. However, it is good to know that the math may generally favor waiting until 70.

Knowing which age is best for you requires consideration of many personalized variables, including your financial needs, marital status, and health. Ultimately, none of us know exactly how long we’re going to live. And if you have a chronic health problem, you may not expect the longevity needed to make the delayed benefits pay off.

One other interesting finding of the retiree study mentioned above was how few of those studied actually optimized their Social Security benefits. Only 8% indicated that they were willing to wait to receive a higher payout.

Perhaps, if they had had someone sit down with them and explain their options, they might have chosen differently.

To avoid a similar mistake and choose the Social Security option that will make the most sense for your unique situation, be sure to talk with your trusted advisor well in advance of when you need to make a significant financial decision like this one.