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3 Popular Ways to Maximize Your Social Security Benefit

By Christy Bieber – Aug 1, 2021 at 12:12PM

Key Points

  • Your age when you start your benefits affects how much you get.
  • If you're earning more late in life, working longer could increase your benefit.
  • A higher average wage could lead to more money from Social Security.

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Did you know you can actually make your Social Security checks bigger?

Want bigger Social Security checks? Who doesn't. These retirement benefits are a guaranteed source of income that will last for your entire life. 

But how can you actually make that happen?

The good news is, there are three simple and popular ways to supercharge the size of your Social Security checks. Here's what they are. 

Person looking at laptop and financial paperwork.

Image source: Getty Images.

1. Increase your income

Your Social Security check amount is based on your personal work history. If you earn more, your benefit gets bigger. That means taking steps such as working overtime to increase your salary or negotiating aggressively for raises can really pay off down the line. 

2. Work 35 years or longer

You typically have to work for just 10 years to get Social Security benefits. But benefits are based on average wages in the 35 years your earnings were highest (adjusted for inflation). 

If you work fewer than 35 years, $0 wage years are included in the calculation of average lifetime wages, so your benefit will be smaller. If you work exactly 35 years, you won't have any $0s included -- but some low-earning years could still hurt your average. Most people, for example, have years when they're unemployed part of the year or are just starting a new career and not earning much.

If your current salary is higher, on an inflation-adjusted basis, than past earnings at any point in your 35-year career, working at least a year longer raises your monthly benefit by boosting the career-average wage they're based on. 

3. Delay your benefits claim 

Finally, you can wait to start your Social Security checks until long after you've reached the earliest eligible age of 62. See, while benefits become available in your early 60s, you're subject to a reduction in them if you claim prior to hitting your full retirement age.

The chart below shows what that age is, based on your birth year. 

Birth Year Full Retirement Age
1955 66 and 2 months
1956 66 and 4 months
1957 66 and 6 months
1958 66 and 8 months
1959 66 and 10 months
1960 or later 67

Data source: Social Security Administration.  

If you wait until at least FRA, you'll avoid early filing penalties. These apply monthly and they add up quickly. Each year you're early ends up shrinking Social Security checks by 6.7% for the first three years and an additional 5% for each year before then.

But if you want the biggest benefit, you can't actually claim at FRA either. You'll have to wait at least an additional three years -- until 70. That's because each month you wait after FRA results in a bigger benefit. The aggregate increase adds up to 8% for each year of delay. 

If your standard benefit at age 67 would've been $1,500 and you delay until you hit age 70, you'll earn three years of delayed retirement credits, resulting in a 24% increase to your monthly checks. You'd have an extra $360 every month for life. 

Now, the downside to delaying your benefits claim is giving up all the income you could've received in the meantime. Your higher monthly benefit should eventually make up for it -- if you live long enough. Since it takes time to break even, consider your health status when you decide if delaying benefits is the best choice. 

Still, if the goal is a larger monthly check, delaying until 70 is undoubtedly the way to go -- along with working extra years beyond 35 and taking steps to maximize income throughout your career. 

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