The average Social Security check is about $1,551 per month, but if you're married, you can easily bump up your household benefits by 50% or more. You and your spouse just have to work together to determine the best times for each of you to sign up.
First things first: Estimating your Social Security benefits
In order to come up with the best Social Security strategy, you will both need an idea of how much you can expect from the benefits program. The easiest way to get that information is to create a my Social Security account through the agency's website.
Once you've set up your account, you can start considering your options. The website allows you to pick a hypothetical age at which you would claim Social Security benefits, and estimate how much you'll earn annually between now and your retirement. Then, based on those estimates and the program's current benefit formula, its calculator will tell you how large your monthly checks will be.
The figure it gives you may not precisely match what you will be due in reality -- your future earnings may not be exactly what you estimate. But it can give you a rough idea of what to expect.
From there, you can play around and see how different starting ages would affect your checks. You must wait until your full retirement age (FRA) -- between 66 and 67 for current workers -- to claim your full standard benefit.
Or you can claim Social Security sooner, but taking benefits early will incrementally reduce the value of each of your monthly checks while delaying benefits will increase it. If your FRA is 67, and you start at 62 (the earliest you can claim benefits), you'll only get 70% of your "full" benefit. But you could get up to 124% if you delay until 70, when you qualify for your maximum benefit. For those with an FRA of 66, the range is anywhere from 75% to 132% of your full benefit, depending on when you sign up. But of course, claiming earlier means you get a larger number of those smaller checks, while waiting means you get a smaller number of higher-value payments.
The calculator also has a tool you can use to estimate the spousal benefit you could expect if you claimed Social Security based on your partner's work record instead of your own. Spousal benefits amount to up to 50% of your partner's benefit at their FRA. However, if you plan to do that, note that if your partner claims their benefits early, they'll reduce not only the size of their own monthly checks, but yours as well. By contrast, delaying claiming benefits past their FRA will raise your partner's benefits, but it will not increase your spousal benefit.
Once you have an idea of what each of you can expect from Social Security, you must decide when each of you should sign up for benefits. Here are a few different scenarios.
When both spouses will get roughly the same benefits
When both partners will be due similar Social Security benefits, both should typically delay claiming them for as long as possible if they want the most money per month from the program.
For example, say both partners would qualify for the current average benefit -- $1,551 per month -- at their FRA of 67. If both started claiming then, the couple would get $3,102 a month from Social Security.
Now let's say that only one spouse waited to claim and the other started taking their benefits as soon as they became eligible at 62. The spouse who began at 67 would still bring in $1,551 once they signed up, but the spouse who started at 62 would only receive checks for 70% of that amount, or about $1,086 per month, leaving the couple with just $2,637 per month.
Of course, the spouse who started taking checks at 62 would already have brought in $65,160 in benefits during the five years before their spouse began taking benefits. But if both partners make it to age 79 or older, the couple would still end up getting less out of the program overall than they would if both had signed up for benefits at 67.
When one spouse will get a much higher benefit than the other
When one spouse is on track for a much larger benefit, that spouse should generally do everything possible to delay taking Social Security until 70 in order to maximize the total household benefit.
The lower-earning spouse could also delay taking benefits as long as they can if they'd like to go for their maximum benefit, but if the spousal benefit they'd qualify for based on the higher earner's work record is more than the maximum benefit they could claim based on their own work history, this may not make sense.
Say both partners have FRAs of 67. At that age, one will qualify for a $3,000 monthly check while the other would qualify for a $1,000 benefit. The maximum benefit the lower earner could qualify for on their own would be $1,240. But the largest spousal benefit they could qualify for would be $1,500. Rather than delaying benefits unnecessarily, the lower-earning spouse could choose to start taking benefits early -- claiming on their own work record -- to bring in some extra money for the household.
If the lower-earning spouse signed up at 62, they'd only get $700 per month. But they could bring in $67,200 in benefits between 62 and 70. Then, when the higher-earning spouse applies for benefits, the Social Security Administration will automatically switch the lower-earning spouse over to their $1,500 spousal benefit, while the higher earner collects their maximum benefit of $3,720 per month.
If the lower-earning spouse's maximum benefit is higher than their maximum spousal benefit, it may still make sense for both partners to delay claiming. However, if the higher earner can't afford to delay taking benefits without help, the lower earner can sign up early to bolster their joint finances until their partner qualifies for their maximum benefit.
When one partner is in extremely poor health
Delaying Social Security may not make sense if you have a terminal condition or other reasons to expect that your lifespan will be shorter than average. In that case, the spouse with the shorter life expectancy may want to sign up for benefits as soon as possible so they can get what they can from the program. But it depends on the couple's situation.
Survivors benefits -- funds the Social Security Administration pays to the surviving family members of deceased workers and retirees -- are based on the Social Security benefit the deceased qualified for. If they claim benefits early, that will reduce the survivors benefits their widow or widower would qualify for. So if a couple doesn't need Social Security to help cover their bills, the ill spouse may help their partner out more by not claiming early, thus providing them with a larger survivors benefit later.
You can claim your retirement benefit and your survivors benefit at different times. However, when you claim both, the Social Security Administration doesn't pay you a full survivors benefit plus your own full retirement benefit. You'll only get whichever benefit is higher. So if the longer-living spouse qualifies for a larger retirement benefit than the amount of the survivors benefit, it often makes more sense for the ill spouse to claim the survivors benefit early.
There are many different strategies to consider when deciding when to apply for Social Security, but if you're married, the "every man for himself" philosophy is unlikely to lead to the smartest choice. If you and your spouse have never talked about your plans for retirement and Social Security, take the time to do so soon, and come up with the most solid plan you can for your future.