If you’re about to retire, you might be wondering if you should start claiming your hard-earned Social Security benefits. If you need the income and you’re at least 62 – the minimum age to claim – the answer is obvious. But if you have enough other income to keep you going until you’re older, how do you decide?

Benefit Amount

The size of your monthly benefit payment depends on the year you were born and your age when you start claiming, down to the month. You receive your full monthly benefit if you start claiming when you reach full retirement age. To find your full retirement age, see the chart below.

What’s Your Full Social Security Retirement Age?

Year of Birth

Full (Normal) Retirement Age

1937 or earlier



65 and 2 months


65 and 4 months


65 and 6 months


65 and 8 months


65 and 10 months




66 and 2 months


66 and 4 months


66 and 6 months


66 and 8 months


66 and 10 months

1960 and later


Let’s say your full retirement age is 66. If you start claiming benefits at 66 and your full monthly benefit is $2,000, you’ll get $2,000 per month. If you start claiming benefits at age 62, which is 48 months early, your benefit will be reduced to 75% of your full monthly benefit (also called your primary insurance amount). In other words, you’ll get 25% less per month and your check will be $1,500. You’ll receive that reduced benefit not just until you turn 66, but for the rest of your life (though it will go up slightly over time with cost-of-living adjustments). The easiest way to do the math for your own situation is to use the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) Early or Late Retirement calculator (scroll down the linked page to find it).

If you wait until you’re 70 to start claiming benefits, you’ll get an extra 8% per year, and in total, you’ll get 132% of your primary insurance amount, or $2,640 per month, for the rest of your life. Claiming after you turn 70 doesn’t increase your benefits any further, so there’s no reason to wait longer. (For more, see Tips on When to Claim Social Security.)

The SSA’s many retirement calculators can also help you determine your full retirement age, the SSA’s estimate of your life expectancy for benefit calculations, rough estimates of your retirement benefits, actual projections of your retirement benefits based on your work record and more.

The longer you can afford to wait, the larger your check will be. But you’ll also have no money coming in from Social Security during the months when you postpone claiming. Waiting as long as possible to start claiming benefits doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll come out ahead overall, though, for several reasons: expected longevity, spousal benefits, taxes, investment opportunity and health insurance.

Expected Longevity

So much of our strategizing about how to maximize Social Security retirement benefits depends on guesses about how long we’ll live. Any of us could die in a car accident or get a terminal cancer diagnosis next week. But putting aside these unpredictable possibilities, how long do you think you’ll live? What is your health like now, and what has your relatives’ longevity looked like? Have you had a physical and blood work lately? How are your blood pressure, cholesterol, weight and other markers of health? If you predict an above-average life expectancy for yourself, you may come out ahead by waiting to claim benefits. If not, you might want to claim as soon as you’re eligible. (See Is Waiting till 70 for Social Security Right for You?)

To make an educated guess about how to come out ahead, you’ll need to do a break-even analysis. What do we mean by breaking even? It’s the point where your lifetime benefits are the same given different initial claim ages. The question is this: Will you be better off – that is, will you get a higher total lifetime payout – getting more checks for a smaller amount (by claiming at 62, for example), or fewer checks for a larger amount (by claiming as late as age 70)? (For further explanation, see How do I calculate my Social Security break-even age?)

The Social Security website will tell you that regardless of when you start claiming, your lifetime benefits will be similar if you live as long as the average retiree. The problem is that most people will not have an average life expectancy, hence all the different claiming strategies.

Spousal Benefits

Being married further complicates the decision of when to take Social Security because of the program’s spousal benefits. Certain divorcees are also entitled to benefits. (See A Guide to Social Security Benefits for Divorcees and Divorce and New Social Security Rules: What to Know.)

Spouses who didn’t work or who didn’t earn enough credits to qualify for Social Security on their own are eligible to receive benefits starting at age 62 based on their spouse’s work record. As with claiming benefits on your own record, your spousal benefit will be reduced if you claim benefits before reaching full retirement age (though not at the same rate as claiming your own benefits early). The highest spousal benefit you can receive is half the benefit your spouse is entitled to at their full retirement age.

While spouses will get a lower benefit if they claim before reaching their own full retirement age, they will not get a larger spousal benefit by waiting to claim after full retirement age – say, at age 70. But a nonworking or lower-earning spouse can get a larger spousal benefit if the working spouse has some late-career, high-earning years that boost benefits.

When one spouse dies, the surviving spouse is entitled to receive the higher of their own benefit or their deceased spouse’s benefit, but not both. That’s why financial planners often advise the higher-earning spouse to delay claiming. If the higher-earning spouse dies first, the surviving, lower-earning spouse will receive a larger Social Security check for life.

When the surviving spouse hasn’t reached full retirement age, he or she will be entitled to prorated amounts starting at age 60. At full retirement age, the surviving spouse is entitled to 100% of the deceased spouse’s benefit or to their own benefit, whichever is higher. (How does my spousal Social Security benefit work? has more details.)

A claiming strategy called file and suspend used to allow married couples of full retirement age to receive spousal benefits and delayed retirement credits at the same time. This strategy, which ended as of May 1, 2016, helped some couples receive tens of thousands more from Social Security.

