Social Security benefits are a vital source of income for millions of retirees. In fact, nearly one-quarter of married couples and close to half of unmarried beneficiaries say their benefits make up at least 90% of their income in retirement, according to the Social Security Administration.

If you're going to be relying heavily on Social Security to make ends meet in retirement, it's crucial to ensure you're collecting as much as possible in benefits. And there's one thing you can do long before you retire to maximize your future Social Security checks: contribute to a Roth IRA.

Woman holding an envelope full of hundred dollar bills

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How a Roth IRA can affect your benefits

One significant advantage of investing in a Roth IRA is that your withdrawals in retirement are tax-free. But Roth IRAs offer another tax perk that could help you keep more of your Social Security benefits.

First, let's look at how taxes will affect your benefits. Unfortunately, despite a lifetime of paying into the Social Security program, you'll still be subject to both state and federal taxes on your benefits. Whether you'll owe state taxes depends on where you live; the good news is that there are 37 states that don't tax Social Security -- in addition to West Virginia, which is currently phasing out its Social Security tax.

For federal taxes, how much you'll owe will depend on what's called your "combined income." Your combined income is calculated by taking half your annual benefit amount plus your adjusted gross income.

Percentage of Your Benefits That Could Be Taxed Combined Income for Individuals Combined Income for Married Couples Filing Jointly
0% Less than $25,000 per year Less than $32,000 per year
Up to 50% $25,000 to $34,000 per year $32,000 to $44,000 per year
Up to 85% More than $34,000 per year More than $44,000 per year

Source: Social Security Administration

If these income limits seem low, it's because they are -- the combined income limits have remained unchanged since Social Security benefits first became taxable in 1984, despite the fact that retirees' benefits are adjusted each year for inflation. In other words, as retirees see larger checks thanks to annual cost-of-living adjustments, more Americans will also face taxes on their benefits.

Here's the kicker, though: Roth IRA withdrawals don't count toward your combined income. That can potentially help you get out of paying federal taxes on your benefits altogether.

For example, say you're single and receiving $20,000 per year in Social Security benefits and are withdrawing $40,000 per year from your retirement account. If that account is a 401(k) or traditional IRA, you'll have a combined income of $50,000, and will have to pay federal taxes on a full 85% of your benefits. But if you're withdrawing solely from a Roth IRA, your combined income would be just $10,000, meaning you'll pay no federal taxes on your benefits.

Using a Roth IRA to your advantage

If you plan to use a Roth IRA for the majority of your retirement income to minimize your taxes, it's important to start contributing early. One downside to Roth IRAs is that you can only contribute up to $6,000 per year (or $7,000 per year if you're age 50 or older). So in order to save a substantial amount, you'll have to have been saving for quite a while.

In addition, don't forget about the perks of other retirement accounts. For instance, if you have access to a 401(k) that offers employer matching contributions, it's wise to contribute at least enough to earn the full match. The free money you gain from those matching contributions could potentially be worth more than the money you'll save in taxes by contributing to a Roth IRA, so don't discount other types of retirement accounts.

Taxes can take a substantial bite out of your Social Security benefits, so it's a good idea to have a strategy in mind for how you'll prepare for that expense. By contributing more to a Roth IRA, you can reduce your combined income in retirement and keep more of your monthly checks.