Any kind of monthly check you don’t have to work for is pretty awesome, but let’s be honest: When it comes to Social Security, we all want as much as we can get. Many don’t realize it, but there are several easy ways you can beef up your Social Security checks, even if you’re not yet eligible to apply. Here are three you can try to lock in larger benefit checks for life.
1. Work at least 35 years
The Social Security Administration calculates your benefit amount using data on your average monthly earnings over your 35 highest-earning years. You don’t have to work that long to qualify for benefits, but if you exit the workforce before hitting the 35-year mark, you’ll have some zero-income years factored into your benefit calculation, permanently reducing how much you’ll get from the program.
If you’re able, try to work at least 35 years before retiring — and don’t feel like you have to stop there. Those who work longer than 35 years often get more out of Social Security. You’ll probably earn more money as you approach retirement age than you did as a teenager or young adult just beginning your career. Once you exceed 35 years, these more recent, higher-earning years start to replace your earlier, lower-earning years in your benefit calculation, resulting in larger checks.
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2. Choose the right claiming age
The other major factor that affects your Social Security checks is your age. Your birth year determines your full retirement age (FRA). This is the age at which you become eligible for your full Social Security benefit, and it’s anywhere from 66 to 67 for today’s workers.
Every month that you claim benefits under your FRA shrinks your checks. So, for example, if you sign up right away at 62, you will only get 70% of your full benefit per check if your FRA is 67 or 75% if your FRA is 66. The longer you wait, the more your checks grow until you reach your maximum benefit at 70. That’s 124% of your full benefit per check if your FRA is 67 or 132% if your FRA is 66.
It might seem like delaying benefits is the better choice, but this depends on your life expectancy. People who expect to live into their 80s or beyond usually get more money overall by delaying benefits, but those with shorter life expectancies are better off signing up right away so that they can claim checks for as many years as possible.
3. Coordinate with your household members
Married people may be eligible for a Social Security benefit even if they themselves never worked. If one person worked enough to qualify for checks, their partner is automatically eligible for a spousal benefit, which is worth up to 50% of the worker’s benefit at their FRA.
And if both spouses worked, they could each be eligible for their own benefit as well as a spousal benefit. In that case, the Social Security Administration gives each person whichever benefit is higher. However, you can’t claim a spousal benefit until your spouse signs up.
Couples looking to maximize their benefits should coordinate their claiming strategy. Your approach will depend on each person’s income and life expectancy and the household finances. For example, if one person has a terminal illness or the couple is financially struggling, one or both people may want to sign up early.
But if both have earned a similar amount over their lifetime and they can afford to pay their bills without Social Security, both partners might choose to delay benefits until they qualify for larger checks.
If you have other members of your household, like minor or disabled children, they may qualify for Social Security benefits as well. But you have to sign up before they can claim any benefits on your work record.
Ultimately, you have to decide when you want to sign up for Social Security. But it’s a good idea to explore a few different scenarios before you make that call. If you haven’t already done so, create a my Social Security account so that you can see how much you can expect from the program at various starting ages based on your actual work history. Then, once you’ve decided your starting age, check in with yourself annually to ensure that this still makes sense for you.
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