Social Security provides vital income to millions of senior men and women. But if you're of the latter persuasion, it's especially crucial that you understand how to get the most out of this key program. Here are just a few things women need to know about Social Security.

1. You may come to rely on those benefits for a long time

It's not a secret that women tend to live longer than men, and as such, they tend to collect Social Security for longer. In fact, women represent 56% of Social Security recipients aged 62 and above and 66% of recipients aged 85 and older. This means that as a female, you need to be even more strategic about maximizing your benefits.

Serious woman with light smile

IMAGE SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES.

Furthermore, if you're not yet retired, you should be aware that Social Security is facing a pretty massive shortfall that, if left unaddressed, could result in a 23% reduction in benefits as early as 2034. That's why you'll need to work on amassing your own independent savings: Although Social Security was never designed to sustain retirees in full, if future benefits are indeed slashed, you'll have an even greater gap to bridge -- and a lengthier one at that.

2. It pays to work longer if you took time off during your career

Your Social Security benefits are based on how much you earned during your highest-paying 35 years in the workforce. This means that if you took time off during your career -- whether to raise children, care for a loved one, or some other reason -- it makes sense to consider working a bit longer when you're older. That's because for every year you didn't show an income during your top 35, you'll have a big fat $0 factored into your benefits calculation.

On the other hand, if you tack on a few extra years to your career, you'll replace some $0 years with actual earnings, thus boosting your benefits overall. This strategy especially makes sense if you haven't done a great job of saving on your own and don't have a spouse's income or benefits to fall back on. In fact, a good 49% percent of unmarried women over 65 rely on Social Security to provide 90% or more of their income, so if you haven't worked for at least 35 years, here's your opportunity to compensate.

3. You have options for boosting your benefits

Though your Social Security payments are based on how much you earned during your working years, you have the ability to raise or lower that benefit depending on when you first file. If you apply at your full retirement age, you'll be entitled to collect your base payment amount, so to speak. Your full retirement age is based on your year of birth, and it's the same for men and women. Here's what it looks like for today's older workers:

Year of Birth

Full Retirement Age

1943-1954

66

1955

66 and 2 months

1956

66 and 4 months

1957

66 and 6 months

1958

66 and 8 months

1959

66 and 10 months

1960

67

DATA SOURCE: SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION.

That said, if you're willing to hold off on filing for Social Security past your full retirement age, you'll get an 8% increase in benefits for each year you delay, up until age 70. (Incidentally, claiming benefits before full retirement age will have the opposite effect: Though you can file as early as 62, doing so will cause your payments to be slashed.) If you don't need your benefits right away, or you can get by on another source of income, then it pays to wait until 70 and boost your payments as much as you can. This way, if you end up living into your late 80s, 90s, or beyond, you'll wind up collecting more in your lifetime.

4. The age at which your spouse files could impact you as well

If you're married, make sure your spouse considers your needs when filing for benefits. That's because if you didn't work, and therefore aren't eligible for benefits of your own, you're still entitled to spousal benefits equal to 50% of what your partner collects. This means that if your spouse files early and reduces those payments, you'll end up getting less money out of Social Security, too. (Keep in mind that if you're entitled to your own benefits based on your work history, you'll collect whichever amount is greater -- your payments, or half of your spouse's payments.)

The same holds true for survivor benefits. If you outlive your partner, your survivor benefits will be based on the amount your spouse collected. That's why you should encourage your spouse to claim strategically (which often means filing as late as possible).

The more you read up on Social Security and how it works, the better positioned you'll be to make the most of it. And given that you may have a very long retirement ahead, it's a more than worthwhile investment in your financial future.

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