One of the biggest advantages of the Social Security program is its flexibility. You can start claiming retirement benefits as early as age 62, or you can wait and receive fatter checks each month.
The amount you'll receive each month depends in part on the age at which you file for Social Security. If you wait until your full retirement age (which is between 65 and 67, depending on the year you were born), you'll receive 100% of the amount you're theoretically entitled to. If you claim earlier than that, your benefits will be cut for every month you're ahead of schedule, by up to 30% if you fill as soon as you're legally able. However, for each month you delay taking benefits past your full retirement age (up to age 70), you'll receive a bonus to make up for the time you spent forgoing benefits.
The most popular age to start claiming benefits is 62: In 2013, 42% of men and 48% of women filed at that age, according to the Center for Retirement Research. And despite the opportunity to earn a large boost in their benefits, very few people wait until age 70 to file for Social Security. In fact, only 4% of women and 2% of men hold out that long. That means the other 96% to 98% of Americans are missing out on this major Social Security perk.
When it pays to wait
Of course, not everyone can wait until age 70 to start claiming benefits. Maybe you lost your job or had to retire early because of health issues, and you needed to claim benefits earlier than you anticipated just to get by. There are also a few other scenarios when claiming benefits early makes sense -- for example, you may have reason to believe you won't live much longer than age 70, or you may want to start receiving Social Security benefits while you're young enough to travel or otherwise enjoy that extra income.
If you wait until 70 to claim, though, you will receive significantly bigger checks for life. By waiting until your full retirement age, you'll receive your full benefit amount. If you claim early, your benefits will be cut by up to 30%. Wait until age 70, though, and you can receive up to 24% on top of your base benefit amount.