When Should I File for Social Security?

You can begin receiving retirement benefits from Social Security at the age of 62, but the actual age at which you should claim your benefits depends on many different factors. You need to consider how the age at which you decide to claim will affect your monthly benefit check -- because the earlier you file, the smaller your monthly benefit will be. You also need to consider your personal work history as well as your current financial situation.

This guide will explain why your age at the time of filing matters, as well as other key considerations when deciding the appropriate age to begin receiving income from the Social Security Administration.

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The size of your monthly Social Security check is affected by your age when you file

To decide when to file, it's important to know how your age affects your monthly benefit. Social Security calculates something called a primary insurance amount (PIA) using a specific formula that takes into account average wages earned over your lifetime. You will receive benefits equal to PIA if you retire at an age designated by law as your full retirement age (FRA).

FRA was 65 when Social Security was first created. But Social Security Amendments signed into law in 1983 slowly raised FRA from 65 to 67 for anyone born in 1938 or later. The change was justified by lengthening lifespans, but retirees now need to determine FRA based on their birth year.

Knowing FRA is important because filing prior to FRA will result in a reduced monthly benefit, while retirees who wait until FRA earn delayed retirement credits that increase monthly benefit checks. The increases or decreases resulting from retiring before or after FRA are among the most important considerations when determining when to file for Social Security.

When is your FRA?

Your Social Security checks will be permanently reduced if you file before your FRA, but they will be permanently increased if you file after it. So it's important to know what exactly your FRA is.

If Your Birth Year Is... Your FRA Is...
1937 or earlier 65
1938 65 and 2 months
1939 65 and 4 months
1940 65 and 6 months
1941 65 and 8 months
1942 65 and 10 months
1943-1954 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

Table source: Social Security Administration.

Note that for anyone born on the first of any month, FRA is determined as if your birthday was in the prior month. This means if you were born on January 1 of any year, FRA is determined as though you were born the prior year.

What benefit do you receive if you retire at FRA?

If you retire right at FRA, you'll receive a monthly benefit check equal to your primary insurance amount. This is calculated by:

  • Determining your average monthly income over the 35 years when you earned the most. The SSA adjusts wages over your career for inflation, adds up the amount earned in your 35 highest-earning years, and divides by 420 (the number of months in a 35-year career). The resulting number is called your Average Indexed Monthly Earnings (AIME).
  • Applying a formula to your AIME. You receive benefits equaling 90% of AIME up to a certain income threshold, 32% between a first and second threshold, and 15% above the second threshold. The two income thresholds -- called bend points -- change each year, but you always get the same percentage of AIME.

Your PIA is calculated in the year you turn 62 and first become eligible for Social Security benefits. If you don't retire until after 62, any further wages you earn could affect your AIME, and Social Security cost of living adjustments (annual raises based on inflation) are applied to it.

How do benefits decrease if you file prior to FRA?

If you file before FRA, your PIA is decreased based on how early you claim. Benefits are reduced by:

  • 5/9 of 1% per month for each of the first 36 months prior to FRA. This is around a 6.7% reduction each year for the first three years before FRA. You can figure out your specific benefit reduction by multiplying ((5/9) x 0.01) times the number of months before FRA you're claiming.
  • An additional 5/12 of 1% per month if you retire more than 36 months before FRA. This is an additional 5% reduction per year if you've retired more than three years prior to FRA. You figure out your reduction by multiplying ((5/12) x 0.01) times the number of additional months before FRA that you retire.

