Social Security: Explained

Whether you’re planning your retirement or have already started the journey, beginning to collect social security benefits is a pivotal step. Throughout your career you’ve been contributing a chunk of your paycheck to this program, and now it’s about to pay off!  

As a general rule, the longer you wait to begin collecting social security, the more money you will get. Your social security check will be for the same amount every month for the rest of your life. However, this amount will be adjusted for inflation. As a result, deciding when to start collecting is a significant choice with long-lasting implications. For help determining when to start collecting, check out our Social Security Optimizer.

Social Security uses the term “Full Retirement Age” (FRA) to describe the age at which you will be eligible to receive your “full” benefits. The Normal Retirement Age used to be set at age 65. Social Security has been gradually increasing the age to 67 based on the year in which you were born.  You can choose to start collecting your individual benefits as early as age 62. However, you’ll forfeit up to 30% in reduced benefits if you elect to collect benefits prior to reaching the FRA. You can also increase your benefit amount if you wait until after your Normal Retirement Age to start collecting. If you wait until you turn 70 to start collecting, you’ll receive the maximum monthly benefit.

Benefit types

First things first —there are four types of social security benefits you can collect: individual, spousal, divorce, and survivor. You can only collect one at a time, but you are able to switch between benefits to increase your payments. Below is a brief summary of the four different benefit types and some tips on how you can maximize your benefits.


You may qualify for individual benefits if you are at least age 62 and unmarried, or if you are married but made more money than your spouse.  You will be eligible for 100% of your full benefit amount once you reach your Normal Retirement Age.

While you can collect your individual benefits as early as age 62, it might be worthwhile to wait. Depending on the year you were born, you will receive up to 30% less money each month after your FRA.

Alternatively, if you wait until age 70, your monthly benefit amount will be larger. Every month you wait after your Normal Retirement Age, your monthly benefit increases. If you wait until 70, you can maximize your monthly amount. This can be as high as 132% of your “full” benefit.  


If you have been married to your spouse for at least 10 years, you may qualify for up to 50% of your spouse’s full monthly benefit amount. You can collect spousal benefits as early as age 62. You will, however, be subject to a reduction in your monthly benefits, which can be as high as 32.5%.

If you decide to collect spousal benefits and your spouse has not yet started collecting, your spouse’s benefits will no longer mature (i.e. increase). That means their monthly individual benefit amount will be set at the time you start collecting.  

If you’d like to estimate what type of social security benefit you could receive based on your retirement age, you can use our Social Security Optimizer. This will show you how much money you’ll have to live on at various retirement ages, which will help you make an informed decision on when to stop working.


If you are divorced (for at least 2 years) from a partner that you were married to for over 10 years, you may be eligible to collect divorcee benefits.  

Divorcee benefits are up to 50% of your ex’s full monthly benefit amount. Your ex will still receive the same amount, regardless of whether your ex has been married multiple times. If you remarried before age 62, however, you will not qualify. You will only get divorcee benefits if they are higher than your own individual benefits. It is not possible to collect more than one benefit type at a time.  

You can start collecting divorcee benefits as early as age 62, but your monthly payments will be reduced up to 32.5% based on the year you were born. Divorcee benefits do not increase after your Normal Retirement Age.


If the last person you were married to has passed away, you are eligible to receive their monthly social security benefit if it is greater than your individual benefit. These are known as survivor benefits. In order to qualify, your marriage must have lasted at least 9 months. You also can’t have remarried before the age of 60. There is only one exception to this rule: you will qualify for survivor benefits if your spouse died as the result of an accident, regardless of the length of the marriage.  

You can start collecting survivor benefits as early as age 60, but like the individual, spousal, and divorcee benefits, taking them prior to your Normal Retirement Age will decrease your monthly amount. The Normal Retirement Age varies slightly for Survivors. See the table below to find out what year you will reach Normal Retirement Age.  

Unlike the other benefit types, you can collect survivor benefits while allowing your individual benefits to continue to mature. It’s often optimal to collect Survivor Benefits first and then switch to your individual benefits once you turn 70.

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Not sure where to start?

Read our quick-start guide for help, including which questions you should be asking as you approach retirement.

Read our quick start guide