As you approach retirement, have you thought about how to maximize Social Security benefits? Having a solid Social Security strategy in place during retirement can help you get the most out of your benefits — and identify where you may need to supplement your income.
While monthly Social Security payments are a helpful addition to retirement savings, they’re not designed to be the sole source of income after retirement. Luckily, there are several strategies that can help seniors like you make the most of their Social Security payments. Take a look at the helpful Social Security tips below to maximize your benefits.
Understanding Social Security: The Basics
Did you know that Social Security has been in place for nearly 100 years? The program was established in 1935 to prevent older Americans from falling into poverty. While Social Security has become a benefit that most elderly Americans participate in, financial experts agree that it shouldn’t be seen as the sole source of income for retirees. Why? Well, on average, most seniors receive $1,500 per month, which is barely above the national poverty level of $1,452 for a two-person household.
Unfortunately, Social Security has become the primary source of income for the majority of older Americans. About 25% of seniors are living on Social Security for at least 90% of their income and 50% of seniors use Social Security for half of their retirement livelihood. Despite the majority of older Americans relying on Social Security to fund their retirement, the program doesn’t tend to keep up with inflation.
Over the past decade, there was an average Social Security Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) of 1.6%, while inflations during that time rose 2%. The good news: seniors recently got a deserved raise! Because inflation has risen so quickly in recent years post-pandemic, there was an annual COLA of 8.7% in 2023. While this recent raise certainly aided seniors with the latest rise in inflation, the wider lens shows that seniors shouldn’t rely on Social Security to keep up with the cost of living.
Social Security Tips: How Seniors Can Make the Most of Benefits
In retirement, every little bit counts. While you shouldn’t rely on Social Security for the entirety of your retirement income, there certainly are ways to maximize your Social Security payments. Here are five ways to get the most out of your monthly benefit!
1. Have A Work History of At Least 35 Years
Social Security payments are calculated by evaluating your highest earning years during your work history. If you do not have a work history of at least 35 years, then your overall payout will be lower because years without earnings are factored in as “0.” It’s likely that later in your career is when you will be making more money, so if you work for more than 35 years, you will be able to use your highest earnings as a baseline for payment calculations.
2. Delay Collecting Your Payments in Order to Maximize Your Benefits
The longer you wait to begin collecting Social Security, the more you’ll receive. People qualify for Social Security starting at age 62, however every year you wait to collect (up to age 70), the benefit increases. In 2023, folks who begin collecting Social Security at 62 will receive $2,572. However, if you wait until age 70, the payout is $4,555.
3. Consider Your Spousal Status
Depending on your spousal status, you may be eligible to collect your deceased or divorced partner’s benefits if they’re higher than your own. If a person’s spouse has passed and the living spouse is at full retirement age or older, the living spouse may collect 100% of their spouse’s benefit. If the surviving spouse is not yet of retirement age, then they can collect a percentage (71.5% – 99%) of their deceased spouse’s benefit.
If a person is divorced, they can collect up to 50% of their ex-spouse’s benefit if they are 62 years or older, were married at least 10 years, and are single. If a person divorces and decides to re-marry, they can still collect Social Security benefits based on their ex-spouse as long as they remarry after reaching the age of 60 years old.
4. Avoid Social Security Tax if You Continue to Work
A person can continue to generate an income while on Social Security without owing any tax penalty against their benefit. However, you have to be careful to avoid the tax consequences of supplementing your income. The IRS will calculate your adjusted gross income (AGI) and determine how much of your Social Security benefits are subject to tax.
One more important note: if you are younger than retirement age and you earn more than the yearly earnings limit, your Social Security benefits may get reduced. Once you reach full retirement age, you can earn as much as you want without any Social Security reductions.
5. Consult a Financial Advisor
It is a good idea to consult a financial advisor that specializes in Social Security benefits claims. They can help you understand your options and provide a recommended course of action for your individual situation. These specialized advisors will provide guidance to help you maximize your benefits.
Common Questions about Social Security Planning
Navigating the nuances of how Social Security works — and how you can get the most out of it — can be challenging! Here are some frequently asked questions about Social Security to help you create a plan that maximizes your benefit.
1. How is Social Security Funded?
Social Security is funded through payroll tax deductions. From your very first paycheck to your last, you are paying into Social Security. How much you pay into the system determines how much you receive in benefits later in life. The longer you work (and the more you make), the higher benefit you’ll receive in the future.
While the highest Social Security monthly benefit in 2023 is $4,555, the average payout is $1,827. No one should count on Social Security to be their retirement fund. It’s meant to be supplemental income that’s coupled with a lifetime of savings and investments that can sustain your cost of living when you stop working. People should consult a financial planner to prepare a sustainable retirement strategy and understand how Social Security can supplement a long-term financial plan.
