When it comes to deciding when to claim Social Security, most people say they want the most money they can get.
AARP recently surveyed nearly 3,400 U.S. adults ages 25 to 66 for a study on Social Security knowledge. According to the November 2023 report, 71 percent said maximizing retirement income is “very important” to their benefit decision.
But when it actually comes to claiming Social Security, what people do is often different.
Less than 10 percent of the approximately 3.4 million people who started retirement benefits in 2022 were at least 70 years old, the age at which you can get your highest monthly payment, according to Social Security Administration (SSA) data. The average claiming age was about 65, and nearly a quarter of claimants were 62, the earliest age of eligibility.
That’s down considerably from 20 years earlier, when more than half of people starting Social Security did so at 62, despite receiving a sharply reduced monthly payment. But it’s still a lot of people potentially leaving a lot of money on the table: Claiming at 70 results in a benefit as much as 77 percent bigger than what you’d get at 62.
‘They still want to take it’
Why do so many people settle for so much less every month?
“I think most people take Social Security because they think they want it, they earned it, they deserve it,” says Alexander Joyce, president and CEO of ReJoyce Financial in Carmel, Indiana.
“At our practice, we deal with pretty high-net-worth people, and even those high-net-worth people are struggling to make Social Security decisions at 62,” Joyce says. Even if they don’t need the benefit income at that point to retire comfortably, he adds, “they still want to take it.”
Financial planners typically recommend delaying your claim as long as possible to secure the biggest possible monthly benefit. Social Security bases your payment on your lifetime earnings history, but you only get 100 percent of the calculated amount if you claim it at full retirement age, or FRA (currently between 66 and 67, depending on your year of birth). Claim earlier and you get a lesser payment, for life. Wait past FRA and your benefit is permanently bumped up.
Still, deciding when to start Social Security doesn’t always come down to when you’ll nail down the biggest monthly check. Health, family and financial issues can affect the calculus of when to claim.
“Don't take Social Security in a vacuum,” Joyce says. “You have to plan for this thing.”
Here are three circumstances planners say may justify taking a benefit hit to get your Social Security income flowing sooner, and three when it makes more sense to wait as long as you can. These are general guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules. Try AARP's Social Security calculator to get estimates based on claiming benefits at different ages, or, if you can, consult a financial adviser about your options.