If you claim benefits at 62 when FRA is 66, this would mean you'd see a reduction of:

  • ((5/9) x 0.01) x 36 +
  • ((5/12) x 0.01) x 12

Your reduction would be .20 for the first 36 months + .05 for the additional 12 months prior to FRA, for a total of a 25% reduction. You can also use the table below to see exactly how much benefits would go down due to filing early if you claim benefits prior to FRA:

If Your Birth Year Is... Your FRA Is... If FRA Is... But You File for Benefits at... This Is How Much Your Benefits Are Reduced
1937 or earlier 65 65 62 20%
1938 65 and 2 months 65 63 13.3%
1939 65 and 4 months 65 64 6.7%
1940 65 and 6 months 66 62 25%
1941 65 and 8 months 66 63 20%
1942 65 and 10 months 66 64 13.3%
1943-1954 66 66 65 6.7%
1955 66 and 2 months 67 62 30%
1956 66 and 4 months 67 63 25%
1957 66 and 6 months 67 64 20%
1958 66 and 8 months 67 65 13.3%
1959 66 and 10 months 67 66 6.7%
1960 or later 67

How do benefits increase if you file after FRA?

When you file after FRA, you can earn delayed retirement credits that result in an increase in monthly Social Security benefits. These credits, which can be earned until age 70, are worth:

  • 2/3 of 1% per month you wait to claim after FRA, up until 70. This amounts to about an 8% increase in benefits annually. You can figure out your specific increase by multiplying ((2/3) x 0.01) x the number of months of delay.

So if you retire two years after hitting your FRA, you would see an increase of:

  • ((2/3) x 0.01) x 24 = .16 or 16%

The amount of delayed retirement credits available is capped based on your FRA. If your FRA is 66 and you can earn delayed retirement credits until 70, you could earn a maximum of 48 delayed retirement credits (four years times 12 months). But if FRA is 67, you'd cap out at earning 36 credits because you only have three years until you turn 70. So the maximum increase that you could see is 32%.

The table below shows how delayed retirement credits could potentially impact your benefits if you wait until after FRA to retire.

If Your Birth Year Is... Your FRA Is... If FRA Is... But You File for Benefits at... This Is How Much Your Benefits Are Reduced If FRA Is... And You Claim Benefits at... This Is How Much Your Primary Insurance Amount Would Increase
1937 or earlier 65 65 62 20% 66 67 8%
1938 65 and 2 months 65 63 13.3% 66 68 16%
1939 65 and 4 months 65 64 6.7% 66 69 24%
1940 65 and 6 months 66 62 25% 66 70 32%
1941 65 and 8 months 66 63 20% 67 68 8%
1942 65 and 10 months 66 64 13.3% 67 69 16%
1943-1954 66 66 65 6.7% 67 70 24%
1955 66 and 2 months 67 62 30%
1956 66 and 4 months 67 63 25%
1957 66 and 6 months 67 64 20%
1958 66 and 8 months 67 65 13.3%
1959 66 and 10 months 67 66 6.7%
1960 or later 67

Should you file for benefits at a specific age to maximize Social Security income?

So now you know that your age affects the monthly benefits you receive -- but does this mean you should retire at any particular age? Not necessarily.

Research from the Stanford Center for Longevity conducted an assessment of 292 strategies for generating income in retirement and determined that it is best to file for benefits at the age of 70 in order to maximize monthly Social Security income. Researchers made this recommendation because Social Security was defined as "close to the perfect retirement income generator" due to the fact benefits are protected against inflation and some or all of your Social Security income is tax free.

However, the Social Security system is actually designed so that you receive the same total benefits no matter what age you claim -- as long as you live to your projected actuarial life expectancy. That's because if you claim earlier, you get more total benefits checks, but each check is for a smaller amount, while you get larger checks if you claim later but receive fewer of them.

Of course, some people don't live as long as projected, and those people would be better off claiming earlier. Others who outlive their lifespans would be better off waiting to raise their monthly benefits. The problem is, it's hard to predict how long you are going to live. What you can do, however, is calculate your break-even point. This is the age you must live to in order to receive higher monthly benefits long enough to make up for years of foregone income if you wait to claim.

