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The Most Important Social Security Chart You'll Ever See

Social Security might feel like it's beyond your control, but your decisions play a big role in how much you get from the program. The age you start benefits, in particular, has a significant effect on how much money you receive per month and over your lifetime. 

The chart below illustrates that effect by showing how your starting age can increase or decrease your monthly checks. Use this information to help you choose the optimal time for you to begin claiming.

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How your starting age affects your Social Security benefits

The Social Security Administration first determines what your benefit would be at your full retirement age (FRA) when calculating the size of your checks. Your FRA is somewhere between 66 and 67, depending on the year you were born. If you start benefits before this age, you'll get more checks but less money per check, and if you wait to start benefits until later, you'll get fewer checks but they'll be larger.

Here's a chart illustrating how your starting age can increase or decrease your benefits, depending on your FRA. The chart begins at 62, when you first become eligible for Social Security, and ends at 70, when you qualify for your maximum benefit.

Age you begin Social Security

If your FRA is 66, your benefit will be:

If your FRA is 67, your benefit will be:

62

Reduced by 25%

Reduced by 30%

63

Reduced by 20%

Reduced by 25%

64

Reduced by 13.3%

Reduced by 20%

65

Reduced by 6.7%

Reduced by 13.3%

66

Unchanged

Reduced by 6.7%

67

Increased by 8%

Unchanged

68

Increased by 16%

Increased by 8%

69

Increased by 24%

Increased by 16%

70

Increased by 32%

Increased by 24%

Source: Social Security Administration.

Let's consider an example so you can see how this would work with real numbers. If you were entitled to a $1,500 benefit at your FRA of 67, you'd only get $1,050 per month if you began right away at 62, and you'd get $1,860 per month if you waited until 70 to start claiming. 

Delaying benefits might seem more appealing, but it's not always the right call. Remember, you'll get larger checks, but fewer of them, so you have to weigh your life expectancy, among other things.

How to decide when you should start Social Security benefits

The first question you must ask yourself in deciding when to start Social Security is what your goals are. If you want the most money possible, then it's a matter of considering your life expectancy and deciding which starting age will give you the largest lifetime benefit. But if you need Social Security to help you make ends meet, you might have to start sooner, even if it means getting less money overall.

If you can't afford to wait until you will get the largest benefit overall, try to delay as long as you can, even if that's only a couple of months. Every month you delay benefits increases your checks slightly, so even waiting a month can give you larger checks for the rest of your life.

Think about your life expectancy if you're aiming to get the most money overall. Delaying benefits is usually smarter if you expect to live long, typically into your late 80s or beyond. Though you'll get fewer checks, their larger size will help you quickly catch up to and surpass where you would've been if you'd begun benefits at a younger age. But if you don't think you'll live long, starting earlier is usually better because you may not live long enough to start reaping the advantages of the larger checks you get from delaying Social Security.

Coordinate with your spouse if you're married to decide when each of you will begin benefits. It might make sense for both of you to delay benefits as long as possible, or it might be better for the lower-earning spouse to start benefits early so the couple can cover their expenses and the higher-earning spouse can delay benefits until they're eligible for larger checks. When they claim, the Social Security Administration will automatically switch the lower-earning spouse to an enhanced spousal benefit if this would give them more money.

It's hard to know when is the best time to begin Social Security, but if you consider the above factors, you should be on the right track. Check in with yourself every year or so to see if you need to make any changes, and don't forget to alter your retirement savings plan accordingly as you change your plans for Social Security.

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