Many older Americans count down the days until they're able to sign up for Social Security, but the truth is that filing at the wrong time could hurt you financially and leave you cash-strapped during retirement. If you claim benefits at full retirement age, you'll get the exact monthly sum you're entitled to based on your earnings history. File early -- you can do so starting at age 62 -- and you'll shrink your benefits for life. And then there's the option to delay benefits past full retirement age and boost them by 8% a year, up until you turn 70.

Now you may have an idea as to when you want to claim your benefits as retirement nears. But before you do, be sure to make these important moves.

Smiling older man at laptop

Image source: Getty Images.

1. Get an estimate of your monthly benefit

In order to figure out the best age to claim benefits, you'll need to know how much money you're in line for each month. Thankfully, you don't have to guess at that figure. All you need to do is a take a look at your most recent earnings statement, which will give you an estimate of your monthly benefit at full retirement age. That estimate may not be all that useful or accurate for a 30- or 40-something with many working years ahead, but if you're much older, it should be pretty spot on.

Workers aged 60 and over get their annual earnings statements in the mail, so if you don't remember seeing yours, check your filing cabinet. Otherwise, you can create an account on the Social Security Administration's website and access that document there. You'll need an account to file for benefits anyway, so it's worth doing.

2. Figure out your full retirement age

Your full retirement age is when you can claim your full monthly benefit -- but many people don't know when that age is. The problem is that full retirement age is a function of your year of birth; it's not a universal number. However, you can consult this table to see when yours is:

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 any time after


Data source: Social Security Administration.

3. Talk to your spouse

The Social Security decisions you make could have a significant impact on your spouse, so be sure to have a long talk about when to file before you pull the trigger. If your spouse never worked, he or she may be entitled to a monthly benefit equal to up to 50% of your benefit. But in that case, your spouse won't be able to claim that benefit until you start drawing yours.

Another thing you should know is that once you pass, your spouse will be entitled to survivors benefits equal to 100% of what you receive each month, so the higher your benefit, the more your spouse gets. If you expect your spouse to outlive you by many years, you should take that into account when signing up for your own benefit.

The decision to claim Social Security is not an easy one, but you'll be more likely to get it right if you tackle these key items first. And that way, you can enter retirement with the knowledge that you thought things through rather than acted impulsively.