Social Security is far and away the most popular and important social program in the United States, with millions of seniors dependent on their monthly check from the government to pay for everything from housing to food.
Here are five ways to maximize your benefits, per USA Today:
1. Make sure you work at least 35 years
Your Social Security benefits are calculated based on your top 35 years of earnings. This means that for every year of those 35 in which you don’t have an income on record, you get a glaring $0 factored into your benefits equation. Therefore, if you left the workforce for a chunk of time (such as to raise children or care for a loved one), it pays to consider extending your career to replace a bunch of those $0s. Now, if you took a really long break (say, 10 years or more), getting 35 years of earnings on record may not be possible, but the closer you’re able to get to that goal, the better.
2. Fight for raises throughout your career
Since Social Security benefits are earnings-based, the more money you make during your career, the higher your benefits will amount to. And you can help raise your benefits by fighting for raises along the way. Even if you think you’re being paid fairly, you should make a point of researching salary data for your job title at least once a year and seeing how your paycheck stacks up. If you find that you’re starting to fall behind, you can bring that data to your boss and ask for a boost.
3. Get a second job
These days, side hustles are all the rage, with workers of all ages taking on secondary gigs to pad their savings, pay down debt, and have more cash to play around with. But that extra income can serve another important purpose for you: It can add to your taxable wage base, which, in turn, can increase your Social Security benefits. If you’re not sure what sort of side hustle to get, think about the things you’re good at and enjoy doing. Your love of graphic design, for example, might prompt you to take on some freelance clients and revamp their websites.
4. File at 70
Once you reach your full retirement age, you’re entitled to collect the full monthly benefit your earnings record entitles you to. That age is either 66, 67, or somewhere in between, depending on the year you were born. However, if you hold off on taking benefits past full retirement age, you’ll accrue delayed retirement credits that boost your monthly benefits for life. Those credits stop accumulating at age 70, so there’s no sense in delaying past that point. But if, for example, you’re looking at a full monthly benefit of $1,500 at age 67, waiting until 70 will increase each payment you collect to $1,860, thereby boosting your annual retirement income by $4,320.
5. Retire in a state that doesn’t tax benefits
Many seniors assume that their Social Security benefits are theirs free and clear of taxes, but that’s not true. Those with higher incomes in retirement frequently pay federal taxes on a portion of their benefits. Additionally, there are 13 states that tax Social Security at the state level:
- New Mexico
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- West Virginia
Living outside one of these states in retirement might help you retain more of your benefits, though you’ll need to weigh those savings against expenses you might encounter, like higher cost of living. Furthermore, while the above states do impose a tax on Social Security benefits, most offer some type of exemption for low to middle earners.
The more money you get out of Social Security, the more financial freedom you’ll have in retirement. Take these steps to increase your benefits, and you’ll be thankful for it during your golden years.