If your retirement fund isn't as robust as you'd hoped it would be, Social Security benefits can help bridge the gap between what you have saved and what you need to live a comfortable lifestyle in retirement.
However, the average check amounts to just $1,471 per month. If your benefits are going to make up the majority of your income in retirement, that doesn't give you much wiggle room. But there is something you can do right now to boost your benefit amount and make it easier to enjoy a comfortable retirement.
How to increase your Social Security benefits
If you want to receive bigger Social Security checks in retirement, it's important to first understand how your benefits are calculated.
When calculating your benefit amount, the Social Security Administration will look at the 35 years of your career in which you earned the most. Your earnings across those years will be averaged and adjusted for inflation, and the result will be your basic annual benefit amount.
One way to receive bigger checks is to work more than 35 years because some of your higher-earning years will replace lower-earning years in your career. That will increase both your average earnings and your basic benefit amount. But another thing you can do right now to boost your benefits is to increase your income as much as possible. That will also result in a higher average, as well as heftier monthly checks.
You don't need to win the lottery to boost your benefits, either; just picking up a side hustle and increasing your income by even a few thousand dollars per year can raise your overall average earnings. The maximum taxable earnings for 2019 is $132,900 per year, so the more you earn up to that limit, the bigger your Social Security checks will be once you begin collecting them.
Other ways to collect bigger checks
Besides working more than 35 years and increasing your income, you can do a couple of other things to receive bigger Social Security checks.
First, you can delay claiming benefits until after your full retirement age (FRA). By claiming at your FRA, you'll receive the full benefit amount you're entitled to. Depending on the year you were born, that age is either 66, 67, or somewhere in between. But you don't have to claim at that age, and if you wait until beyond your FRA to claim, you'll receive extra money each month in addition to your full benefit amount. In fact, if your FRA is 67 and you claim at age 70, you'll receive a 24% bonus on top of your full amount each month.
Keep in mind that delaying benefits doesn't necessarily equate to earning more money overall. In theory, you should receive the same lifetime amount regardless of when you file for benefits -- you'll either receive more smaller checks or fewer bigger checks. But if you live a longer-than-average lifespan, you'll likely earn more over a lifetime if you delay benefits and receive those bigger checks.
Another way to increase your monthly checks is to ensure you're collecting all the types of benefits you're entitled to. If you're married, divorced, or widowed, you might be eligible to receive spousal benefits, divorce benefits, or survivors benefits in addition to your standard retirement benefit. Even if you haven't worked enough to earn your own retirement benefits, you might still be able to collect benefits based on a spouse's or former spouse's work record. The SSA isn't always aware of your marital or family situation, so you typically won't receive a notification about which types of benefits you're entitled to. That means it's up to you to research and apply for those benefits to ensure you're not missing out on anything.
Social Security benefits might end up being a significant source of your retirement income, so it's wise to make sure you're doing everything you can to earn the biggest checks possible. By increasing your income now and then taking advantage of other ways to boost your benefits around retirement age, you can ensure you're making the most of Social Security.