"My Social Security benefit is way more than I need," said no one, ever. Social Security is a nice retirement safety net, but it often falls short as a primary source of retirement income.
Fortunately, there are things you can do to score a bigger Social Security check -- which could mean more fun and less stress in retirement. Read on for six reliable ways to boost your federal retirement benefit.
1. Suspend benefits if you've already claimed
You have the most leverage to influence your Social Security income before you retire -- but there is one strategy you can use if you're already receiving Social Security. Between your full retirement age (FRA) and age 70, you have the option to suspend your benefits.
While your benefit is suspended, you will earn delayed retirement credits. These are small increases to your benefit for each month you are not receiving payments.
You'll see the results of this strategy once you reinstate your benefits. The credits are applied to your benefit each January for the prior year and when you reach your 70th birthday.
Note that your Medicare premiums cannot be deducted from suspended Social Security payments. You'll be billed for those premiums separately. Also, if your current spouse is receiving benefits from your record, suspending your own benefits also suspends your spouse's.
2. Correct missing earnings
Your Social Security income is calculated from your earnings history. If your income record is incomplete or inaccurate, you might not get the full Social Security benefit you've earned.
To check your earnings record, create an account at the my Social Security web site. Log in, access your income history, and review the data carefully for accuracy.
If you see omissions or mistakes, gather up your supporting documentation. Ideally, you'll have a W-2, tax return, or pay slip showing the correct figures. You can still request a correction without one of those documents, but it will take longer for Social Security to verify the correction and update your record.
3. Get a raise or a second job
You can also bump up your Social Security benefit by raising your income. The benefits formula relies on an average of your income over time. If you increase the average, you increase your benefit, too.
You can see the effect of higher earnings using your account at my Social Security. Log in and look for the chart that estimates your benefit at different claiming ages. You'll see a place to edit your average future annual salary. Pop in different numbers there, and your benefit estimates update accordingly.
4. Work at least 35 years
You only need 10 years of full-time work to qualify for Social Security, but the benefits formula averages 35 years of income. If your work record is shorter than 35 years, guess what? The formula still counts the missing years, but assumes they produced zero income. Those zero-income years drag down your income average and your benefit.
If you have fewer than 35 years of paychecks under your belt, keep working. Until you reach the 35-year milestone, every extra year you earn a paycheck replaces a zero-income year in your average. That pushes your benefit higher.
5. Wait to claim your benefits
You can also delay your Social Security claim to get a higher benefit.
The increase depends on how long you delay benefits. The formula works in two parts. When you claim between age 62 and your FRA, your benefits are reduced by up to 30% for claiming early. Delaying benefits in that window lowers your early retirement penalty. That puts your benefit closer to what it should be based on your income.
When you claim after your FRA through age 70, you earn delayed retirement credits. These can raise your benefit by up to 32% if your FRA is 66, or up to 24% if your FRA is 67.
There is a downside here. You forgo thousands in benefits up front, in exchange for higher monthly income later.
6. Coordinate with your spouse
You can score higher Social Security income for your household by strategizing with your spouse. If you're both qualified for benefits under your individual work histories, you can mix and match the above tactics as needed.
As an example, one of you could claim now to generate income, while the other holds out for a higher benefit later. Or, if you're interested in maximizing your household benefit, both of you could get second jobs and work until you're 70.
You may have fewer options if you earned a much higher income than your spouse, or vice versa. Spouses qualify for whichever of these two figures is higher: the benefit earned under their own work history or up to 50% of their spouse's benefit. But you can't collect a spousal benefit unless your spouse is already receiving Social Security. So in that case, you wouldn't have the option to apply for benefits at different times.
Balancing now and later
The simplest way to boost your Social Security paycheck is to fix an inaccurate earnings record. Beyond that, you're stuck with trade-offs. You either work longer (or two jobs) or forgo benefits now to enjoy higher income later.
The trade-offs might make sense, but only you can decide on the strategy that'll bring you closer to the easygoing retirement you crave.