Social Security isn't designed to support seniors by itself. But if you're nearing retirement without any savings, those benefits could end up having to do just that. As such, it pays to get as much money from Social Security as you can, and filing as late as possible is a guaranteed way to give your benefits their maximum boost.
Social Security: It pays to wait
Your Social Security benefits are determined based on your 35 highest-paid years of earnings on record. The age you claim those benefits at, however, could impact the actual amount you collect each month.
The Social Security Administration will allow you to file for benefits as early as age 62. However, you're not eligible to collect your full monthly benefit until you reach full retirement age (FRA). That age, depending on your year of birth, is either 66, 67, or 66 and a specific number of months. If you claim benefits before FRA, they'll be reduced by a certain percentage, the extent of which will depend on how early you file.
But there's another filing option: delaying benefits past FRA. For each year you hold off, you'll accrue delayed retirement credits that boost your benefits by 8%. Once you turn 70, you can no longer accumulate those credits. But if your FRA is 67 and you hold off on filing until 70, you'll score a 24% increase in your monthly Social Security income. Just as importantly, that boost will remain in effect for the rest of your life.
Now let's say that based on your earnings history, you're entitled to $1,500 a month from Social Security at an FRA of 67. If you were to wait to file until 70, you'd increase each monthly payment to $1,860. The result? An extra $4,320 a year to help cover your living costs. And if you're retiring without much savings, that makes a big difference.
Other ways to boost your benefits
Delaying benefits past FRA is a great way to increase them. But that's not the only way to score a raise from Social Security. For one thing, you can try boosting your earnings throughout your career, whether by learning new skills or working hard for your various employers. The more money you make, the higher your benefits stand to be.
Extending your career could produce similar results. If you wind up earning a lot more money later on in your career than you did in your 20s, 30s, and 40s, you can replace some lower-earning years with higher-earning years in your personal benefits calculation.
Finally, check your Social Security earnings statements for errors, because if they contain information that works against you (say, missing income, or a lower income than what you actually made), your benefits could take a dive. You can access those statements online, and if you're 60 or older, you'll get a copy each year in the mail.
If you expect to rely heavily on Social Security in retirement, then you'll need to make a solid effort to boost your benefits as much as possible. At the same time, plan on having at least one additional source of income outside of those benefits, whether it's earnings from a part-time job or the proceeds from the sale of a home you own. While growing your benefits will make it easier to manage your senior living expenses, their buying power will still be limited, so the more income streams you secure, the better.