The government chooses how it calculates your Social Security benefit and when you're eligible to claim, but it leaves you a little wiggle room to influence your checks yourself. If you want to get the most out of the program, understanding the factors within your control is a key step. We'll look at four of them below, along with how you can leverage this information to put more cash in your pocket.
1. Your income
The government looks at the income you've paid Social Security taxes on over the years to determine the size of your benefit. The more you've paid into the program, the more you get out of it later. So, anything you can do today that will increase your income can also help your Social Security checks later.
You could work overtime, hunt for a better-paying job elsewhere, ask for a raise, or pick up a second job or side business. Whichever strategy works for you will help as long as you're paying Social Security taxes on what you earn.
The only people this may not work for are those with high incomes already. In 2022, you only pay Social Security taxes on the first $147,000 you make, so that's all the government counts when calculating your Social Security benefit. And in past years, that limit was lower. Earning more is great, but it won't boost your checks.
2. Your years in the workforce
When calculating your benefit, the Social Security Administration only considers your 35 highest-earning years, adjusted for inflation. If you work fewer than 35 years, the government adds zero-income years to fill in the remainder. So, for example, if you only work 30 years and then retire, you'll have five zero-income years counted in your benefit calculation.
Those who work longer than 35 years often end up with larger benefits. That's because once they pass the 35-year mark, some of their lower-earning years, which often come from earlier in their careers, are replaced by higher-earning years in their benefit calculation.
3. Your age at application
You can apply for Social Security benefits as early as 62, but some people choose to delay benefits as long as 70 because every month you delay benefits increases your checks slightly. Others prefer a middle ground and choose to claim at what the government calls your full retirement age (FRA), somewhere between 66 and 67 for today's workers.
The best starting age for you depends, in part, on your life expectancy. In general, people with short life expectancies are better off claiming early, while those who expect to live into their 80s or 90s will receive more overall by delaying benefits.
But you also have to think about what you can afford. You may need to claim Social Security earlier than you'd like to help pay your bills, but you might be able to boost your checks by waiting a few months to apply.
4. Your marital status
You probably shouldn't get married just for the Social Security perks, but if you find the right person, tying the knot could help you squeeze more money out of the program. If you're married, the government gives you the higher of either your own Social Security benefit or up to half your spouse's benefit at their FRA.
For example, if you qualify for a $1,000 monthly benefit and your partner qualifies for a $1,500 benefit, you'd get the $1,000 because half your partner's benefit would only amount to $750. But if your partner had a $2,200 benefit, you could qualify for up to half of that, or $1,100.
It's worth noting that divorced people can also claim Social Security spousal benefits on their ex's work record as long as they were married for at least 10 years and haven't remarried. If your ex isn't already claiming benefits, you must have been divorced for at least two years before you can claim any benefits on their work record. And, of course, you still need to be of age to qualify.
Some of these factors might be easier for you to manipulate than others, but you should keep them all in mind as you move toward retirement. Over time, new opportunities might come up for you to increase your income. Or you might change your retirement plans and adjust your Social Security claiming age accordingly. Anticipating how these changes will affect your benefit can help you estimate how much you'll get and how much you need to save for retirement.