2. Can I See How Much I’ve Saved in Social Security?
A common misconception about Social Security is that it’s an automatic savings mechanism for individuals. Even though working professionals pay into the system with every paycheck, there is no savings account tied to their name for the future. In fact, 25% of payroll taxes go toward the Social Security trust fund for future use and the remaining 75% pays for people’s benefits in real time.
3. When Can I Begin Collecting Social Security?
Folks can begin collecting their Social Security benefits at the age of 62. However, it may not be prudent to stop working and retire right at 62 for a couple of reasons:
- Medicare eligibility doesn’t begin until age 65. Seniors who retire right at age 62 would need to pay three years of health insurance coverage out-of-pocket.
- Delaying Social Security will result in a higher benefit. The longer you wait to collect, the higher your benefit will be. In 2023, the monthly benefit level for a person who retires having paid in the maximum contributions is $2,572 if starting at age 62 but $4,555 if starting at age 70. Lock in the highest benefit level for the remainder of your life by delaying Social Security collection.
4. How Should Seniors Protect Themselves from Social Security Scammers?
Scammers regularly target seniors and trick them into providing sensitive information over the phone. The scammers then use that sensitive data to falsely apply for bank accounts and credit cards. Their main objective? To get cash under someone else’s name.
Oftentimes, the scammers will falsely pose as representatives from the Social Security Administration to trick seniors into sharing valuable information, such as a full Social Security number or banking information. They’ll claim that the senior’s benefits are going to be shut off unless they can verify their identity by giving them their Social Security number or verifying bank account information, asking seniors to read those numbers. Other scams include telling seniors they’re eligible for other benefits — such as COVID relief — or they’ll tell seniors that their Social Security has been used by someone else in connection with a crime to falsely apply for bank accounts.
It’s important to know that Social Security will never:
- Ask anyone to verify themselves by reading off their Social Security number.
- Ask anyone to verify their banking or credit card information.
- Ask anyone to send them money.
What to do when you think you’re being scammed:
- When in doubt, hang up the phone. If you’re unsure whether or not Social Security actually called you, you can hang up and Social Security directly to ask them questions.
- Do not click on any links in emails. No matter how official they may look, you could be clicking on a link that installs spyware, malware, or some other dangerous kind of program onto your computer.
- Never share personal information with someone who has contacted you. Do not share your full Social Security number or banking information with anyone over the phone or through a computer that has contacted you asking for it.
Is the Future of Social Security Certain?
Recent economic projections show the Social Security Trust Fund could run out of money by 2033. What’s worse: Social Security tax revenues have been negatively impacted by the economic realities of the COVID pandemic and recent layoffs. Many workers lost their jobs in 2020 and massive layoffs continue into 2023, contributing to a loss of payroll taxes. To make matters even more complex: Social Security benefits cannot be reduced because of economic conditions. Even if payroll taxes decline, the money to cover Social Security benefits to people who have already begun collecting the benefit still needs to be paid.
While the future of Social Security appears grim, the way it’s funded may provide a glimmer of hope. A common misunderstanding around Social Security is how it is funded. Some people mistakenly think they pay into Social Security in an account under their name that will then support them when they retire. The truth is that most Social Security benefits are paid by taxes that are collected by today’s workers. When workers pay into Social Security every month about three-fourths of those dollars fund Social Security today and the remainder is set aside for the future in the Social Security trust fund. Plus, economies are cyclical. Jobs will return and markets will continue to fluctuate. The economy will adapt and find ways to put tax revenues into the system.
The Social Security Trust Fund nearing its end should be a wakeup call for Americans and their retirement plans. It’s time to get educated on how Social Security works, what you could receive as their benefit when they retire, and what you can do now to plan for financial security in retirement without being completely reliant on Social Security.
Make a Plan Today to Thrive in Retirement Tomorrow
So can seniors live off of Social Security in retirement? The truth is, you simply don’t want to rely on Social Security as your main source of income when you stop working. With unreliable cost of living increases and an average monthly benefit that is near the national poverty level, Social Security does not create a thriving outlook for most Americans’ retirement.
Rather, consult with your financial advisor for Social Security advice. Learn how to create a financial plan that uses Social Security as supplemental income and counts on other forms of personal investments and savings strategies to fund your retirement. Strategies your financial advisor may recommend for retirement include:
- Life Insurance
- Life Settlements
- Long-Term Care Planning
- Reverse Mortgages
- Senior Bridge Loans
Start making a plan with your financial planner today to thrive in retirement tomorrow!