The challenge of saving enough for retirement grows more difficult by the year, so it's no surprise that people want to squeeze as much guaranteed money from Social Security as possible. There are plenty of levers you can pull to boost your benefits before you sign up, but once you're already receiving checks from the program, you have fewer options.
However, even then, there are still a few ways that you might be able to get more juice out of your Social Security benefits.
Change your mind
New Social Security beneficiaries have the option to do a one-time do-over if they regret signing up when they did. But you can only withdraw from Social Security if you've been taking benefits for one year or less. And there's a catch. In order to do this, you must:
- Return all of the money you've received from Social Security to date;
- Return all of the money anyone else in your household claiming benefits based on your work record has received from Social Security to date;
- Get written consent for your Social Security application withdrawal from everyone claiming benefits on your work record.
Giving back that much money might not be the easiest thing to do, especially if you've already spent some or all of it. But if you're able to withdraw your application, the Social Security Administration won't count your previous start date against you.
You can then delay reapplying for benefits until you're older and qualify for larger checks. But make sure you choose your new starting age carefully. You can't withdraw your Social Security application a second time.
If you're unable to withdraw your application, either because it's been more than a year since you signed up or because you've already done so once, you may still be able to suspend your benefits as long as you've reached your full retirement age (FRA). That's somewhere between 66 and 67 for today's workers.
You're allowed to suspend benefits until you're 70. If you do so, your checks -- when they resume -- will be slightly larger than they were previously. But they won't be as large as they would've been if you'd delayed taking benefits in the first place. If you decide to restart benefits before 70, just notify the Social Security Administration. Otherwise, it'll automatically start sending your checks again once you reach that age.
Make sure you're getting all the household benefits you're entitled to
You may not be the only person in your household who can claim Social Security benefits based on your work record. If you're eligible, your spouse automatically qualifies for benefits too, even if they've never worked. This spousal benefit is up to 50% of your benefit at your FRA. However, your spouse can't claim benefits on your employment record until you've signed up.
When both spouses qualify for Social Security in their own rights, the government automatically gives each of them the higher of their two potential payouts -- either the benefit they're due based on their own wage history, or their spousal benefit. So if your spouse has yet to claim, you could be entitled to larger checks once they do.
Though most retirees won't have dependent or disabled children in their households, those who do can claim extra benefits for them. This could increase your household benefits, at least temporarily. Check with the Social Security Administration if you're not sure who in your household qualifies for benefits.
See if you're eligible for a little extra
Adults 65 and older with low incomes, as well as individuals who are blind or disabled, are eligible for Supplemental Security Income. This is an additional monthly benefit on top of Social Security. How much you get depends on your annual income and where you live. Certain states offer additional money on top of the federal supplemental benefit.
You can find out if you qualify for Supplemental Security benefits using the Benefit Eligibility Screening Tool. If you do, you should sign up for these with the Social Security Administration right away. You won't get retroactive supplemental payments for the period before you first applied, even if you technically would have qualified for them sooner.
Your checks will get larger anyway
Every year, the government examines the rate of inflation in the U.S., and based on that, usually provides Social Security recipients with a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA). So retirees' monthly benefit checks will go up to compensate for some of the buying power that's lost due to inflation.
However, COLAs have a pattern of not quite keeping up with the real level of inflation as it impacts retirees, so just because your checks will get larger, that doesn't mean they'll help you cover a greater share of your expenses than they did before.
If you're trying to increase your Social Security benefits in a meaningful way after you've already signed up for them, the tips above are your best options. If any of them apply to you, reach out to the Social Security Administration as soon as you're able to.