Deciding when to claim Social Security benefits isn't as straightforward as it seems. The general rule is that if you claim benefits early, you'll get less money each month while if you delay the start of your checks you'll bigger ones. 

But that doesn't mean an early claim always translates to collecting less Social Security benefits over your lifetime, nor is the reverse true. If your hope is to get the most money from Social Security over time, there are three key ways that you can do that. 

Two older adults taking a selfie.

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1. Calculate your break-even point

For most people, it doesn't just make sense to focus on maximizing their monthly income -- it's smarter to look at the big picture and see how to get the most lifetime benefits. And to do that, you'll want to calculate your break-even point. 

See, retirees receive their standard benefit amount only by claiming it at full retirement age. They'll get a reduced benefit if they claim early and an increased benefit until age 70 if they wait to file. Of course, waiting means missing entire checks in exchange for getting more money later.

You'll want to calculate how long it will take to break even for these higher checks if you're considering a delay. Here's how:

  • Estimate how much your monthly payment would be at the claiming ages you're considering. You can do this by signing into your Social Security account, which provides an estimate of your benefits at different claiming ages. Or you can do the math yourself to see how your benefits would be affected based on the age you claim them. 
  • Determine how much income you'd miss by waiting until a later date to claim benefits. For example, if you were entitled to a $1,085 benefit at age 62 and are thinking about delaying until a full retirement age of 67, you'd miss five years of benefits or $65,100 in income. 
  • Calculate how much extra you'd get each month due to waiting. In the above example, your benefit at FRA would be $1,550 so you'd get $465 more per month if you put off filing until full retirement age. 
  • See how many months you'd have to receive the higher benefit to account for the missed income. This is your break-even point. If you miss $65,100 in benefits in exchange for $465 per month later, you'd need to receive that extra $465 for 140 months -- or 11.7 years. If you don't live at least that long, an early claim is preferred. If you live longer, a later claim is better. 

Calculating your break-even amount helps you assess the consequences of an early or late filing much more clearly than just looking at the monthly check amounts at each age. Doing this math is the first crucial step toward claiming the maximum in Social Security income. 

2. Consider your life expectancy

It's impossible to know exactly how long you are going to live. But you can make an educated guess.

Your current health status, your family's history of longevity, and actuarial projections of your life expectancy can all help you to determine if you're likely to live past your break-even point. 

If you anticipate living well into your 80s or even into your 90s, a delayed claim for Social Security benefits is the best choice. But if you have serious health issues or family members tended to pass away young, the odds of getting more lifetime Social Security checks are higher if you don't wait.

3. Undo an ill-advised early claim

Sometimes, retirees claim Social Security early and end up regretting it. If this happens to you, there are ways to undo the damage.

If you just claimed your benefits within a year or less, you can withdraw your filing -- as long as you're willing and able to pay back any Social Security benefits you've already received. This would make it as though your claim never happened and you wouldn't be subject to the early filing penalties that otherwise would have applied.

If you haven't hit full retirement age yet, you could also go back to work and earn enough that your benefits stop. When you reach full retirement age, your check amount will be recalculated and you'll be credited back the monthly early filing penalty for each month in which you didn't receive a benefit check. 

The bottom line is, if you want to get the most Social Security money, you can't assume a late claim is always the best approach. Yet if you've filed early and regret it, you don't necessarily need to accept your fate. Do the math to make sure you're choosing to file for Social Security at the best time. And if it turns out you made the wrong choice, explore your options for getting back on track.