Many older adults depend on Social Security retirement benefits as their primary source of income. About 1 in 7 Americans over the age of 65 receive 90% of their income from Social Security.
Maximizing Social Security retirements benefits can help retirees live a more comfortable lifestyle. Here are three strategies that older adults can follow to assure that they receive all the benefits to which they are entitled.
1. Delay Applying
If you are eligible for Social Security retirement benefits, you can apply at 62. However, the benefit is reduced if you apply before reaching full retirement age.
For people born in 1960 or later, full retirement age is 67. For people born in 1937 or earlier, full retirement age is 65. A Social Security Administration (SSA) chart will help applicants who were born after 1937 but before 1960 determine their full retirement age.
The benefit reduction for people who apply after they reach age 62 but before full retirement age is determined by a formula. The benefit calculation is based on the number of months before full retirement age the application is made. Benefits are reduced by a larger percentage if an application is made more than three years before reaching full retirement age.
Your benefit increases each month you wait to apply after you reach full retirement age. For most people, every year you wait to apply after reaching full retirement age will increase your benefit by about 8 percent. However, that increase ends when you turn 70. It rarely makes financial sense for a senior to delay applying for Social Security retirement benefits beyond the age of 70.
Since the formula requires a complicated calculation, it may be easier to use a benefit calculator to determine an estimated retirement benefit. You will need to know your earnings history to make a precise calculation.
2. Work at Least 35 Years
Most people need to work and pay Social Security (FICA) taxes for at least 10 years to be eligible for Social Security retirement benefits. However, benefits are based on the 35 years during which you earned the most money. Benefits are based on your average earnings during those years.
If you work fewer than 35 years, your average income will still be based on 35 years of earnings. Including years of zero income in that average will reduce your benefit. You can therefore increase your benefit by continuing to earn income for at least 35 years before you apply for Social Security.
3. Don’t Be Afraid to Keep Working
Some people worry that they will lose their benefits if they continue to work after applying for Social Security. Working never makes an older adult ineligible for a retirement benefit.
While earnings from work can reduce the benefit you receive if you apply before you reach full retirement age, the reduction is temporary. Income from other sources, including a pension or retirement plan, investment income, or unemployment benefits does not reduce Social Security retirement benefits.
Until the year in which you reach full retirement age, SSA will withhold $1 in benefits for every $2 you earn above a threshold. In 2024, the threshold is $22,320. The SSA withholds $1 for every $3 you earn above a higher threshold. That threshold is $59,520 in 2024.
The reduction is temporary in the sense that the benefit you receive after reaching full retirement age is adjusted to account for the withheld benefits. The increased payment continues for the rest of your life. Whether you will recoup the entire amount of withheld benefits will depend on how long you live.
Even if you earn more than the threshold, your earned income plus your reduced Social Security benefit will be greater than the benefit you will receive if you choose not to work. Working will always allow you to have a larger income, regardless of when you apply for Social Security retirement benefits.
After reaching full retirement age, your earnings have no impact on the benefits you receive. You can earn any amount of income and still receive a full retirement benefit after you reach your full retirement age, regardless of when you applied.