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3 Must-Dos to Maximize Your Social Security Checks

By Christy Bieber – Oct 9, 2021 at 12:11PM

Key Points

  • The number of years you work affects your benefits.
  • Boosting your income can give you larger Social Security checks.
  • You'll need to claim benefits at the right age to get the largest checks.

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Have you checked them off your list?

Want more money from Social Security to help you fund your retirement? There are three steps to take that can help you make that happen -- some of which you'll need to start working on early in your lifetime. 

Here's what they are. 

Three adults reviewing financial paperwork.

Image source: Getty Images.

1. Maximize your income

Average earnings over your career are the biggest determining factor in the size of your Social Security checks. If you want to get a bigger benefit, you must take every opportunity to boost income. 

For most people, this starts with improving job skills and not being complacent about looking for opportunities for a promotion or applying for new jobs in search of higher pay and more responsibilities.

Advocating for yourself with your employer is also crucial, as those who don't negotiate their salaries or make the case for regular raises can find themselves making tens of thousands of dollars less over their lifetime. In fact, studies have shown failing to negotiate your pay in your early years could end up costing you over $1 million in lifetime earnings over your career.

Since Social Security benefits replace around 40% of pre-retirement wages, you'll end up with thousands of dollars less per year if your salary is lower because you didn't make the effort to maximize earnings. 

2. Work at least 35 years

You must work a minimum of 10 years to become eligible for Social Security benefits on your own work history -- although you can claim spousal or survival benefits without working at all. But if you don't work for at least 35 years, you'll reduce the size of your checks. 

Social Security's calculation of average earnings takes your 35 highest-earning years into account. If you don't have a work history spanning that time period, $0s will become a part of your average and you'll end up with a far lower monthly benefit. 

Chances are good that if you work exactly 35 years, you'll also have some years included where your wages were pretty low. This could happen when you're just starting your career or if you have a period where you're unemployed for part of the year. These low-earning years drag your average down, but you could replace them if you worked for longer than 35 years later in life when your salary is higher. 

3. Wait until 70 to claim benefits

Finally, if you want the maximum benefit possible each month, you're going to have to be a late filer.

Although you become eligible to claim Social Security checks at age 62, the maximum benefit is available to people who wait until 70. By delaying, you'll both avoid early filing penalties and earn the maximum amount of delayed retirement credits. 

See, Social Security attempts to equalize out lifetime benefits between early and late filers. Those who claim benefits before their full retirement age (FRA) get smaller checks due to early filing penalties. Those who claim at a designated FRA get their standard benefit based on average wage. And retirees who wait until 70 see a boost to their standard benefit from earning delayed retirement credits available until age 70. 

Of course, you may decide that you'd rather retire early or don't want to put 35 years of work in -- and that's OK. Just be aware that if you don't follow all three of these steps, your monthly Social Security check will be smaller than it otherwise would have been. 

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