10 Social Security Secrets for Even Bigger Checks

Guess what — your future Social Security benefits are not set in stone. There are multiple strategies you can employ — some now, some later — that can beef up the critical retirement income you'll receive from Social Security.

Here are 10 strategies to consider. At least a few of them can probably be effective benefit boosters for you.

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1. Work for at least 35 years

For starters, know that the formula the Social Security Administration (SSA) uses to determine your benefits incorporates your earnings in the 35 years in which you earned the most — adjusted for inflation, of course. So if you only work for, say, 28 years, there will be seven zeroes factored into the equation. So aim to work at least 35 years.

2. Work more than 35 years

If you've completed your 35 years of work and are earning meaningfully more than you've earned before, you might work a few more years. If so, each additional high-earning year will kick out your lowest-earning year from the calculations.

3. Earn as much as you can, up to the annual cap

The more you earn, the greater your benefits will be, obviously. But there's a limit beyond which earning more doesn't change your benefits. That limit is $147,000 for 2022 and $160,200 for 2023. So aim to earn as much as you can, at least up to that cap. You might take on a side hustle for a few or many years, or ask for a raise now and then, or seek a higher-paying job or even a higher-paying career.

4. Verify your earnings record

If you haven't already done so, create a my Social Security account at the SSA website. After doing so, you'll be able to see the SSA's record of your earnings, year by year — as well as its estimates of your future benefits. Take some time to verify those earnings, because if there's a mistake, it could result in smaller benefits than you're entitled to. Have any errors corrected.

5. Delay starting to collect your benefits

You can start collecting your benefits as early as age 62, and as late as age 70. Start early and your checks will be smaller (though you'll receive many more of them). Delay, and you can make them up to 24% or 32% bigger, depending on the year you were born.

6. Claim your benefits early if you don't expect a long life

Delaying can be a powerful benefit booster, especially if you live a longer-than-average life. But if you're in poor health, have many short-lived relatives, or just have a decent chance of living a shorter-than-average life, it can be best to start collecting early.

7. Claim spousal benefits

If your earnings history is paltry or even non-existent, you might be thinking you'll be receiving peanuts, or less, from Social Security. That's not necessarily the case, though, if you're married. You may be able to qualify for spousal benefits, which offer up to 50% of your spouse's benefits.

8. Claim ex-spousal benefits

If you're no longer married, you're not necessarily out of luck when it comes to spousal benefits. They are available to divorcees, too — as long as you were married for at least 10 years. So if your ex has a richer earnings history than you do, you may be able to claim benefits based on his or her earnings.

9. Delay your divorce

If you're divorcing after close to 10 years of marriage and spousal benefits would be useful to you, consider delaying the divorce until you have those 10 years. This is not always possible, as some divorces are best completed sooner rather than later, but if you can delay without too much grief or hardship, consider doing so.

10. Claim survivor or disability benefits

Finally, know that Social Security doesn't just offer retirement benefits. If your spouse has passed away, you (and possibly your children, too) may be eligible for survivor benefits. And if you're disabled, it's possible that you might qualify for disability benefits. It's well worth looking into these if you think you might qualify.

These can be powerful ways to beef up your future Social Security benefits, so look into any of these strategies that might work for you. The more you know about Social Security, and the smarter moves you make, the more income you may be able to get out of the program.

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