Social Security is a vital support for most Americans in retirement. Indeed, it supplies about a third of elderly Americans' retirement income, and for 21% of married elderly Americans and 45% of unmarried ones, it provides 90% or more of their income.
Given that, it's clearly worthwhile to get as much as you can out of Social Security. Here are 10 ways to make your checks larger and/or simply collect more overall from Social Security.
1. Check your Social Security work record for errors
First things first. Each of us, no matter our age, would do well to visit the website of the Social Security Administration (SSA), to set up a my Social Security account. Once you do so, you can click in any time to see the SSA's record of your earnings history and its estimates of your future benefits. You might also be able to increase those benefits, if you spot and correct any errors regarding your earnings.
2. Work longer -- for at least 35 years
The formula used by the SSA to determine your benefits is based on your earnings history. Specifically, it averages (on an inflation-adjusted basis) your earnings from the 35 years in which you earned the most. So if you only have 30 years of earnings, five zeroes will be factored in, shrinking your checks, and if you have, say, 38 years of earnings, the three years in which you earned the least will be kicked out.
3. Beef up your earnings record
A good way to plump up your benefit checks is to have a fatter earnings record. You might accomplish that by successively getting higher-paying jobs throughout your career or even pivoting into a higher-paying profession at some point in your life. You might also take on a side hustle for a few or many years. And if you've worked 35 years and are earning much more than you used to earn, you might consider working a few more years in order to have higher-earning years replace lower-earning years in the benefits formula.
4. Wait until age 70 to start collecting benefits
You can start collecting your benefits as early as age 62, but delaying them (up until age 70) will make the checks bigger. If you can manage to delay starting to collect your benefits, that's a great way to make them fatter. Just remember that you'll get fewer of those checks if you start later. You'll need to live a longer-than-average life -- at least beyond your break-even point -- in order for this strategy to give you more total benefit dollars.
5. Take advantage of spousal benefits
Spousal benefits are available for those who are entitled to far smaller benefit checks than their spouse. Instead, they can claim up to 50% of their spouse's benefits -- if they start collecting at their full retirement age (which is 66 or 67 for most of us these days). So if you would ordinarily be entitled to $700 per month while your spouse's benefit is $2,000, following the rules and not claiming early could get you benefit checks of $1,000 instead of that $700.
6. Consider delaying your divorce
There are Social Security benefits for divorced people, too. If you're divorced, you can claim up to 50% of your ex's benefits -- as long as you were married for at least 10 years and you haven't remarried. So if you're on the verge of divorcing after, say, nine years of marriage, you might consider hanging in there for another year -- as long as it's safe and not difficult to do so.
7. Don't earn too much while collecting benefits
If you're looking to collect Social Security benefit checks that are as large as possible, think twice before earning a lot of money in retirement. If you earn more than a certain sum while collecting your benefit checks, the SSA will withhold some of your benefits. Here's the scoop, from the horse's mouth: "If you're younger than full retirement age during all of 2021, we must deduct $1 from your benefits for each $2 you earn above $18,960. If you reach full retirement age during 2021, we must deduct $1 from your benefits for each $3 you earn above $50,520 until the month you reach full retirement age."
Don't worry too much about this, though, because what's deducted is not forfeited -- you'll just get it later. As the SSA explains: "If some of your retirement benefits are withheld because of your earnings, your monthly benefit will increase starting at your full retirement age to take into account those months in which benefits were withheld."
8. See if you qualify for survivor or disability benefits
Another way to get the most out of Social Security is to collect any survivor or disability benefits to which you're entitled. That's right -- Social Security is not just about retirement benefits. If you've lost a spouse who had worked long enough to qualify for Social Security (which is, generally, 10 years of work but can sometimes be less), you may be able to collect survivor benefits. Even children and, in some cases, parents of a deceased worker may qualify for benefits.
Disability benefits, meanwhile, are available through the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) programs. The qualification criteria can be strict, so not every disabled person will qualify, but for those who do, the additional income -- which you don't have to wait until retirement age to collect -- can be very welcome and needed.
9. Be strategic -- especially with your spouse
Finally, another way to maximize your Social Security benefits, if you're married, is to coordinate with your spouse. For example, whichever of you has the higher earnings history might try to delay collecting as long as possible, in order to maximize those checks. The lower earner can do the same, but could also start collecting earlier, if some money is needed in the household.
Even if you employ just a few of these benefit-boosting strategies, you may be able to collect many more dollars from Social Security than you otherwise would have.