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5 Ways to Maximize Your Social Security Benefits

By Wendy Connick – May 14, 2017 at 9:32AM

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Social Security is a terrific program to help former workers enjoy a well-funded retirement. Here's how you can get the most from the program.

The rules governing the amount of your Social Security benefits can be incredibly complicated. But you don't need to be a financial wizard to increase your Social Security benefits; just try one or more of the methods listed below to squeeze every last dime into your monthly check.

1. Get a raise

How much you'll get in Social Security benefits is based on how much money you made during your 35 highest income years of working. Therefore, increasing your earnings during your working years will have a significant effect on how much you get from Social Security. And the nice thing about getting a raise is that it gives you immediate gratification, not just a benefit that you have to wait decades to enjoy.

Social Security statement and calculator

Image source: Getty Images.

2. Don't claim your benefits if you're still working

Unless you have no other choice, wait to claim your Social Security benefits until you've actually retired. If you earn more than $16,920 in outside income (as of 2017), your Social Security benefits will be reduced until you hit full retirement age. The good news is that once you do reach retirement age, your benefits thereafter will be increased based on the amount that the agency withheld due to your outside income.

3. Work for at least 35 years

Because Social Security is based on your 35 highest income years, if you worked for less than 35 years, then the Social Security Administration will use some zero income years to fill out the full 35. Since the agency averages out your income for those 35 years to calculate your benefits, having several $0 years in the calculation can significantly decrease said benefits. For example, let's say you worked for 30 years and made $50,000 per year. To calculate your average earnings for 35 years, you would multiply $50,000 by 30 years and then divide the result by 35 years. This gives you an average annual income of $42,857. If you worked for just five years longer at the same salary, then you'd have an average of $50,000 per year instead -- enough to give you a noticeable bump in your Social Security benefits.

4. Wait until age 70 to claim your benefits

You'll become eligible to claim Social Security benefits starting at age 62, but if you start that early you'll suffer a penalty in the form of a permanently reduced benefits check. You can use the Social Security calculator to figure out exactly how much the penalty would be in your situation. On the other hand, if you wait until after full retirement age to claim your benefits, you'll be rewarded with a delayed retirement credit -- a permanent increase to your benefits of 8% per year you waited. The retirement credits quit coming once you hit age 70, so it makes little sense to wait longer than that.

5. Take advantage of other Social Security benefits

Basic retirement benefits aren't the only way to get a Social Security check. If you're married and your spouse worked enough to qualify for Social Security retirement benefits, you can claim spousal benefits of up to one-half your spouse's full retirement benefits. If this would be more than your own full retirement benefits, then it certainly makes sense to take the spousal benefit instead. Divorced? Believe it or not, if you were married to your ex-spouse for at least 10 years and aren't married to someone else, you can still get spousal benefits based on your ex-spouse's retirement benefits once you and your ex both hit retirement age. Widows and widowers can qualify for survivors benefits, which can equal the deceased spouse's full retirement benefits.

Don't expect too much

The maximum Social Security benefit, as of 2017, is $3,538 a month (and that's if you wait until age 70 to claim it). The average Social Security benefit for 2017 is $1,360 per month. So unless your expenses are extremely low, don't count on Social Security as your only source of income in retirement. Maximizing your Social Security benefit will help, but it's important to have other funding options as well.

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