When to start collecting Social Security benefits is a big decision that most of us will have to make. There are good reasons to start early and good reasons to start late, which can make it all rather vexing.

Here’s a look at when one financial writer — that’s me — plans to start collecting and why. See if my thought process can help inform your own.

First things first — meet the “full retirement age”

You may not realize it, but each of us has a “full retirement age” at which we can start collecting our full Social Security benefits. (Starting before or after that age will result in bigger or smaller benefits.) Your full retirement age is somewhere between 65 and 67, depending on when you were born. Check out the table below:

Birth Year Full Retirement Age
1943 to 1954 66
1955 66 and 2 months
1956 66 and 4 months
1957 66 and 6 months
1958 66 and 8 months
1959 66 and 10 months
1960 or later 67

Why your full retirement age matters

You can start collecting your benefits as early as age 62 and as late as age 70, with an earlier start resulting in smaller checks and a later start leading to bigger payouts. The table below shows just how much bigger or smaller they’ll be — by listing the approximate percentage of the full benefits that you’d get if you start collecting at various ages. It’s not precisely accurate if your full retirement age is, say, 66 and 6 months, but it’s quite close.

Start Collecting at: Full Retirement Age of 66 Full Retirement Age of 67
62 75% 70%
63 80% 75%
64 86.7% 80%
65 93.3% 86.7%
66 100% 93.3%
67 108% 100%
68 116% 108%
69 124% 116%
70 132% 124%

The table shows that if you’re expecting full benefit checks of, say, $2,000 per month, waiting until age 70 (from a full retirement age of 67 — which is my full retirement age) will result in checks that are 124% bigger. That means $2,480 a month and an annual income of $29,760 instead of $24,000. All that can have you reasonably concluding that you should wait until age 70 to start collecting — for the bigger checks. That’s not necessarily the case, though.

It’s a wash

Remember that if you wait to age 70 to start collecting Social Security benefits, the checks will be about 24% bigger but you’ll be receiving a smaller total number of them than if you’d started at age 67. Specifically, in this example, you’d miss out on three years of (smaller) checks, which, when factored into the big picture, makes a meaningful difference.

If you’re starting to see that it could even be a wash whether you start at 67 or 70, it actually could be — and it could be a wash whether you start at 62 or 70. The Social Security Administration has explained that, “If you live to the average life expectancy for someone your age, you will receive about the same amount in lifetime benefits no matter whether you choose to start receiving benefits at age 62, full retirement age, age 70 or any age in between.”

Why start early or late?

So why start collecting your benefits early or late? Well, if you think you’ll likely live an average-length life (or a shorter-than-average one), start early. If you just need the money — perhaps because you lost your job or experienced a health crisis before you planned to retire — start early. If you would like to retire early and have managed to save enough to allow you to live off your various income sources and Social Security, start early.

On the other hand, if you think you stand a good chance of living an extra-long life, perhaps because many of your relatives have done so, consider delaying starting to collect if you can. Delaying can also make sense if you’re married, as it can be part of a strategy.

For example, if you and your spouse have had rather different earnings histories, you might start collecting the benefits of the spouse with the lower lifetime earnings record on time or early while delaying starting to collect the benefits of the higher-earning spouse. That way, you’ll get some income earlier, and when the higher earner hits 70, they can collect extra-large checks based on their earnings. Also, should that higher-earning spouse die first, the surviving spouse can collect that bigger benefit.

My thinking on when to start collecting

So when will I start collecting? I’m still some years away from retiring, so I’m not exactly sure, but I suspect it will be around age 64, give or take a little. Why then? Well, I have relatives who lived long lives and some who lived short ones, so my life expectancy doesn’t suggest I should hold off too long. I have been saving and investing for retirement for decades, so I do have a nest egg I plan to draw on in retirement, giving me a little flexibility. I should be able to retire in my early to mid-60s, if all goes well.

Thus, I’m likely to retire in my early or mid-60s and probably will start collecting my Social Security benefits then, too. Starting at 62 is very possible, but if I can delay until, say, 64, I can make those checks just a bit bigger without giving up too many of them. I see it as a bit of a compromise since I would like income sooner rather than later and also want my checks as big as possible.

Your thinking on when to start collecting

Of course, your situation will be different than mine, so do your own thinking and crunch your own numbers. You may be surprised to see that you can start collecting early and retire early — or you may see that working longer, if you can, will be better for your financial health. Just know that many people end up retiring earlier than planned, so beef up those retirement accounts as much as you can, as soon as you can.

Source: The Motley Fool