If You Make Only 1 Move to Maximize Your Social Security Benefit, Let It Be This

If your goal is to maximize your lifetime Social Security benefits, your job begins when you enter the workforce. Boosting your income as much as possible translates to larger benefits in retirement, and working at least 35 years ensures you don't have zero-income years dragging down your benefit calculation.

But even if working longer or earning a higher income aren't possible, there's still one big move you can make to lock in higher lifetime benefits.

Curious person looking at laptop.
Curious person looking at laptop.

Image source: Getty Images.

It's all in the timing

Your claiming age plays a huge role in how much you get from Social Security. You become eligible for benefits at 62, but if you want the full amount you've earned based on your work history, you must delay until your full retirement age. That's 66 to 67, depending on your birth year. You can also choose to delay beyond that, and your checks will continue growing until you qualify for your maximum benefit at 70.

The amount you qualify for at full retirement age is known as your primary insurance amount (PIA). The Social Security Administration increases or decreases your PIA depending on your age when you first claim benefits.

Claiming early reduces your checks by 5/9 of 1% per month for up to 36 months of early claiming and another 5/12 of 1% per month if you claim more than 36 months early. This means that those who apply immediately at 62 only get 70% of their PIA if their full retirement age is 67, or 75% if it's 66.

Delaying Social Security past your full retirement age boosts your checks by 2/3 of 1% per month until you reach 70. Those who qualify for their maximum benefit will get 124% of their PIA if their full retirement age is 67, or 132% if it's 66.

Timing your Social Security claim correctly

Delaying Social Security until 70 will give you your largest possible checks, but it might not always lead to your largest lifetime benefit. And waiting that long to apply isn't feasible for everyone.

When choosing your starting age, there are two important factors to consider: your finances and life expectancy. If you cannot afford to delay Social Security because you cannot cover your living costs without it, your choice is simple: Claim as soon as you can to help maintain your financial security.

When this isn't an issue, it's often best to go with the claiming age you think will net you the largest lifetime benefit. That's usually claiming early for those with health issues who don't expect to live beyond their 70s. But if you think you'll live until your 80s or beyond, delaying is almost certainly the way to go.

Now it's your turn

The best way to estimate how much you could get from the program is to create a my Social Security account. It has a tool that estimates your Social Security benefit at every claiming age based on your work history to date. You can also adjust its future income estimates.

Whatever claiming age you put into this calculator, you can multiply the monthly amount you get by 12 to get your estimated annual benefit.

Next, multiply each of the various estimated annual benefits you get by the number of years you expect to live, to get your projected lifetime benefit for each hypothetical claiming age. So if you think you'll claim a $24,000 annual benefit for 20 years, your total lifetime benefit would be $480,000.

If possible, go with the claiming age you believe will give you the most overall. If you worry you won't be able to delay benefits that long, you could at least try to get a little closer by delaying for a few months (or years) instead of waiting until 70.

Once you determine what works best for you, you can estimate how much of your retirement expenses you'll have to cover on your own.

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