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5 Social Security Secrets for Even Bigger Checks

By Selena Maranjian – Sep 30, 2021 at 5:55AM

Key Points

  • The size of your ultimate Social Security benefit check is under your control to some degree.
  • Delaying starting to collect your benefits will increase them.
  • You might even consider relocation.

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You can actually make your Social Security benefit checks bigger -- here are five ways to do so.

Pop quiz! How big is the average Social Security retirement benefit? Do you know? Want to guess? It was recently $1,559 per month -- or about $18,700 per year. If that doesn't sound like a lot to you, you're right -- it isn't. Consider, for example, that the Federal Poverty Level threshold for individuals in 2021 is just $12,880, and the threshold for couples is $17,420 -- not far from that average Social Security benefit. In truth, Social Security only delivers about 40% of pre-retirement income for those with roughly average earnings.

Clearly, anything we can do to make our benefit checks bigger will be well worth considering -- especially those things best done well before retiring. Here are five ways to beef up those benefits.

A smiling person is holding several 100 dollar bills fanned out.

Image source: Getty Images.

1. Work longer

For starters, consider working longer than you may have planned to work -- if you can. This offers multiple upsides: For one thing, the longer you work, the shorter your retirement will be, meaning that your nest egg will have to support you for fewer years. Working longer also means you may be able to sock away more money for retirement -- so with a larger nest egg that will support you for fewer years, you'll be in a better financial condition come retirement.

You may also be able to remain on your employer's healthcare plan longer, which might save you a lot of money. (Remember that for many people, healthcare costs are one of the biggest expenses in retirement.)

2. Delay starting to collect your benefits

Know that your Social Security benefits are based, in part, on your full retirement age, which is 66 or 67 for most of us. If you retire at your full retirement age, you can collect the full benefits to which you're entitled, based on your earnings history. If you retire earlier (the earliest you can start collecting is 62), your checks will be smaller. If you delay starting to collect (until as late as age 70), your checks will be larger.

The table below shows roughly what percentage of your full benefits you'll get, depending on when you start collecting:

Start Collecting at:

Full Retirement Age of 66 

Full Retirement Age of 67 

62

75%

70%

63

80%

75%

64

86.7%

80%

65

93.3%

86.7%

66

100%

93.3%

67

108%

100%

68

116%

108%

69

124%

116%

70

132%

124%

Source: Social Security Administration. 

If you can delay and you stand a decent chance of living a longer-than-average life, delaying can be a smart move, beefing up your benefit checks. Remember, though, that while starting early leaves you with smaller checks, you'll get many more of them; for those who live average-length lives, when you start collecting will make much less of a difference. Starting early does make sense for plenty of people.

3. Earn more

Remember that the formula used to calculate your benefits is based on your earnings history -- specifically on the 35 years in which you earned the most (adjusted for inflation and averaged). So do try to work for at least 35 years to avoid having any zeroes factored into the calculation.

Better still, if you're not already doing so, try to earn as much as you can from year to year. Higher earnings will mean higher benefits in the future. While the average retiree is collecting less than $20,000 per year from Social Security, plenty of retirees are collecting more than $30,000. If you're currently earning more than you ever did (adjusted for inflation) and you've worked for 35 years, each additional year you work now will kick out the lowest-earning year from the benefit calculations, increasing your checks.

Two smiling older adults hugging each other.

Image source: Getty Images.

4. Coordinate with your spouse

Coordinating with your spouse can also help increase the Social Security benefits flowing into your household. If you both can't delay until age 70 (or it doesn't make sense for you both to), you might opt to have only the partner with the smaller earnings history start early or on time, while the higher earner tries to delay until age 70, to maximize that benefit. This is an especially effective strategy for those couples with very different earnings history, because when one spouse dies, the other gets to receive their own benefit or their spouse's -- whichever is bigger.

5. Move where your benefits won't be taxed

Finally, if you live in a state that taxes your Social Security benefits significantly, you might consider moving to a state that doesn't tax benefits. Recently, 13 states taxed benefits while 37 states didn't. Look into what the latest tax rates are in your state, though, because they can change from time to time. And some states that tax benefits only tax at a very small rate or only tax higher earners.

It's worth learning more about Social Security now, so that you'll be able to make smart decisions regarding it throughout your life. Don't just plan to accept whatever benefits come your way, because the size of your ultimate benefit check is under your control to a meaningful degree.

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