Social Security is more vital for most Americans than you might realize. On average, it provides about 30% of retirement income for the elderly -- and for 12% of men and 15% of women, it provides 90% or more of their income.

It's worth learning more about the program so you can make smart decisions regarding it. For starters, learn more about when you should start collecting it. Many like to claim at age 62, but you might not want to. Here's why.

Two older people looking at documents on a couch.

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When you can claim your Social Security benefits

You can start collecting Social Security benefits as early as 62 and as late as 70. Everyone has a full retirement age at which they can start collecting the full benefits to which they're entitled, based on their work history. For most people, it's 66, 67, or somewhere in between.

Stat collecting before your full retirement age, and your benefit checks will be smaller. Delay collecting beyond your full retirement age, and they'll grow bigger by about 8% per year. So if your full retirement age is 67 and you delay starting to collect until age 70, your benefits will grow by 24%.

Why you shouldn't claim benefits at 62

That 24% increase is one excellent reason to delay collecting until 70 if you can. For example, it can turn a monthly $2,000 check into $2,480, which will turn an annual income of $24,000 into almost $30,000. This is an especially smart move if you stand a good chance of living a longer-than-average life.

Delaying to maximize your benefits is also smart if it's part of a strategy with your spouse. While you will likely enjoy two Social Security benefit checks arriving monthly in retirement, when one of you passes away, there will only be one check arriving -- but it will be the larger of the two. So married couples might consider having the higher earner delay as long as possible, to maximize that benefit.

Delaying retirement entirely is worth considering, too, if you can, since there are multiple benefits. For one thing, relatively few Americans have saved enough on which to retire comfortably, so working a few more years can allow you to plump up your retirement coffers a bit. That money will need to support you for fewer years, too. And while you're still working, you might get to enjoy employer-sponsored health insurance as well.

Few of us know what curveballs life will throw at us, so it's worth considering a delay in collecting Social Security if possible. After all, once the checks start flowing, you will receive them for the rest of your life, and annual cost-of-living increases will be made to them. The bigger your first check, the bigger your future checks will be, too.

Why claiming at 62 might be right for you

Still, for many people, claiming benefits at 62 or close to it can be a savvy move. They actually won't have a choice if they're unexpectedly laid off before their planned retirement date, or if they have to quit earlier than planned due to poor health or some other reason.

If you simply need all the income you can get as soon as possible, go ahead and claim early. Yes, your checks will be smaller, but you'll get many more of them! The system is designed so that for those who live average-length lives, total benefits received will be roughly a wash whether you claim early or late. If your health is poor or many relatives have died too young, starting to collect early makes sense.

Claiming early can be part of a spousal strategy, too: If your higher-earning partner is delaying starting to collect, you might collect sooner, just to get some income for the household.

Each of us is in a different situation, with different savings and needs. Read up on Social Security so that you can make the right moves when the time comes, getting as much as possible out of the program. And don't grab your benefits as soon as you can at 62 until you've considered all your options.