Millions of older Americans count on Social Security to either partially or fully pay the bills during retirement. Strategically claiming your benefits is imperative. Don't even contemplate filing for Social Security until you take these important steps.

1. Look up your full retirement age

The monthly Social Security benefit you're eligible to collect in retirement will be based on your specific earnings history, but you can't claim that benefit in its entirety until you reach full retirement age, or FRA. FRA depends on your year of birth, as follows:

Year of Birth

Full Retirement Age




66 and 2 months


66 and 4 months


66 and 6 months


66 and 8 months


66 and 10 months

1960 or later


Data source: Social Security Administration.

While you don't have to claim your benefits at FRA, doing so will help ensure they're not reduced permanently. If you file ahead of FRA, you'll lose 6.67% of your benefit annually for the first three early years and then 5% of your benefits per year after that. This means that if you claim benefits at the earliest possible age of 62, you'll reduce them by 30% if your FRA is 67. Even a modest reduction -- say, a 6.67% hit for filing a year early -- could hurt you in retirement, so know your FRA and use it to inform your claiming decision.

Loose stack of Social Security cards.

Image source: Getty Images.

2. Estimate your monthly benefit

You can also delay benefits past FRA. For each year you hold off on filing up until age 70, you'll grow your benefits by 8%. Knowing what benefit you're entitled to at FRA will help you determine whether you should file on time or wait.

Figure out what monthly benefit you're entitled to by checking your annual Social Security earnings statement. It will include an estimate of your benefit at FRA based on your work history to date. The closer you are to retirement, the more accurate that statement will be, but you should still use it to help guide your decision.

3. Consult with your spouse

If you're single, you only need to think of your own needs when deciding when to claim Social Security. If you're married, your filing could impact the Social Security income your spouse receives, so it's important to have that conversation before signing up for benefits.

If your spouse never worked, they will get a spousal benefit equal to 50% of your benefit at FRA. If you pass away before your spouse, they will get 100% of your benefit. In other words, the more income you collect from Social Security, the more your spouse will be entitled to in survivors benefits, so talk through your options together.

No matter what role Social Security ultimately plays in your retirement, maximize that income stream. Make these critical moves before claiming your benefits, as doing so could spare you a world of regret.