The average retired worker received about $1,674 in monthly benefits in September 2022, and this is projected to rise to about $1,680 by next month. That amounts to a little over $20,000 per year, and some households could receive a lot more than this if they have multiple people claiming checks.
But even so, many won't be able to cover all their retirement costs with Social Security alone. If you'd like to stretch your personal savings as far as possible, you should try the following steps to boost your benefits.
1. Work at least 35 years
The government looks at your average monthly income, adjusted for inflation, over your 35 highest-earning years when calculating your Social Security benefit. It's possible to claim checks if you haven't worked this long, but you'll probably get less than you expect. Those who work fewer than 35 years before claiming have zero-income years factored into their calculations. Even one of these can shrink your benefit by several dollars.
There's no reason to stop at 35 years, though, if you aren't ready to leave the workforce yet. Working longer is actually to your advantage if you're earning more now than you did earlier in your career. After you cross the 35-year mark, the Social Security Administration starts replacing your earlier, lower-earning years with newer, higher-earning years in your benefit calculation. This leads to larger checks over time.
2. Seize every opportunity to boost your income today
Boosting your income today generally helps increase your Social Security benefit in retirement, since your income is a key part of the Social Security benefit formula. The only people this tip may not help are those who already earn high incomes. In 2022, you only pay Social Security payroll taxes on the first $147,000 you make. This will rise to $160,200 in 2023. Anything over this amount won't influence your Social Security benefit in retirement.
But for most of us, taking steps like negotiating a higher salary, finding a better-paying position elsewhere, working overtime, or starting a side hustle could benefit our finances now and in retirement.
3. Applying for benefits at the right time
You become eligible for Social Security at 62, but if you want the benefit you've earned based on your work history, you must delay claiming until your full retirement age (FRA). This is somewhere between 66 and 67 for today's workers, depending on your birth year.
Every month you claim benefits under this age shrinks your checks a little. Those who sign up immediately at 62 only get 70% of their full benefit per check if their FRA is 67, or 75% if their FRA is 66.
Delaying benefits increases your checks every month until you reach your maximum benefit at 70. That's 124% of your full benefit per check if your FRA is 67, or 132% if your FRA is 66.
But this doesn't mean delaying Social Security is always the right choice. It can lead to a larger lifetime benefit for those who live into their 80s or beyond, but it could shortchange those who don't expect to live beyond their 70s. Not to mention, if you delay Social Security until 70, you have to fund all your retirement costs on your own until then. This isn't feasible for everyone.
Even though it's impossible to predict how long you'll live or what your finances will look like in retirement, it's still a good idea to make a tentative plan for when you'll claim Social Security. This will give you an idea of how much you can expect from the program, so you can determine how much you need to save on your own for retirement.
If you need some help, create a my Social Security account. There's a tool there that can show you what kind of benefit you'll qualify for at every month between 62 and 70. You can also see how changing your income could affect your checks.
Using this information, try to determine the claiming age that will lead to your largest lifetime benefit. You can do this by taking your monthly benefit for a given age and multiplying it by 12 to get your estimated annual benefit. Then, multiply this by the number of years you expect to claim. For example, a $2,000 monthly benefit claimed for 20 years gives you a lifetime benefit of $480,000. Compare this to your estimated lifetime benefit for several other ages to see which gives you the most overall.
Or you can just wait
Those already claiming Social Security will see their checks increase by $147 per month on average beginning in January, thanks to the 8.7% cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for 2023. Even if you're not on Social Security yet, when the government calculates your benefit in the future, it'll probably still be larger than the $1,674 average today, because the program adjusts monthly check amounts over time to keep up with inflation.
Don't let that stop you from trying the steps above, though. They'll make a bigger difference to your monthly checks than just waiting for COLAs to raise the average benefit.