Determining when to begin claiming Social Security is one of the biggest retirement decisions you'll make, and it will affect your monthly income for the rest of your life.

The earliest you can file for benefits is age 62, but you can also begin claiming at any age thereafter. The longer you wait (up to age 70), the more you'll receive each month.

For that reason, it may seem logical to wait as long as you can to maximize your benefits. But there's one important reason why it could be smart to file earlier.

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Claiming Social Security early could be a wise move

Perhaps the best reason to consider claiming Social Security early is that over the long run, it may not matter what age you file.

Social Security is designed so that, in theory, you should receive the same amount in total regardless of when you begin claiming. If you file early, you'll collect more checks over a lifetime, but each payment will be smaller. By delaying benefits, you'll receive fewer, larger checks.

Claiming Social Security at 70 will increase your monthly income, but it won't necessarily increase the amount you collect in total. Also, if you have reason to believe you may live a shorter-than-average life span, you could actually receive more over a lifetime if you claim early.

For most people, the break-even age is somewhere in the late 70s or early 80s. In other words, to collect more in total by delaying Social Security, you'll need to live well into your 80s or beyond.

Of course, nobody can accurately predict their life span, and this isn't the most pleasant topic to think about. But if you're struggling with your health, it could be a financially wise move to file for Social Security early.

When it pays to delay benefits

For many older adults, claiming Social Security early is a smart move. But it won't be the right strategy for everyone, and there are a few scenarios where delaying benefits could be a better option:

  • You need the monthly income: By waiting until age 70 to file, you could earn up to 32% extra each month on top of your full benefit amount. That could add up to several hundred dollars per month, and for some retirees, that money can be a game changer. Even though you should (in theory) receive the same total benefits regardless of the age you claim, delaying benefits can significantly increase your monthly income.
  • You expect to live a longer-than-average life span: If you believe you'll live into your mid-80s or beyond, you could collect tens of thousands of dollars more over a lifetime if you delay benefits. This could be especially important if your retirement fund eventually runs dry and you're left depending on your benefits as your sole source of income.
  • You expect your spouse to outlive you: Again, this isn't the most pleasant topic to think about. But if you're married and one of you passes away, the surviving spouse could be entitled to the deceased person's entire benefit amount in survivors benefits. If you believe you may pass before your spouse, waiting until age 70 could result in your partner receiving a larger benefit amount.

There's not necessarily a right or wrong answer as to when you should begin claiming Social Security. Some people are better off claiming early, while others could benefit from delaying. By considering your unique situation, it will be easier to decide when is the best age for you.