Social Security is a guaranteed income source that could play a major role in how well you can pay for your expenses in retirement. But in 2021, the average Social Security check is only $1,543.
This is about $2,400 less each month than the highest possible payment of $3,958. Qualifying for the biggest paycheck might not be feasible, but that doesn't mean you'll only receive the average payment, either. Taking these four steps while you're still working could help boost your benefit.
1. Work for 35 years or longer if possible
The number of years you work could have a huge impact on how much you collect in monthly Social Security payments. But only 35 years' worth of your wages will go into figuring out how much your payment will be.
If you worked exactly this long, each annual salary that you earned over your lifetime will be a part of your calculation. If you work fewer than 35 years, the years when you didn't earn an income will count as zeros, which could bring your monthly payment down. For example, if you worked 30 years, those annual incomes would be calculated and the 5 years when you didn't work would be added into your benefit estimation as no income.
There's also a benefit if you work for more than 35 years. Only your top 35 years of income will be counted. Your lowest wage-earning years will be excluded, which should pull your average up.
2. Aim for regular pay increases
How much you earn also plays a role in how your benefit is estimated. There is a maximum amount that you will owe in Social Security taxes while you work.
In 2021, the wage cap for this tax is $142,800. But this figure has a dual purpose. If you earned this maximum taxable limit every year that you worked (which has increased annually), you would qualify for the highest Social Security payment.
Even if you haven't earned this maximum amount, you can still potentially increase your monthly payment by earning more. If you can negotiate for regular pay raises, this could have a major impact on your current lifestyle, as well as your retirement income in the future.
If you aren't eligible for a pay raise at work, you can increase your annual income by working more than one job. Wages that you receive from part-time or gig work could boost your chances for a higher Social Security payment.
3. Take the spousal benefit
You might not have worked a lot of years or earned much in the years that you did. This means that you will more likely than not get a lower Social Security payment. But if you were or are married to someone who has a higher benefit amount, you might qualify based on their work record.
You can claim up to 50% of a spouse's benefit without having an impact on the full amount that they would receive. The table below shows how this might work and scenarios when taking your spousal benefit would be better than taking your own.
Your spouse's benefit
Half of your spouses benefit
4. Delay taking your payments
You receive your standard benefit if you take Social Security at your full retirement age (FRA), which is either 66, 67, or somewhere between depending on when you were born. You can take Social Security as early as 62, but your benefit is cut for each year that you take it early.
You also receive increases when you delay taking it, all the way to age 70. The highest possible payment you can receive at your FRA is $3,148 in 2021, and it's only if you delay this benefit until 70 that it would increase to $3,895.
Delaying benefits isn't always the best choice; Other factors besides getting a higher amount should be considered. Waiting for your benefit will typically work best if you can afford it, but you might be in a situation where you need it earlier. Actions like increasing your retirement savings while you're working or decreasing your expenses in the years leading up to retirement can help reduce this probability.
Delaying Social Security also makes the most sense if you have a long life expectancy. But if you have a family history of short life spans or health issues, taking it early may be a better bet.
Social Security could make up a major part of your retirement income, and a bigger payment could mean an easier time paying your bills. And while you may not be eligible for the highest amount possible, there are things you can do to increase it before you retire.
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