3 Ways to Increase Your Social Security Check After Retirement

Everyone who works and pays FICA taxes for at least 10 years, or is married to someone who has paid these taxes, can collect Social Security benefits when they retire. That’s the good news. The bad news is that benefits are based on a complex formula that’s difficult to understand—and the Social Security Administration isn’t exactly known for doing a good job helping people get the maximum benefits they’re entitled to.

In 2019, the average person collected about $1,450 a month, and the average couple received about $2,400 in Social Security benefits. Considering the maximum benefit for a 62-year-old is over $2,200, and nearly $3,800 for a 70-year-old, it’s clear there’s a lot of room for most people to increase their checks.

Fortunately, if you know a few tips and tricks, and you have some time to plan, it’s fairly easy to get a higher Social Security benefit. Here are three things you should know before you file for Social Security to help you get a bigger check.

Don’t rely on the Social Security Administration

There are about 60,000 workers at the SSA; they will process about 64 million checks totaling over $1 trillion in 2019. It’s one of the larger government bureaucracies. That means you may get information and advice from one person this week, and contradictory information from another person next week. They may not all be equally well versed in all the rule changes and program guidelines, and they may be dealing with inaccurate information in your Social Security records.

It’s very important to request and review your Social Security statement every year or two to make sure it accurately reflects your work and earnings history. If it’s wrong, take steps to correct it before you file for benefits.

According to SSA rules, if you file for benefits, or act on advice from an agency employer that later turns out to be wrong, once a claim determination is made, it’s virtually impossible to reverse or correct it. So it’s up to you to be vigilant about your Social Security records and any programs and rules that might affect you.

It’s a good idea to use a benefits estimator or calculator to help you plan so you get the maximum benefit. The SSA has a free tool on its website that’s a good starting point, but it may be worth it to spend $40 for an annual subscription to Maximize My Social Security every few years, especially as you approach retirement. This calculator is highly recommended by financial professionals and lets you game out every possible filing strategy and benefit, and alerts you to rule changes and programs that may increase your benefit. It even gives you a detailed to-do list to help you increase your Social Security checks.

Work for at least 35 years

Social Security benefits are based in part on your average earnings over a 35-year window. If you have 45 years of work, it’s based on your highest 35 years. If you have years with no earnings, those zeroes really drag down your average. Even if you only earn a few thousand dollars in part-time work for some of those years, it’s better than having zero-earning years.

If you’re a stay-at-home spouse married to a high earner, boosting your work history with part-time jobs probably isn’t quite as important. Spouses, even divorced ones if they are unmarried, are entitled to the higher of their own benefit based on work history or 50% of their spouse’s benefit.

For example, if Barbara worked part-time during her marriage and was entitled to an $800 a month benefit based on her own work history, but her husband Charles was entitled to the maximum benefit at 66 of roughly $2,900 a month, Barbara would get her own $800 benefit with an additional $650 a month automatically added to equal half of Charles’s check.

Be strategic about timing your Social Security claim

Most people recommend waiting until age 70 to collect benefits because you get 132% of your base benefit at full retirement age if you wait. In other words, if you were entitled to $2,000 a month at age 66, you’d get $2,640 at age 70. The maximum benefit, remember, is about $3,800.

If you plan to retire prior to age 70, but have enough in your 401(k) and/or IRA to supply your living expenses for your projected life expectancy, or intend to work until you’re 70 years old, waiting to file so you get the biggest Social Security check is the best decision.

It’s good to do the math so you understand the long-term impact of filing early, at full retirement, and at age 70.

Age at retirement Monthly benefit Total payments at age 75 Total payments at age 80 Total payments at age 90
62 $2,200 $343,200 $475,200 $739,000
66 $2,900 $313,200 $487,200 $835,200
70 $3,800 $228,000 $456,000 $912,000

As you can see, you need to live to 81 before you come out ahead delaying benefits for a larger Social Security check. If you happened to die at 75, you would forfeit over $100,000 in benefits you would have received had you retired at 62. However, no one has a crystal ball to see what will happen tomorrow. You can just do your best to make an informed decision when you fully understand the impact on your benefits based on when you file.

If you’re entitled to Social Security, you naturally want to increase your check to get the maximum amount you’re entitled to. Use these tips and one of the online benefits calculators to help you plan and make sure you’re on the right track.

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