A recent study is making headlines by claiming that somewhere in the neighborhood of 96% of retirees claim their Social Security benefits at the wrong age -- generally too soon to have optimized benefits. Despite any statistics that may have been misused by the study, as is usually the case, reality is a lot more nuanced than the headlines suggest.
There are two straightforward times when claiming retiree benefits is a clear mistake. For everyone else, it's a much murkier shade of gray. If you're below your full retirement age and still making ends meet by working, it does not make sense to collect Social Security. This is because there's a penalty of as much as $1 for every $2 you earn above $17,640 in the year. On the flip side, if you're past your 70th birthday, it doesn't make sense to wait, since you no longer get larger benefits for waiting longer.
For everyone else, there are trade-offs involved
Unless either of those two conditions applies to you, your choice on when to take Social Security depends on many factors. Of course, the amount you receive per check as well as over your lifetime both matter, but chances are that those factors aren't even the most important ones to you when all is said and done. If they were for most people, age 62 wouldn't be the most common age to begin claiming benefits.
After all, the fact that you could claim "victory" in your mid-80s by collecting more money from the system by waiting until age 70 to start is cold comfort if you starve to death in your mid-60s. More than a third of retirees rely on Social Security for 90% or more of their incomes, and over 60% depend on it for more than half their incomes. For many people in that situation -- particularly those forced into early retirement before they were ready -- the choice really is claim early or starve.
For reasons that are just as valid, retirees who are decent investors may also be making the right choice by collecting early, even if they have enough money that they could afford to wait until age 70. This is because money that you need to live on today should be invested more conservatively than money you don't need to touch until several years down the road. Costs you can cover from Social Security are costs that you don't need to cover from your portfolio, letting you keep more toward your long-term goals.
Similarly, retirees that expect to be living somewhat modest lifestyles may also find age 65 to be a decent age to start taking benefits, even if they could hold out for more by waiting longer. This is because Medicare's "Hold Harmless" provision keeps typical Medicare Part B premiums from increasing faster than a recipient's Social Security check, as long as you're collecting from both programs.
You can also get a "do-over'" if you act quickly enough
Despite the fact that there are many good reasons for collecting before age 70, you may still find yourself in a situation where you started collecting earlier and then decided you wish you hadn't. For instance, if you started collecting at age 62 because you lost your job, but then later found a replacement job, you might wish you could have seen that new job coming and waited to collect.
As long as you're within 12 months of first starting to collect your benefits, you can file form SSA-521 with the Social Security Administration, repay every penny you've collected, and then file again later. That do over provision is useful if your life circumstances change to where you no longer need to collect early, but be careful with it. You can only do it once in your lifetime, so if you're going to make use of the do over provision, be sure you really want and can afford to do so.
On average, it winds up being about a wash no matter when you start
If you're still afraid you may be making the wrong decision on when to collect Social Security, it may help to remember that there's a trade-off between when you start collecting and how large each payment is. The longer you wait, the larger your monthly benefit will be, but the shorter the amount of time you will collect. The net effect of that trade-off is that the typical person's lifetime Social Security benefit winds up being approximately the same, no matter when that person starts to collect.
That makes it less of an issue when you decide to start, as long as you meet the two key rules of collecting by age 70 and not collecting before your full retirement age if you're still working. Remember, too, that if you're looking at it through the lens of collecting the most from the program throughout your life, those extra lifetime payments only affect you in your 80s and beyond. Most people's total expenses tend to drop the later in retirement they get, making that money less useful then.
All in all, the choice on when to collect Social Security depends on so much more than just looking at how much you will collect over your lifetime from the program. Incorporate the diminishing utility of those larger payments later in life, and the suggestion that 96% of us are claiming Social Security at the "wrong" age becomes even that much more dubious. Statistics can make for great headlines, but don't let them scare you into thinking you've made a grievous error, when chances are good that you didn't.