Social Security benefits are guaranteed to last for life, and are inflation-protected thanks to cost of living adjustments. Maximizing this important source of retirement income just makes financial sense.
But how can you end up with more Social Security benefits? Here are three secrets to getting the most money possible.
1. Coordinate with your spouse
Married couples have the best opportunity to maximize the size of their Social Security checks because they can coordinate when each spouse should claim benefits.
There are dozens of different strategies a couple can employ to get the largest combined benefit. For example, the higher earner could claim benefits ASAP to open the door to spousal benefits for a husband or wife who didn't earn enough to qualify for Social Security on their own. Or a lower earner could start benefits when they are young, enabling the higher earner to wait and grow their larger benefit by earning delayed retirement credits.
Choosing the right strategy will require careful coordination. Sit down with your spouse -- and potentially a financial advisor -- to decide which joint approach makes the most sense for your situation.
2. Look at the big picture
When you're focused on maximizing monthly benefits, don't forget to consider the impact your choice will have on your lifetime income.
If you want the largest monthly check, you must delay your claim for benefits until age 70. But if you do that, you may not have time to break even for benefits you missed from age 62 to 70. This could happen if you pass away before you get enough extra monthly payments to make up all that money.
Think about how much income you'll miss by waiting to file for Social Security. Then, based on how much extra you'll receive each month due to delaying, determine how long it will take to break even. If you're in poor health or have other reasons to believe you may not outlive your life expectancy, aiming to maximizing the size of your monthly checks could be the wrong approach entirely -- and claiming early could mean more lifetime income.
3. Delay claiming benefits as long as you can
If you've decided you're likely to outlive your life expectancy, the best and easiest way to boost your monthly check is to wait and claim benefits as late as you can -- up until 70.
Each month you delay after 62 enables you to either avoid an early filing penalty, which shrinks your benefit, or to earn a delayed retirement credit, which raises your monthly check amount.
Early filing penalties reduce benefits every month you claim them ahead of full retirement age (which is between age 66 and 2 months and age 67, depending on birth year). They add up to a 6.7% annual benefits reduction for each of the first three years and a 5% reduction for each subsequent year. On the other hand, delayed retirement credits earned after reaching your FRA can raise your check amount monthly, and they can add up to an 8% annual raise for each year you wait.
Not only does waiting to start benefits enable you to avoid penalties and earn a benefit boost, but it may also mean you stay on the job longer. And if you're earning more late in life than earlier in your career, this too could increase your Social Security. That's because your check amount is based on average wages in the 35 years your inflation-adjusted earnings were highest. The more high-earning years included in your average, the higher your benefits will be.
Now you know some of the key secrets to bigger Social Security checks, so you can work with your spouse and decide if delaying your claim to get more monthly money makes financial sense for you.