Unfortunately, that creates a major problem for older women. The Social Security Administration reduces benefits for people who claim before their full retirement age, so by filing when she is first eligible, a woman is setting herself up for a Social Security benefit reduced by as much as 30 percent for the rest of her life.
It would be one thing if women generally had other significant sources of income in retirement. But according to Britt, women are five times as likely as men to live only on Social Security.
Women who are counting on spousal benefits from Social Security also see their payments diminished if they file before full retirement age. At full retirement age, a woman would be eligible for either her own full benefit or half of her spouse's, whichever is larger. But if she files at 62, she would only be eligible for her reduced benefit or as little as 32.5 percent of her partner's.
Their early claiming of benefits may be one reason why nearly 2.9 million women over 65 live in poverty, more than double the 1.3 million men in poverty, according to the National Women's Law Center. (Not only do men tend to earn more over their lifetimes, they also retire at age 64, on average, the Center for Retirement Research found.)
But there is an easy way for women to boost their income in later life. A woman who holds off on collecting Social Security after her full retirement age will receive delayed retirement credits that will boost her benefit as much as 8 percent for every year she waits until age 70. In other words, a woman whose full retirement age is 66 would receive a benefit reduced by as much as 30 percent if she retired at 62, but if she waited until age 70, it could increased by as much as 32 percent.
All in all, delaying a Social Security claim from age 62 to age 70 can increase the value of the benefit by as much as 76 percent, according to research by David Laster and Anil Suri of Merrill Lynch.
"For a retiree with pressing financial needs or a short life expectancy, it may be best to claim benefits as soon as possible. But for many others, current research suggests that waiting to claim Social Security can substantially increase expected lifetime benefits and reduce the risk of outliving their wealth," they wrote.
That is particularly true in today's low interest rate environment. The "return" on waiting to claim Social Security is well above the yield on a low-risk asset like a 10-year Treasury bond, for example.
People may also believe that if they hold off on receiving Social Security income until 70, the cost of delaying will outweigh the higher income they start receiving at age 70 for years, perhaps until they reach 85 or 90, Britt said. But in reality, she said, the break-even point is closer to age 80. That is well below the life expectancy of age 86.6 that the Social Security Administration calculates for women turning 65 now.