How to Get the Most from Social Security

The Social Security program is mired in controversy, with proponents saying we need to shore up the system and detractors demanding that we end the "Ponzi scheme."

But there's no question that for many generations, it has accomplished what it set out to do. Enacted under the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, the Social Security Act of 1935 was designed to "provide for the general welfare by establishing a system of Federal old-age benefits." It has provided a floor of income that has prevented millions of Americans from experiencing poverty in their retirement years.

Most people depend on this important monthly stipend in retirement. Currently, 35.8 million retired workers are getting monthly benefits of nearly $44 billion per month, collectively, with the average monthly payout amounting to $1,230.50. It's funded by payroll taxes, interest on investments and income taxes imposed on some Social Security benefits.

But when it comes to claiming benefits, it's easy to make mistakes. For instance, too many people sign up at their first opportunity -- age 62. Their benefits could be higher if they wait until full retirement age, which for most people is 66. And they could get a substantially higher monthly check if they could let their retirement credits build up until age 70 before making a claim. If you're married, there are ways to let your own retirement credits build up while collecting spousal benefits. But the decision about when and how to claim is complicated and depends on each individual's circumstances.

Bankrate's package on Social Security presents nine stories to help readers navigate the labyrinthine rules and regulations of the government program. It's important to be armed with as much information as possible as you wind down from your earning years and approach your golden years, so you can make smart decisions about how to manage your money.