Your Social Security income will be with you for the rest of your life. That means any effort you make to increase your benefit should be well worth your time. If you are successful, you kick off your retirement with a higher income, and your future cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) will be calculated from a larger base. Throughout the decades of your retirement, your larger benefit to start could add up to a sizable chunk of money.
The important question is: How do you score a bigger Social Security check? Read on for four strategies that can boost your Social Security income.
1. Work 35 years or more
Your Social Security benefit is calculated from an average of your highest-paid 35 years of working. If you've worked less than 35 years, the missing wages are included in your average as zero income.
Those zero-income years can dramatically lower your average wages and, in turn, your benefit. A quick math problem demonstrates this. If you make $50,000 annually for 35 years, your 35-year average is $50,000. But what if you make $50,000 for 25 years? In that case, your 35-year wage average using 10 years of zero income is only about $35,700. That's nearly 30% lower than $50,000 -- which means your benefit will also be substantially lower.
Zero-income years lower your Social Security benefit in a big way. Avoid them if you can by waiting to claim Social Security until you have 35 years of work on your record.
2. Get a raise
Earning a higher income also raises your wage average and your benefit.
You can easily estimate the impact of a higher salary. Start by creating an account at my Social Security. Once you log in, you should see benefit estimates for three different claiming ages -- 62, Full Retirement Age (FRA), and 70. There is also a box where you can adjust your average future salary. Change that number and the portal updates your benefit estimates accordingly.
Use the estimator to test how a raise or a second job might affect your benefit. That can help you evaluate if the trade-off of working more or working harder temporarily is worth the potential boost to your retirement income.
3. Delay your benefits claim
You qualify for your full Social Security benefit at FRA. Assuming you were born after 1943, your FRA is somewhere between 66 and 67; you can check your my Social Security account for the specifics.
If you claim Social Security before your FRA, your benefit is reduced by up to 30%. If you claim after FRA, your benefit is increased by up to 32%. These changes are calculated using the number of months between your claiming date and your FRA. So if you claim one month before your FRA, you'll see a small reduction. But if you claim at the last possible moment -- your 70th birthday -- you'll see a 24% to 32% increase.
A 24% increase is sizable, but there is a cost. When you delay your claim for a larger benefit, you are sacrificing income upfront. That may not be workable if you are in poor health or if you need the income now to pay your bills.
4. Correct your work record
The Social Security formula is only as good as the data that goes into it. If your wage history isn't accurate, your benefit won't be accurate, either.
You can find your wage history in your my Social Security account online. If you are older than 60, you should also be getting a Social Security earnings statement in the mail about three months before your birthday.
Review your earnings statement in detail alongside your own records. A single year of missing or lower-than-actual earnings is enough to reduce your calculated benefit. If you see mistakes or omissions, contact Social Security by phone and request a correction.
The process will be easier if you have a tax return or wage slip to document your true wages. If you don't, be prepared to provide contact information for the employer.
Getting the most from Social Security
Outside of fixing an inaccurate wage history, the strategies to score a bigger Social Security check have their trade-offs. You might need to work more, take on added responsibilities at work, or delay your benefits claim.
As you evaluate these options, think about your lifestyle needs, now and in retirement. You might decide to accept a lower benefit so you can retire earlier. Or, you may have the opposite perspective -- you're willing to put in extra work now to secure higher income in your 70s. Either approach could be the one that supports your dream retirement.