When you retire you'll have a ton of free time that will hopefully be filled doing activities you love. But since you won't be working, you also won't have a paycheck. 

You'll still have bills, though, so you'll need replacement income. If you qualify, Social Security will be one source of income. Here's how you can make sure you maximize this payment.

A hand holding a Social Security card next to a white piggy bank wearing glasses.

Image source: Getty Images.

1. Make more money 

There are many things that go into the calculations of what your Social Security benefits will be. And one of them is how much you make. Your average indexed monthly earnings, or AIME, are determined from your wages -- the higher your income, the more your potential benefits will be.

Ideally, you will receive pay raises annually, which will grow your income over your working life. But this isn't always the case. Instead, you may have a job where your wages are stagnant. This doesn't mean that you can't make more money, though.

If you can search for a better-paying job, this could not only help you pay your current bills better, but could also set you up for a bigger paycheck when you retire. Wages from secondary work like a part-time job and gig work also count. And if you're not completely maxed out on time with your current job, finding supplementary income could help you increase this number. 

2. Delay taking Social Security

You're eligible for your standard benefit when you reach your full retirement age (FRA). That is age 66 if you were born between 1943 and 1954, age 67 if you were born after 1960, and somewhere between if you were born between 1955 and 1959. You can take Social Security as early as age 62 but you will get a pay cut for every year that you take it early. And you can delay it as long as age 70 and will get a pay increase for every year that you wait.

So if you are looking for the highest payment, waiting until age 70 to take this benefit could help. The table below breaks down what different Social Security payments might be at age different ages. 

FRA Benefit Amount Reduced Benefit at 62 Delayed Benefit at 70
$1,500 $1,125 $1,980
$2,000 $1,500 $2,640
$2,500 $1,875 $3,300
$3,000 $2,250 $3,960

Calculations by author. Source: Social Security Administration

Controlling when you take Social Security may not be this simple, though, and other factors like needing this income source may come into play. How long you could live will also play a role in when it's a good time for you to take this benefit. The longer you expect that you will live, the more delaying it might make sense. But if you think there's a chance you could have a short life expectancy, taking it sooner may be better, even if it means a reduced payment. 

3. Work as long as possible 

Your Social Security payment will take into consideration your highest 35 years of earnings, so working at least this long is in your best interest. If you don't quite have this many years of income, the ones when you didn't will count as zeros, which could bring your payment down. You can see how non-working years would be calculated below:

  • You worked and paid into Social Security for 25 years.
  • The AIME for your 25 years of working will be calculated.
  • The remaining 10 years will count as zeros.

There's also an advantage if you work more than 35 years because only your highest wages will be counted. You can see below how this could be extra helpful if you are someone who received regular pay raises. 

  • You worked and paid into Social Security for 45 years.
  • Your income started at $25,000 and increased by $5,000 a year for each year that you worked for a final income of $250,000. 
  • Your first 10 years of working when you made $25,000 to $75,000 are excluded from your calculation, boosting your payment. 

How much you receive in Social Security payments each month could make a huge difference in how well you can pay your bills, especially if it will be your only or a major source of income in retirement. But making the most of it will require planning far in advance of taking it. And the sooner you start thinking about it, the more control you'll have over how big this benefit could be.