Here’s the next-best thing for older, dual-income couples: Individuals who turned 62 by January 1, 2016, can use a strategy called restricted application. Spouse A claims benefits first; spouse B claims spousal benefits. Once spouse B turns 70, spouse B claims their own benefit instead. Spouse A then claims spousal benefits, which are now higher than their own benefit because of how much spouse B’s benefit has grown by waiting to claim until age 70. (For details, see Alternative Strategies to File and Suspend.)


Social Security benefits become taxable at rather low income thresholds. No matter how much you make, the first 15% of your benefit payments are not taxable. But income from interest, dividends and taxable retirement accounts such as 401(k)s and traditional IRAs can quickly push you over the tax threshold.

The Social Security Administration calculates your “combined income” as follows:

Your adjusted gross income
+ Nontaxable interest (for example, municipal bond interest)
+ ½ of your Social Security benefits
= Your “combined income”

If you file your federal tax return as an individual and your combined income is between $25,000 and $34,000, you may have to pay income tax on up to 50% of your benefits. If your combined income is more than $34,000, you may have to pay income tax on up to 85% of your benefits.

If you’re married filing a joint return and you and your spouse’s combined income is $32,000 to $44,000, you may have to pay income tax on up to 50% of your benefits. If your combined income is more than $44,000, you may have to pay income tax on up to 85% of your benefits.

Because the math isn’t at all straightforward, the best way to calculate your tax liability is to use a calculator like the Motley Fool’s Social Security tax calculator (scroll down the page after clicking the link). It gives you a detailed breakdown of how the result is calculated after you enter your numbers.

Let’s say you receive the maximum Social Security benefit for a worker retiring at full retirement age in 2018: $2,788 per month. Your spouse receives half as much, or $1,394 per month. Together, you receive $4,182 per month, or $50,184 per year. Half of that, or $25,092, counts toward your “combined income” for the purpose of determining whether you pay tax on part of your Social Security benefits. Let’s further assume that you don’t have any nontaxable interest, wages or other income except for your traditional IRA’s required minimum distribution (RMD) of $10,000 for the year.

Your combined income would be $60,184 (your Social Security income plus your IRA income), which would make up to 85% of your Social Security benefits taxable because $60,184 is more than $44,000. Now, you’re probably thinking, 85% of $50,184, is $42,656, and I’m in the 22% tax bracket, so my tax on my Social Security benefit will be $9,384. Fortunately, that’s completely wrong. By using an online calculator, you’ll see that your tax will really be a mere $340. You can read all about the taxation of your Social Security benefits in IRS publication 915. (A Roth conversion could help you lower your tax bill. Read Roth IRA Conversions: When to Do It, When to Pass to learn more. You can also find more tax-lowering tips in Avoid the Social Security Tax Trap.)

How do all of these tax calculations affect when you should apply for Social Security benefits? You’ll lose less of your Social Security benefits to taxes if you can wait until your income is lower to claim.

Investment Opportunity

Are you a disciplined, savvy investor who thinks you can earn more by claiming early and investing your benefit than by claiming later and receiving Social Security’s guaranteed higher benefit? Then you may want to claim early instead of waiting until age 70.

Most investors, however, are neither disciplined nor savvy. People take early benefit payments intending to invest the money, then use it to tour Europe instead. And even savvy investors cannot predict how their investments will perform over the first decade or two of their retirement. (For related reading, see How Sequence Risk Can Derail Retirement.)

If you claim early, invest in the stock market and average an 8% annual return – which is far from guaranteed – you will almost certainly come out ahead compared with claiming late, according to an analysis by Dan Caplinger, director of investment planning for Motley Fool. But if your returns are lower, if you receive reduced Social Security benefits because you continue working past age 62, if you have to pay taxes on your Social Security income or if you have a spouse who would benefit from claiming Social Security benefits based on your record, then all bets are off. Most people, in other words, will not benefit from this strategy – but it is a strategy to be aware of in case you’re one of the few who might. (For related reading, see The Case for Collecting Social Security Early.)

Effect on Health Insurance

Here’s another factor to consider: Do you have a health savings account (HSA) that you want to keep contributing to? If so and if you’re 65 or older, receiving Social Security benefits requires you to sign up for Medicare Part A. The problem with signing up for Medicare Part A is that you’ll no longer be allowed to add funds to your HSA. (For related reading, see How to Use Your HSA for Retirement.)

The Social Security Administration cautions that even if you delay receiving Social Security benefits until after age 65, you might still need to apply for Medicare benefits within three months of turning 65 to avoid paying higher premiums for life for Medicare Part B and Part D. If you are still receiving health insurance from your employer, you might not have to enroll in Medicare yet. (To learn more, read How to Avoid Penalties When Postponing Medicare and When You Can and Can’t Delay Enrolling in Medicare.)

The Bottom Line

You don’t have to take Social Security just because you’re retired. If you can live without the income until age 70, you will ensure the maximum payment for yourself and lock in the maximum spousal payment. Just be sure you have enough other income to keep you going and that your health is good enough that you are likely to benefit from the wait. When you’re ready, you can apply for benefits online, by phone or at your local Social Security office. (For further reading, see Top 6 Myths About Social Security Benefits.)

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