The average Social Security benefit for retired workers is about $1,519 per month, but you don't have to settle for the average. There are several strategies to increase your Social Security checks, and the simplicity of some of them may surprise you.
Working at least 35 years (and longer if you can) boosts your Social Security benefits if you're earning more in your later years than you did when you were younger. Below, I explain why this matters to your benefit calculation and other ways to increase the size of your checks.
How your Social Security benefit is calculated
The first step in determining your Social Security benefit is calculating your average indexed monthly earnings (AIME). The worksheet the Social Security Administration uses takes your income over your career and adjusts it for inflation to find the 35 highest-earning years.
If you haven't worked for at least 35 years, you'll have zero-income years factored in, reducing your benefit significantly. Conversely, if you've worked more than 35 years, your lower-earning years drop off as your higher-earning years replace them. This raises your AIME and, consequently, your Social Security benefit. Many people earn more money later in their careers than they did when they were just starting out, so working longer almost always increases your benefit.
Once you have your AIME, you can plug it into the Social Security formula to estimate the size of your check. This is the most recent benefit formula:
- Take 90% of the first $960 of your AIME
- If your AIME is over $960, add 32% of any amount over $960 up to $5,785.
- Add in 15% of anything above $5,785.
- Round down the total to the nearest dollar.
It gives you your benefit at your full retirement age (FRA), which is between 66 and 67, depending on your birth year.
Other ways to increase your Social Security benefit
The age you begin benefits also plays a significant role in the size of your checks. If you start claiming right away at 62 and your FRA is 67, you'll only get 70% of the benefit you would've gotten if you'd waited until your FRA. If your FRA is 66, you'd get 75% of your scheduled benefit per check by starting at 62. Every month you delay benefits increases your checks until you reach the maximum amount at 70. This is 124% of your scheduled benefit if your FRA is 67, or 132% if your FRA is 66.
Delaying benefits is a wise move if you expect to live into your mid-80s or beyond because it'll probably give you more money overall. But you might have to start early if you need the money to cover your living expenses or you don't expect to live that long.
For married couples where one spouse earns a lot more than the other, the lower-earning spouse can claim benefits early, enabling the higher-earning spouse to delay benefits until FRA or beyond. When the higher-earning spouse begins claiming benefits, the Social Security Administration will automatically switch the lower-earning spouse to a spousal benefit if that would give them more than their own Social Security benefit.
You should also strive to increase your income throughout your working life. This will give you more money to spend today and increase your AIME. You can try negotiating a raise, switching employers, or going for a promotion. You can also start a side hustle, but you must report all your side income to the government. Failure to do this will land you in trouble with the IRS and won't help your benefits because only income on which you paid Social Security taxes counts toward your AIME.
If you're not sure how long you've worked or what kind of Social Security benefit you can expect, create a my Social Security account to find out. This will also help you see how starting benefits early or delaying them could affect your monthly checks. Use this information to decide when you should begin benefits so you can get the most from the program.