How to calculate your break-even point

To figure out how long you'd need to receive higher monthly benefits to make up for missed income due to delaying Social Security benefits:

  1. Determine what your reduced benefit would be at the age you're thinking about retiring: Do this by figuring out how much your PIA is reduced. For example, retiring at 62 with an FRA of 66 results in a 25% reduction in benefits, so you'd receive 75% of your PIA. If your PIA was $1,000, you'd receive $750 per month if you claim at 62.
  2. Figure out how much income you miss out on by delaying. Do this by multiplying the number of months of foregone income by the reduced benefit. If you're deciding between retiring at 62 or 65, you'd miss out on three years (36 months) of $750 per month benefits, or $27,000.
  3. Determine your higher monthly benefit at the later age. If you're trying to find your break-even point from waiting until 62 to 65, calculate your benefit at 65. Since 65 is still below FRA, you'd reduce your PIA by 6.7%, so you'd receive 93.3% of your $1,000 benefit, or $933.
  4. Figure out how long you'd need to receive the higher benefit to break even. With a benefit of $933 per month, your monthly checks are $183 per month higher than they'd have been at 62 ($933 - $750). You must make up for $27,000 of fixed income, so divide $27,000 by $183 to see that you must receive this extra $183 for around 148 months to get the $27,000 you didn't receive due to waiting.

You must receive the higher benefit for 12.3 years to break even. Since you'd be starting benefits at 65, you would need to live until 77.3. If you die before that age, you'll get less total benefits. If you live longer and continue to receive the higher benefit, you'll get more total benefits than if you'd claimed early.

You don't need to worry about inflation when doing these calculations, since your periodic Social Security raises (cost of living adjustments) are based on a percentage of your benefits.

How your break-even point helps you pick when to claim benefits

Because there's no real way of knowing how long you're going to live, there is no definitive way to say what age is best to claim benefits if your sole goal is to maximize your total Social Security income.

However, you can consider your family health history and current health status. If you're in great health and everyone in your family lived until 100, the odds are it will be worthwhile for you to delay benefits until 70 and receive a higher Social Security benefit. But if you have a lot of serious health problems and most people passed away young in your family, you may not want to bank on living long enough to make up for missing out on years of Social Security income.

Your work history matters in deciding when to file for benefits

Your work history can also affect the right time to claim benefits. That's because, as mentioned above, the Social Security Administration takes into account your highest 35 years of earnings when calculating AIME. If you have less than 35 years of work history, Social Security still takes an average of 35 years of earnings, but some years of $0 are factored in.

If you worked only a total of 25 years, you'd have 10 years of $0 wages considered when your average wage is determined. This could make your AIME -- and in turn your monthly Social Security benefit -- much lower. You might decide to work longer to get more years of income and replace some of those $0 years. And, as we'll see below, if you're working and earning a lot of money, there may be no point to filing for benefits.

Many people also earn higher wages later in their lifetime if their career has been on an upward trajectory. If you're one of them, you may decide to continue working later in life. By doing this, you can replace an early year when your income was low with a year of higher income. This could make AIME higher.

This guide to how your work history affects Social Security benefits provides some specific examples of how working for more or less time can affect your Social Security checks. You can use this information to help you determine if you should keep working and wait to claim benefits or if more years of work won't actually raise your monthly income.

Do you plan to keep working after filing?

Claiming Social Security benefits doesn't always mean giving up work. If you plan to continue at your job, you may still decide it makes sense to start receiving retirement income from the Social Security Administration (SSA). However, working while receiving benefits can affect the amount you receive from the SSA.

The specific impact a paycheck will have on your Social Security benefits varies depending on how old you are and how much you earn.

  • If you won't reach full retirement age in the year you're working, benefits will not be affected until you hit a certain income limit. For 2019, the income limit is $1,470 monthly or $17,640 annually. Once you earn more than this per month or per year, benefits are reduced by $1 for each $2 in earnings above the limit. If you earn $18,640, you've exceeded the limit by $1,000, so benefits would be reduced by $500 (the amount in excess of the limit divided by 2).
  • If you will reach FRA in the year you're working, benefits are affected only once you've exceeded a higher income limit and only in the months before FRA. For 2019, the limit is $3,910 monthly or $46,920 annually. Benefits are reduced by $1 for each $3 earned in excess of the limit. If you earn $47,920 before hitting FRA and exceed the limit by $1,000, your checks would be reduced by about $333 (the amount in excess of the limit divided by 3).
  • If you have already reached FRA in the year you're working, you can earn as much as you'd like, and your Social Security checks won't be reduced.

