Social Security checks can be started as soon as age 62, but this is considered early claiming. Under Social Security rules, all retirees have a full retirement age (FRA) based their birth year. It's between 66 and 67. If you claim earlier, you'll face a benefits reduction; if you wait to claim after it, benefits gradually increase until age 70.
Starting benefits early results in a permanent reduction of your monthly checks, which could be a problem if you're heavily reliant on them in retirement. Still, it's popular to begin benefits before FRA, and most retirees claim well before age 70, when their checks would max out.
Not all retirees are equally likely to claim early, though. According to the Center for Retirement Research (CRR) at Boston College, women are more likely than men to start their benefits ahead of their FRA. And while there's sometimes a good reason for this, it often means they're forced to struggle with meager checks.
Women tend to claim Social Security at a younger age
For both men and women, claiming benefits ASAP is the most popular option. But far more women than men start at 62: 40% of women compared with 35% of men (page 16 of the CRR report). Women are also more likely to claim at 63 or 64, with 8% of women starting benefits at each of these ages, compared with 7% of men.
While the percentage of women waiting until 70 to start benefits slightly outnumbers the percentage of men delaying as long as possible, men are more likely than women to begin benefits between 65 and FRA, at FRA, or between FRA and age 70.
Claiming early could be a costly choice for women
When you start Social Security benefits prior to FRA, you reduce your standard benefit by 6.7% for each of the first three years, and by an additional 5% if you're more than 36 months ahead of schedule. And since future raises are based off your starting benefit, those who file for benefits at 62 will always have a smaller monthly check.
Unfortunately, women already face a gender gap in retirement readiness. Because women tend to be paid less than men and often take time off to raise children, it's common for them to have a lower Social Security benefit and less retirement savings than their male counterparts. Opting to claim Social Security checks ASAP further reduces available income.
And women who claim benefits early may also be likely to leave money on the table. Waiting makes sense only if you live long enough for higher monthly checks to make up for years of checks you passed up. The age at which this happens is called your breakeven point. If you outlive it, you get more lifetime income. Since women tend to live longer than men, they're more likely to hit this point and continue collecting -- sometimes for decades. Filing at 62 means giving up this extra money.
Of course, there are times when it makes sense to claim benefits early. Women who are married to a higher-earning spouse may file first to enable their partner to delay. Maximizing the benefits of the higher earner is smart because this technique raises survivors benefits that wives may receive if they become widows.
Women who don't think they'll live long enough to break even may also want to claim their benefits early, and some need their benefits to enable early retirement. But unless early claiming is part of a specific strategy or the income is needed, waiting may be a smarter move.
Women are costing themselves money by claiming early
While both men and women reduce their Social Security checks through early claiming, women may be more affected by this choice both because of their longer life spans and the likelihood their savings and benefits are below that of their male counterparts. The millions of women who claim benefits early should make sure to carefully evaluate whether this is the best choice.