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3 Social Security Strategies to Bankroll Your Retirement

By Christy Bieber – Sep 29, 2021 at 9:35AM

Key Points

  • You can raise your Social Security benefit by taking steps throughout your career.
  • How long you work will affect your benefit.
  • Coordinating with your spouse could mean more money in your pocket.

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Want a big Social Security benefit? These are the steps that will get you there.

Social Security can't be your only income source as a senior. But, while you aren't going to be able to fund your entire retirement with your benefits, you can boost your checks significantly so they provide as much income as possible.

If you're interested in bankrolling your retirement with your Social Security, you'll need to take these three steps to get the maximum benefits available to you. 

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1. Earn as much as you can throughout your career

Social Security benefits are meant to replace a portion of your wages -- specifically, around 40%. The higher your wages throughout your working life, the bigger your benefits will be.

In fact, workers who earn up to the maximum taxable wage for most or all of their working life could see a maximum benefit as high as $3,895 in 2021. Of course, you'd need a salary of $142,800 this year to be on track for that amount (and the inflation-adjusted equivalent of it for 35 years of your career). 

To maximize your personal benefit, always advocate for yourself -- whether that involves asking for a higher salary when you're offered a job, being proactive about looking for new opportunities, or campaigning for raises during your performance reviews.

2. Make sure you work at least 35 years -- or longer

Social Security uses a standard formula to set benefits, which is based on average wages in your 35 highest earning years.

While a 10-year work history should make you eligible for benefits, if you don't put in a full 35 years, you will have a much lower average wage. That's because a $0-earning year will be included in your calculation for each year you fall short. 

Now, you may want to do more than just avoid having zeros included when your benefits are determined. If you're hoping for a big Social Security check you may want to work for more than 35 years.

This makes sense if your current salary is higher (on an inflation-adjusted basis) than during any of your previous work years. If you work for a 36th or 37th year or even longer, you can push out several of your lower-earning years in your calculation, thus giving your average benefit a boost. 

3. Make a strategic plan with your spouse

If you're married, you shouldn't focus just on maximizing your own benefit. You should consider how your decisions about filing for retirement checks affect your spouse -- all with the goal of maximizing combined lifetime benefits.

See, there are dozens of different Social Security claiming strategies for married couples. That's because both spousal and survivor benefits can allow spouses to receive retirement income based on their partner's work history. 

A higher earner, for example, may decide to delay claiming benefits as long as possible because this could raise both their monthly benefit during their lifetime as well as survivor benefits for their widow. Or, it may make sense for one spouse to claim ASAP to open up the door to spousal benefits that don't become available until they file. 

Ultimately, it's important to explore all of the different options to see what makes sense for maximizing total household Social Security income over the course of your retirement. 

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