When it comes to planning for retirement, one of the most important decisions we have to make is when to start collecting our Social Security benefits. I've written before about how I plan to take Social Security at age 64, but I really want to start collecting at 62, and I just might do so.

Here's a quick review of what you need to know before deciding when you want to start claiming your Social Security, along with some considerations to use in guiding your thinking process.

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What is my full retirement age?

Everyone has a full retirement age (FRA) in the eyes of the Social Security Administration (SSA), based on when you were born. The age at which you start collecting your retirement benefits will directly determine the amount of your Social Security checks for life.

This is the earliest age at which you're eligible to start collecting your full Social Security benefits. It used to be 65 for everyone but it has been increased for many of us. For those born in 1937 or earlier, it remains 65; for those born in 1960 or later, it's 67; and for those born between 1937 and 1960, it's somewhere in between.

Bigger or smaller checks?

You can control the size of your benefit checks by starting to collect your benefits earlier or later than your full retirement age. Doing so will, respectively, shrink or swell the amount in your checks for life. The table below shows how much of your full benefits you'll receive if you start collecting at various ages:

Age You Start Collecting :

Full Retirement Age of 66 

Full Retirement Age of 67 

62

75%

70%

63

80%

75%

64

86.7%

80%

65

93.3%

86.7%

66

100%

93.3%

67

108%

100%

68

116%

108%

69

124%

116%

70

132%

124%

Source: Social Security Administration. 

If your full retirement age is 67 and you start collecting at 64, your checks will be for just 80% of the amount had you waited until you were 67. If you instead wait until 70 to start, your checks can be 124% of what they would be at 67. This bonus is baked in to incentivize people to delay claiming their benefits until they're older, if they are able to.

Don't make the easy mistake of assuming waiting is better: Remember that if you start early, you'll receive many more checks. And the system is designed to be a wash for those who live average-length lives. (Of course, if you expect to live well beyond an average life span, there's more merit to delaying.)

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How to get more in Social Security benefits

There are other ways you can influence the size of your checks, too. The formula used to calculate your benefits is based on your earnings (adjusted for inflation) in the 35 years in which you earned the most money. So if you have worked for 37 years, your two lowest-earning years won't be used in the equation. And if you have worked for only 31 years, four zeros will be factored into the formula -- meaning that it can be worthwhile to work a few more years, to get as close to 35 as you can. Even if you've worked for 35 years, if you're earning a lot more today (adjusted for inflation) than you did in the past, each extra year you work now will kick out a low-earning year from the equation.

Strategizing with your spouse is important and you should coordinate on who will start collecting benefits first, and who might delay. It can be smart to have the higher earner delay starting to collect, to let those checks grow even bigger.

When I'm collecting Social Security benefits

So, why would I aim to start collecting at 62? These are my reasons, but think about whether they might apply to you, as well as guide your own decision-making.

  • I'm impatient. I would rather retire a little early, if I can.
  • I have been saving for retirement for a long time, so I won't have to rely solely on Social Security. (The average Social Security retirement check was recently $1,461, or about $17,500 annually, and the maximum check topped out at $3,770, for around $45,000 annually.)
  • My family's longevity is mixed. Some relatives have lived to 90 or beyond, while others have died much earlier. Thus, there's a good chance that delaying starting to collect won't pay off.

I may still stick with my original plan to start collecting around 64, though. Here are some reasons:

  • Healthcare expenses can be hefty in retirement, and I can't enroll in Medicare until age 65. If my spouse keeps working, I could stay on her plan -- but anyone without a good way to stay covered or pay for significant medical expenses before Medicare kicks in should rethink retiring early.
  • My spouse isn't likely to retire when I'm 62, so if she keeps working, I may want to as well. A few years later, we could both retire and start enjoying lots of free time together.
  • Waiting two more years is more conservative, which will let me keep saving money, growing my retirement war chest a little bigger, and will shorten the period of time my savings will have to support me. It will also allow my Social Security benefits grow bigger -- to 80% of my full benefits instead of 70%.

Each person's situation and considerations are different, so learn all you can about Social Security and make you own informed decision. There are good cases to be made for retiring early or for hanging in there, working until age 70. See which retirement age seems best for you.

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