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Social Security Strategies

Social Security benefits, when combined with savings from a 401(k) and individual retirement account, can help you retire the way you want. Of course, not everyone earns the same amount from Uncle Sam.

A Social Security calculator can help you estimate the payments you’ll receive, but how do you ensure that you’re not shortchanging your future self? Whether you have a few months or a few decades until retirement, here are 10 tips for maximizing your Social Security benefits.

1. Understand How the Government Calculates Social Security

Many Americans assume that Social Security benefit amounts are based on your entire working career. In reality, your payments are based on your earnings from the 35 highest income years. If you have not worked for 35 years, every year you didn’t work will reduce your benefits. Want to avoid those zeros? Think about working a few extra years to raise your lifetime income average. In addition to helping fill your savings account, this should boost your Social Security benefit.

2. Know Your Full Retirement Age

Income is not the only factor that determines your Social Security benefit. Age is another big one. Normal or full retirement age is the age at which you can claim the full Social Security retirement benefit you’re eligible for. The Social Security Administration determines your full retirement age based on the year you were born. For most people, the magic number falls somewhere between 65 and 67. When you know your full retirement age, you can make a better-informed decision about when to start claiming Social Security.

3. Get the Timing Right

Social Security Strategies

While you can start collecting Social Security payments at age 62, you would only receive your 75% of the amount you’re eligible for. You have to wait until you reach full retirement age to receive the full Social Security benefit you’re eligible to receive.

This technicality works the other way, too. In fact, you can continue to increase your benefit amount by delaying benefits beyond your full retirement age. If you wait until age 70 to start taking Social Security, you will receive 132% of your regular benefit amount.

Already started collecting and regretting it? No need to panic. Social Security beneficiaries between full retirement age and age 70 can voluntarily suspend payments to maximize earnings down the road. If you started collecting within the last 12 months, you can even withdraw your claim by repaying the benefits you have already received.

4. Be Tactical With Spousal Benefits 

Getting married may add a wrinkle to your Social Security strategy. Spouses (and ex-spouses) that were married for at least 10 years are eligible to claim not only their own benefits, but spousal benefits too. And that’s no small matter. Claiming spousal benefits means reaping 50% of your current or former partner’s annual payout.

To make the most of these payments, first determine which spouse will earn a larger benefit. The lower-earning spouse can start claiming Social Security at an earlier age, while the higher-earning spouse’s benefit amount continues to grow. Once the higher-earning spouse reaches 70, the couple can switch to filing against that person’s earnings history.

5. Read Your Social Security Statements

Every year, the Social Security Administration mails personalized Social Security statements to retirees and those approaching retirement age. Though it may be tempting to toss these papers out if retirement still feels far away, this information can help you plan for your future. The statement includes:

  • Your estimated monthly retirement benefit
  • How much your child or spouse could receive in benefits if you pass away before retirement
  • The amount of spousal benefit your spouse would be entitled to at retirement
  • Your yearly earnings record

That last part is especially important because if your employer underreports your income or you fail to claim all of your income while you’re self-employed for any reason, your Social Security payments could be inaccurate. Fortunately, you can reach out to the Social Security Administration and notify them of any incorrect earnings history you spot.

6. Increase Your Income

If your estimated benefits are not as much as you were hoping for, try earning more money. An income boost will improve the average of your 35-year earnings record, which could give your benefits a much-needed bump too.

It may seem easier said than done, but there are several ways you can increase your income. If you are happy with your current employer, think about asking for a raise, angling for a promotion or increasing your billable hours. You could also change jobs, take on a part-time job in addition to your full-time gig or start a side hustle. Just be sure that any additional income you’re earning is reported properly on your taxes so it is counted toward your Social Security earnings.

7. Consider Working in Retirement

There’s no rule that says you can’t work and claim Social Security at the same time. There are, however, restrictions on the amount of benefits you can receive if you continue working before reaching full retirement age.

Specifically, the SSA deducts $1 from your benefit payments for every $2 you earn above the annual earnings limit allowed if you’re under full retirement age. The limit for 2019 is $17,640. Once you reach full retirement age, the deduction goes to $1 for every $3 you earn over $46,920.

So if you’re plan to claim benefits while working, be mindful of earnings to avoid reducing your retirement income. The good news is that once you reach full retirement age, you can earn as much as you want without facing a decrease in your monthly payment. Plus, your benefits will be recalculated to exclude the months when your benefits were reduced or withheld because you earned too much.

8. Manage Your Tax Liability

Social Security StrategiesThink your Social Security benefits will not be taxed? Think again. You may pay taxes on up to 85% of your Social Security benefits, depending on your tax filing status and income level. And remember: the government considers Social Security benefits, employment earnings and interest from investments as income. To avoid a hefty tax bill, be sure you are evaluating all your forms of income as you plan your future.

9. Collect Survivor’s Payments If Available 

Survivor’s payments are Social Security benefits designed to help replace lost retirement income if your spouse passes away. As a widow or widower, you can elect to receive ongoing benefits beginning at age 60. However, claiming survivor’s benefits before you reach full retirement age will reduce the benefit amount, so you may want to wait it out. At age 62, you can switch to claim benefits based on their own earnings record, which could mean a higher payout.

10. Don’t Follow the Crowd

Social Security can be confusing. It’s certainly easier to go along with what your relative, colleague or neighbor is doing. Yet because everyone has a different situation and there are many claiming strategies out there, you should determine what’s best for you based on your age, life expectancy, income needs and other retirement assets. After all, a few small mistakes can take a big hit on your golden year goals.

Tips for Social Security and Retirement Planning

  • Developing smart Social Security strategies is just one aspect of savvy financial planning. An advisor who’s well-versed in Social Security can offer guidance to help you make the most of your benefits. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with financial advisors in your area in 5 minutes. If you’re ready to be matched with local advisors that will help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
  • It’s never too early to start planning for retirement. A retirement calculator can help you figure out how much you’ll need to retire comfortably. Building a sizable nest egg may enable you to delay Social Security benefits and maximize your monthly payments once you are ready to collect.
  • Though you probably won’t be able to live off them entirely, Social Security benefits are a valuable addition to your retirement income. Check your paychecks and tax documents to ensure you are contributing to the SSA.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/Zinkevych, ©iStock.com/baona, ©iStock.com/alfexe

Rebecca Lake Rebecca Lake is a retirement, investing and estate planning expert who has been writing about personal finance for a decade. Her expertise in the finance niche also extends to home buying, credit cards, banking and small business. She's worked directly with several major financial and insurance brands, including Citibank, Discover and AIG and her writing has appeared online at U.S. News and World Report, CreditCards.com and Investopedia. Rebecca is a graduate of the University of South Carolina and she also attended Charleston Southern University as a graduate student. Originally from central Virginia, she now lives on the North Carolina coast along with her two children.
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