The key to making better Social Security decisions

Knowledge is power, and for proof look no further than how people make better decisions about claiming Social Security benefits when they understand better how the program works.

Even such simple steps as reading a brochure and participating in a 15-minute online tutorial can give you enough information to improve your Social Security choices, according to a recent study. Its researchers delivered such "informational interventions" to a randomly selected group of older workers and compared their decisions one year later to a control group who didn't receive the interventions.

The result: A small but significant number of the treatment group were more likely to remain in the workforce one year later, and the effect was particularly pronounced for women.

What features of Social Security should you understand in order to get the most out of it?

The most important factors that affect your benefits are the age at which you begin drawing benefits, how your earnings history is used to calculate those benefits and how to best claim a spouse's benefits if you're married.

The report found that many Americans understand the effect of delaying a benefit claim and widow's benefits, but fewer understand the provisions about spousal benefits and which years of earnings are counted. It's also important to understand how earnings from work can potentially reduce your Social Security paycheck after you've started benefits.

Smart Social Security claiming strategies have the potential to boost your lifetime payout by as much as $100,000 and the lifetime payout for your spouse by $90,000. So, the potential payoff is substantial for spending just 15 minutes on an online tutorial, a few minutes reading a brochure or even a few hours learning more about the details of your Social Security benefits.

One smart way to get educated is to create an online "my Social Security" account that will show the estimated benefits you'll receive at various starting ages, along with your earnings history. In late 2014, the Social Security Administration (SSA) began mailing statements at milestone ages to workers who hadn't yet set up their own online Social Security account. Although the SSA had stopped mailing these paper statements in 2011, it has since resumed the practice partially in response to research showing that people make better decisions when they're informed.

If you get one of these statements, it's well worth your time to read it thoroughly and understand it. No matter what, don't throw it away -- file it where you can find it again. Your future retired self will thank you for spending these few minutes today to improve your life in retirement.

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    Steve Vernon helped large employers design and manage their retirement programs for more than 35 years as a consulting actuary. Now he's a research scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity, where he helps collect, direct and disseminate research that will improve the financial security of seniors. He's also president of Rest-of-Life Communications, delivers retirement planning workshops and authored Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck and Recession-Proof Your Retirement Years.