How to Maximize Your Social Security Benefit

If you claim too soon, you risk forfeiting money.

Social security cards lying on money

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Work longer at a higher income. Since Social Security uses your 35 years with the highest income, you can increase your benefit amount by working extra years at higher income, Rappaport says. Say you're 55 or 60 and you haven't worked 35 years yet, or had a relatively low (or no) income in some years because you took off time to raise your children or care for your aging parents. If you have worked a considerable amount of time in one profession or field, you may be able to re-enter the workplace at a higher salary than you made in the past. When calculating your monthly benefit amount, Social Security adjusts for the change in the average earnings for each year of your 35 top-earning years, Johnson says.

Coordinate when you claim as a couple. If the higher-earning person in the couple claims early, it can significantly lower the amount the surviving spouse receives. It's often better for the higher earner to wait as long as possible and at least to 66, if not to 70. "For four out of every 10 widows past 65, Social Security is all the income they have," Rappaport says. If you're a married couple, one person can claim early and one can claim late, she adds.

Claim later if you're single. If you're able to work, claiming later will give you a higher monthly benefit. This is especially true for women who typically have earned less than their male counterparts, live longer than men and generally have fewer other resources to rely on during the years beyond 70.

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Research what you can on your own and find a trusted financial advisor. Look at the role Social Security benefits can play in your future, says James Mahaney, vice president of strategic initiatives at Prudential Financial and co-author of the report, "Innovative Strategies to Help Maximize Social Security Benefits." The Social Security Administration can show you your wages through the years and your expected benefit at 66 and 70 but does not advise on the best time to take your benefit.

"They're not consultants," says Deppe. "They can't give you expert advice on what you should do."

Many people, eager to collect their benefits because they fear the Social Security system is at risk or feel they need the money, claim them at 62 rather than waiting until their full retirement age of 66 or 67 or even until 70. "If you take it at 62 you forfeit a lot of money," Rappaport says. Because Social Security can be a major part of your retirement funds, deciding when to claim it should not be an afterthought but an essential part of your retirement planning. "We need to shift our thinking," Mahaney says. "Social Security can be income as long as you're going to need it." Make sure you carefully decide when to claim it or you could miss out on higher payments later in life.