If you haven't hit FRA yet, there's no point to claiming benefits early if you will earn so much that your entire check is withheld. Say, for example, you earn $60,000 in a year you haven't yet reached FRA. You're $42,360 in excess of the limit, so benefits would be reduced by $21,280. Most people don't receive this much in benefits. If your annual Social Security income was $15,000, your entire check would be withheld.

When benefits are reduced because of working, you receive credit for this, and your monthly checks are higher later. However, there's no reason to claim Social Security before FRA just to have benefits withheld. That's especially true because of the way the SSA pays you back for withheld benefits. When you hit FRA, the SSA recalculates your benefit to remove the early filing penalty in any months when your entire benefit check was withheld. As a result, your new monthly benefit will be slightly higher. But it could take years of receiving that slightly higher benefit for you to make up for the money withheld.

So figure out how much income you'll earn if you work and calculate the impact on benefits to see if it's worth claiming them. The SSA's website publishes the income limits for the current year.

Other financial factors affect when you should file for benefits

Not everyone can choose when to file for Social Security solely based on an effort to maximize the total benefits they receive. In many situations, finances dictate when you claim.

If you are unable to find a job in your 60s, or if you have a medical condition that prevents you from working, you may need to file for Social Security to provide you with support. In fact, the Center for Retirement Research reported close to 4 in 10 Americans retire earlier than expected, often because of health shocks, job loss, or family-related reasons.

When a preretiree in his 60s is unable to earn income from employment, he will either need to rely on savings, claim Social Security, or both. Many people in this age group have too little saved to support themselves without Social Security or do not want to draw down their investment account balances too quickly. In either case, claiming Social Security as soon as possible often becomes necessary.

Others considering retirement determine they would prefer to claim benefits early to enable early retirement and to use them to enjoy life while young. Conversely, some seniors worried about affording the costs of healthcare or concerned they will run out of money later in retirement would prefer to wait to claim so as to maximize benefits they'll receive in their later years.

So when should you file for Social Security?

There is no right or wrong answer to the question of when to file for Social Security. In fact, the benefits program is actually designed so you'll receive the same lifetime benefits regardless of when you file -- provided you live to your expected lifespan -- because you'll receive either smaller benefits for more years or larger benefits for fewer years. However, if delaying retirement allows you to significantly increase your AIME by replacing low-earning years with high-earning years, waiting may actually boost total benefits overall.

Because there isn't a clear timeline for when it's best to file for benefits, consider:

  • How your age will affect your monthly benefit check: Will you receive your standard primary insurance amount, a reduced benefit due to filing early, or a higher benefit due to filing late?
  • Whether you think you'll live long enough to break even if you wait to claim benefits: While delaying boosts your monthly checks, it means missing out on years of income. You won't break even for this missed income if you don't receive the higher benefit for long enough due to an early death.
  • Whether you could increase AIME by working longer: If you haven't yet worked 35 years or are earning much more at the end of your career than at the beginning, it may be worth delaying filing to increase the average wage your benefit is based on.
  • Whether you plan to continue working after filing: If so, and you haven't reached FRA, you could have your entire benefit withheld if you earn too much.
  • Whether financial circumstances necessitate filing: If you need the money, you may have to claim Social Security benefits sooner than you'd planned.
  • Your preferences for the distribution of your retirement income: Would you prefer to receive a smaller check starting earlier and receive more checks in total, or would you prefer to receive a larger benefit for a shorter period of time?

What's right for one person isn't necessarily right for others, so make sure you evaluate your personal financial situation when making your decision. Our guide to Social Security can help you to make a fully informed choice.

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