Struggling for income can ruin your retirement. That's why it's so important to make sure you have both supplementary savings and a Social Security benefit that provides as much income as possible. 

Unfortunately, many people don't fully understand how their retirement benefits from Social Security are calculated, so they end up passing up some of the money they could get from this program. If you're one of them, you could come to regret it if you get less of this guaranteed lifetime income than you'd otherwise be entitled to.

The good news is, by following these three steps, you can make sure you aren't left lamenting your choices with regards to Social Security. 

Two smiling older adults sitting together on a boat.

Image source: Getty Images.

1. Understand your benefits before claiming them

One of the biggest sources of Social Security regrets comes from not knowing how these benefits work. Specifically, you should understand:

  • How your age when you file for benefits affects the amount of money you receive: Your full retirement age (FRA) is when you get your standard benefit. FRA is based on birth year and is between age 66 and 2 months and 67. Early claiming, which means starting benefits between age 62 and FRA, results in a benefits reduction. Late filing between FRA and age 70 results in a benefits increase. The reduction from an early claim is permanent, so carefully consider this issue before filing so you aren't surprised by a smaller check than anticipated. 
  • All of the different kinds of benefits you (and your spouse) may be entitled to: You may be entitled to spousal or survivor benefits if you're married, or were married for at least 10 years before divorcing. These could be larger than your own benefit, so be sure you know to claim them. On the other hand, if you're the higher earner, your spouse could get benefits based on your work record -- but only if you file for your own benefits first.

2. Work for at least 35 years

The benefit you get at full retirement age is based on average wages over 35 years. Wages earned each year are recorded and adjusted for inflation. The Social Security Administration then calculates an average wage based on the 35 highest-earning years on your record. Benefits equal a percentage of it. 

Without a 35-year earnings history, you can still claim Social Security retirement benefits (as long as you have at least 10 years of work credits). But you'll have a reduced benefit due to a smaller average wage resulting from the inclusion of some $0 wage years.

Having a career that spans at least 35 years allows you to avoid regrets that come from shrinking your benefits due to a lower average wage. And, in fact, if you want to replace some early low-earning years with higher ones later, you may want to work longer than 35 years if you've boosted your salary over time.

3. Choose a smart claiming strategy

Since an early claim results in a reduced benefit, you may assume starting your checks any time before age 70 will lead to Social Security regrets. But that's not necessarily the case. If you don't live very long, you could end up with less benefits if you wait -- either because your checks don't start before you die or because you get higher checks for only a short time before passing. 

Your health status is just one factor that can affect your claiming strategy. Your marital status and whether your spouse will rely on spousal or survivor benefits based on your work history will also affect this decision.

If you want to make sure you don't regret your claiming choice, evaluate all your options, coordinate with your spouse, think about your work history, and take the time to ensure the decision you make is the right one for your personal needs.