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How can you claim higher social security benefits?

Living on a fixed income can be difficult, especially when inflation leads to a sudden increase in prices. Can one increase their Social Security checks?

Update:
Living on a fixed income can be difficult, especially when inflation leads to a sudden increase in prices. Can one increase their Social Security checks?

The Social Security Administration (SSA) announced in mid-October that starting in December 2021, beneficiaries will see a 5.9 percent boost in their checks. This increase represents the yearly cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) and is larger than in past years because of price increases for many consumer goods across the economy. 

The Senior Citizens League reported just before the COLA announcement that they had heard reports from seniors that they were forced to cut back on meals and forgo prescription refills because their Social Security benefits were not lasting them through the month.

Since the implementation of the Social Security program, the number of seniors living in poverty has decreased from around 30 to 8.9 percent. However, still in 2019, the Congressional Research Service found that more than 4.9 million seniors were living below the poverty line.

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Ways increase the amount of Social Security benefits for retirees

For those who are retired, there are not many ways to increase their Social Security benefit amount. However, other federal programs may be able to support seniors who are struggling to make ends meet on their fixed income.

SNAP benefits

Supplemental Nutritional Assitance Program (SNAP) benefits are available to Social Security beneficiaries that live in a household with a gross income or resources under a certain level. The income limits vary by state but total resources, defined as all "things you own (such as cash or money in a bank account)" cannot surpass "households may have $2,250 in resources or $3,500 if at least one person is age 60 or older, or is disabled."

The amount of money distributed depends on the number of people in the household and will be determined during the application process. Beneficiaries can apply for benefits at their local Social Security office or online.

Supplemental Security Income

Seniors who do and don't receive Social Security benefits but have an income under a certain level may be eligible to receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI).  Unlike Social Security benefits, there are no work requirements to receive SSI.

What counts as income when applying for Supplemental Secuirty Income?

  • Earned income: wages, net earnings from self-employment, and other compensation related to work.
  • Unearned income: other income, such as Social Security, veterans’ benefits, periodic annuity or pension payments, and cash from others.
  • In-kind support and maintenance: food or shelter provided by others

Source: Congressional Research Service, 2021

As for resources, an applicant must have less than $2,000 for an individual and $3,000 for a couple. Additionally, blind and disabled people regardless of age can apply to receive SSI benefits. Each year, the value of SSI benefits increase in accordance with the COLA that impacts Social Security benefits.

Ways to increase Social Security benefits for people still working

For those who are still working, there are various ways to ensure you can receive the highest possible Social Security benefit.

Retirement Age

A person can begin to receive Social Security benefits at sixty-two years old. However, if a worker waits until sixty-five or sixty-seven, depending on the year they were born, they will be able to receive a higher benefit amount. 

In 1983, Congress passed a bill that slowly increased the retirement age for workers after 1960. Before, at sixty-two retirees could claim eighty percent of their Social Security benefits. Now, those born after 1960 will only claim seventy percent of their total benefit amount if they opt to retire early.

Retirement age based on birth year

  • 1937 and prior: 65
  • 1938: 65 and 2 months
  • 1939: 65 and 4 months
  • 1940: 65 and 6 months
  • 1941: 65 and 8 months
  • 1942: 65 and 10 months
  • 1943-54: 66
  • 1955: 66 and 2 months
  • 1956: 66 and 4 months
  • 1957: 66 and 6 months
  • 1958: 66 and 8 months
  • 1959: 66 and 10 months
  • 1960 and later: 67

Source: Social Security Adminstration

Years Worked

In order to claim the highest possible payment based on your average income throughout your career, a retiree must have worked at least thirty-five years. If one chooses to retire before working thirty-five years, the Social Security Administration will "use a zero for each year without earnings when we calculate the number of retirement benefits you are due. Years with no earnings reduce your retirement benefit amount."

The SSA highlights that even if you report a low income for years early in your career, it is better than reporting no income as the average benefit will be brought down, in some cases, in a rather substantive way.

Benefit increases for each month/year worked after retirement age

Birth Year12-Month Rate of IncreaseMonthly Rate of Increase
1933-19345.5%11/24 of 1%
1935-19366.0%1/2 of 1%
1937-1938

6.5%

13/24 of 1%

1939-1940

7.0%

7/12 of 1%

1941-19427.5%5/8 of 1%
1943 or later8.0%2/3 of 1%

Source: Social Security Adminstration 

If you work for more than thirty-five years before reaching age seventy, your benefit amount will increase each month that you delay claiming Social Security.

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