Whether you're planning to file for Social Security in the coming year or at some point down the road, it helps to understand the ins and outs of the program so you can make the most of your benefits. Here are a few key tips that'll help you do just that.

1. Know your full retirement age

Full retirement age isn't the same for everyone; it's a function of the year you were born. Being aware of that age is important, though, because it's when you're entitled to collect your full monthly Social Security benefit. Though you can file for Social Security before full retirement age, doing so could end up shrinking your benefits for life.

Stack of Social Security cards

IMAGE SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES.

Here's what full retirement age looks like:

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 or later

67

DATA SOURCE: SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION. 

While you do get the option to claim benefits starting at age 62, for the first three years you file ahead of full retirement age, your benefits will go down by 6.67% a year. Beyond that point, you'll lose 5% a year. If you were born in 1960 or later, claiming benefits at 62 means filing five years ahead of full retirement age, and taking a 30% reduction in benefits in the process. As such, it's imperative that you know when you can claim benefits in full to avoid making a critical filing mistake.

2. Understand how your work history determines your benefits

Your Social Security benefits are based on your average monthly wages, indexed for inflation, over your 35 most profitable years in the workforce. If you don't work a full 35 years, you'll have a $0 factored into your benefits equation for each year you're missing an income within those three and a half decades. As such, it could pay to extend your career if you're thinking of retiring at a point when you only have, say, 33 years of work on record.

Even if you do have a 35-year work history, if your annual wages at present are much higher than they were earlier on in your career, it could pay to delay retirement and work longer as well. That way, you can replace some lower-earning years with a higher income to bring your monthly retirement benefit up.

3. Check your earnings statements annually

The Social Security Administration (SSA) issues all workers an earnings statement each year that summarizes their taxable income. But if the information contained in that statement is wrong, it could hurt your benefits down the line.

As we just learned, Social Security benefits are earnings-based, so if your income for a given year is listed on one of your statements at a lower amount than what it actually was, that reduced figure will get factored into your benefits equation. That's something you don't want to let happen, so instead, check your statements annually and report mistakes to the SSA at once. Keep in mind that unless you're 60 or older, you'll need to access your statements online, as they won't come in the mail.

4. Determine how much you can earn without having benefits withheld

Once you reach full retirement age, you can earn as much money as you'd like without having it affect your Social Security benefits. But if you haven't yet reached full retirement age and decide to work and collect benefits simultaneously, once your income exceeds a threshold known as the earnings test limit, a portion of your benefits will be withheld.

In 2020, you can earn up to $18,240 without it affecting your benefits. Beyond that limit, you'll have $1 in Social Security withheld for every $2 you earn. Notice that this money is being withheld, not taken away -- it gets added back into your benefits once you reach full retirement age. But the reduction in benefits you take by filing early will still remain in effect.

You should also know that if you'll be working and collecting Social Security next year, and are also reaching full retirement age next year, you can earn up to $48,600 without affecting your benefits. Beyond that point, you'll have $1 in Social Security withheld for every $3 you earn.

5. Consider the upside of delaying benefits

Maybe you'll be reaching full retirement age next year. But that doesn't mean you should rush to claim Social Security. For each year you delay benefits past full retirement age, you get to boost them by 8% in the process, up until you turn 70. And that permanent increase could come in quite handy during retirement, particularly if you're nearing that milestone without much in the way of independent savings.

Even if you're not planning to claim benefits in 2020, it pays to keep these tips in mind to maximize your Social Security income. Doing so will help ensure that you have enough money to keep up with your expenses in retirement, and, ideally, enjoy your golden years to the fullest.