If you're decades away from retirement, like me, it's difficult to determine the best way to handle Social Security benefits. With the program's future so uncertain, it's hard to know what benefits are even going to look like by the time I'm ready to claim them. Plus, there's no way to know what curveballs life will throw my way that could affect my retirement expenses. My tentative plan is to delay Social Security until I'm 70, but that could change.

Why the age you start Social Security matters

Your Social Security benefit is calculated based on your average monthly earnings during your 35 highest-earning years with adjustments for inflation. You can calculate yours by filling out this worksheet or by creating a my Social Security account. If you want the full benefit you're entitled to, you have to wait until your full retirement age (FRA). This is 66 or 67, depending on your birth year.

A Social Security card with a calculator and a bank statement

Image source: Getty Images.

You can begin benefits as early as 62, but the Social Security Administration will reduce your checks to account for the extra months you're receiving benefits. If your FRA is 66 and you begin benefits at 62, you'll only receive 75% of the amount you'd be entitled to if you'd waited until your FRA. Those with a FRA of 67 will only receive 70% of their scheduled benefit if they start at 62.

Delaying benefits past your FRA will increase your checks by two-thirds of 1% for every month you wait to begin Social Security. This maxes out at 70, when you receive either 124% of your scheduled benefit if your FRA is 67 or 132% if your FRA is 66.

You must be strategic about when you take benefits so you don't accidentally shortchange yourself or your family members who may be relying on your Social Security checks. But the ideal starting age isn't always obvious, and there's no best answer for everyone.

Why I'm waiting to claim Social Security until 70

After careful consideration, here are my reasons for delaying Social Security until 70:

  • I'm a healthy person and anticipate living a long life. After calculating my approximate lifetime benefits by multiplying my estimated monthly Social Security checks at 62, 67 (my FRA), and 70 by 12, and then by the number of years I expect to receive benefits, I believe I'll get the most money overall if I wait until age 70 to begin Social Security. 
  • I'm prioritizing retirement savings now and anticipate having enough savings to cover all my living expenses in the early years of my retirement on my own. Then, when I begin drawing on Social Security at 70, my checks will cover a larger percentage of my living expenses, helping me stretch my remaining retirement savings further.
  • I haven't decided when I'm going to retire yet, but I expect it to be no later than 70. If I'm still working in my 60s and claiming Social Security, chances are good I'd lose some of my benefits to income tax. But if I wait until I'm 70, I'll be fully retired, my income will be lower, and my risk of owing taxes on my benefits decreases.
  • My fiance is several years older than me. If I decide to retire early, he can apply for Social Security before I'm even eligible, and we can use his benefits to offset our living costs, enabling me to delay my benefits until 70.

It's not set in stone

That's my tentative plan for now, but it could change. If I develop a serious illness that reduces my life expectancy, it won't make sense to delay benefits because I'd have fewer years to claim, and I'd receive less money overall. 

It also depends on what the government decides to do about Social Security. Currently, the program's trust funds are slated to be depleted by 2035, at which point it'll only be able to pay out 80% of scheduled benefits. The government has proposed several possible ways to remedy this, including:

  • Reducing benefits
  • Raising the FRA
  • Raising the Social Security payroll tax (currently 12.4%, split evenly between employee and employer)
  • Raising the ceiling on income subject to Social Security tax ($132,900 in 2019)
  • Reducing cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) that help Social Security keep pace with inflation

The final solution could be one or a combination of these things, or something totally different. When the government does make changes to the program, that could change how I choose to handle my Social Security benefits. 

You always have to be flexible when making plans for retirement and Social Security because your needs could change on a dime. While I'm planning to wait until 70 to start my benefits, that's not the best choice for everyone. Consider the size of the checks you're entitled to at different ages, and use your life expectancy to estimate your annual lifetime benefits. Don't forget to think about how your decision could affect your spouse -- or anyone else who depends on your Social Security or survivors benefits -- as well as how it could affect your tax bill for the year. Use all of this information to decide the best time for you to start Social Security, but be prepared to make adjustments if need be.