If you’re like most Americans, you’re probably counting on Social Security to help see you through retirement. A third of all income received by elderly people in the United States comes from the program. For millions of seniors, a monthly Social Security check is the only money they have to live on.
Unfortunately for many, the money they get isn’t all that much. The average retiree gets $1,366.46 a month from Social Security (as of April 2017). That’s enough to keep people out of poverty — but just barely. But if you’re savvy, you can give your Social Security check a little boost. A few moves, such as working longer and making sure you’re claiming all the benefits for which your eligible, can lead to more money in your pocket at retirement. Here are 11 things you can do to maximize your benefits and get a bigger Social Security check.
1. Check your statement
Your total Social Security retirement benefit is based on how much money you earned while you were working. If the information the Social Security Administration has about your income is wrong, your check at retirement could be lower than it should be. For that reason, it’s important to check your Social Security statement against your actual earnings. And if there’s an error, get it corrected.
To view your Social Security statement, create an account online at SSA.gov. You can also request a paper copy of your Social Security statement via mail.
2. Work for at least 35 years
You’re eligible for Social Security retirement benefits if you’ve worked at least 10 years. But to get the biggest possible check, you’ll usually want to work for a bit longer. That’s because Social Security averages your income from your 35 highest-earning work years (indexed for inflation) to determine your benefit.
What if you only worked for 30 years? For those other five years, your income is reported as zero, dragging down your total benefit. That means if you were out of the workforce to care for kids or unemployed for long stretches, your check might be smaller than you would like. To give it a boost, continue working for a few more years to increase your average earnings.
3. Earn more today
Social Security uses the years when you earned the most to determine your total benefit. In other words, a bigger salary today translates into a bigger check at retirement. If you can move to a higher-paying job or get a sweet raise, you’ll be giving yourself a little extra at retirement, too.
One thing to note: Earning more now will increase your Social Security check but only up to a point. You only pay Social Security tax on the first $127,200 of your income (the wage base). Earnings beyond that won’t do anything to increase your check.
4. Don’t claim benefits early
The biggest thing people do to shrink their Social Security benefit is claiming too soon. Your monthly check might be as much as 30% lower if you opt to start getting benefits at age 62 instead of waiting until your full retirement age (age 67 for those born after 1960).
Say you expect to receive a $1,000 Social Security benefit when you reach your full retirement age of 66. But if you decide to retire early and start Social Security at age 62, you’ll only get $750. And that benefit reduction will be permanent. Although there are some instances when claiming early makes sense — such as if you’re in poor health and don’t expect to live very long — generally it’s better to play the waiting game.
5. Delay benefits if possible
You’ll get more money from Social Security if you wait until your full retirement age to claim. But you’ll get even more if you can hold out a few more years. When you put off retirement, you’ll get delayed retirement credits that increase your benefit by 8% per year until age 70. A person who would have received $1,000 a month at age 66 would get $1,320 if they wait until they’re 70 to start getting benefits.
If you have other money to live on or are still working, delaying Social Security is usually a no-brainer. That’s especially true if you’re also trying to add years to earnings history. Any zero-income years you can eliminate by working longer means a bigger check once you do retire.
6. Know the rules around working
You can work and get Social Security at the same time, but if you’re younger than your full retirement age, your check might be reduced. For every $2 you earn over $16,920, you’ll lose $1 of Social Security benefits. After you reach full retirement age, working won’t affect your benefits.
If you do lose benefits because of Social Security’s earnings test, they aren’t gone forever. Once you hit full retirement age, the government will recalculate your benefit to reflect the months when you didn’t receive a check because you were working. That means you’ll get a higher monthly benefit eventually, as Kiplinger explained. Still the temporary reduction in benefits can sting, especially if you’re not prepared for it.
7. Maximize your spousal benefit
The government recently closed some loopholes that allowed married couples to game the Social Security system to get more in benefits. Although some strategies, such as filing-and-suspending, are no longer an option, there is still one trick some married people can use to boost their benefits.
If you turned 62 before Jan. 2, 2016, you still have the option of filing for your own benefit or your spousal benefit at full retirement age. This is called filing a restricted application, and it means you can get spousal benefits for a few years while also accruing delayed retirement credits on your own benefit, which you’ll switch to at age 70. However, your spouse needs to have already filed for their own benefit for this strategy to work.
8. Be strategic about survivor benefits
Under the new rules, most people are deemed to have filed for both their own and their spousal benefit when they first claim Social Security, and they’ll automatically get whichever payment is larger. But those “deemed filed” rules don’t apply to widows and widowers who are receiving survivor’s benefits on a deceased spouse’s record. If you’re eligible, you can file for and receive survivor benefits while waiting to claim your own (presumably larger) benefit at age 70.
Another thing to keep in mind: You’ll get a bigger survivor benefit if you wait until your full retirement age to claim. As a result, it makes sense for some people take their own, smaller Social Security benefit early and then claim a larger survivor benefit when they reach full retirement age, Bankrate explained.
Finally, if you’re eligible for survivor benefits and considering remarriage, time your wedding carefully. You’ll won’t lose your benefits if you remarry after age 60, so if you’re on the cusp, it could make sense to wait.
9. Hit pause on your divorce proceedings
Hit the 9½-year mark on your marriage, and ready to call it quits? If you can stick it out a little longer, you might be able to get a bigger Social Security check later on. A divorced spouse who was married for at least 10 years and hasn’t remarried is eligible to claim benefits on an ex’s earning record. If your future ex is the higher earner in your marriage, those extra few months could mean a bigger check for you at retirement.
10. Watch out for debt
Unpaid student loans, alimony, child support, back taxes, and certain other debts can take a bite out of your Social Security check. While debt collectors generally can’t get their hands on your benefits, it’s legal for the government to garnish your retirement benefits in order to get what you owe it. At least 114,000 Social Security recipients are losing an average of $140 a month in benefits because they’re in default on their federal student loans. To get the biggest Social Security check possible, stay current on your student loans, pay your taxes, and don’t be a deadbeat.
11. Get professional help
Some of Social Security’s rules, such as those surrounding spousal and survivor benefits, can be confusing and complex. If you have questions about what to do as far as your benefits, the best move might be to talk to a professional. People who’ve received the National Social Security Advisor designation have received special training to help clients navigate their benefits. Or you could use an online tool, such as Maximize My Social Security, which will help you figure out the best time to claim.