Millions of seniors today rely on Social Security to pay the bills in retirement, and countless workers will no doubt come to depend on those benefits in the future. Though Social Security was never designed to sustain retirees by itself, it can serve as a substantial income source. That's why it's crucial to get the most money out of the program as possible -- but if you're not careful, you could end up slashing your benefits and losing out on key income when you need it the most. Here are a few mistakes that'll cut your benefits, and how to avoid them.
1. Not working for 35 full years
Your Social Security benefits are calculated based on how much you earned during your top 35 working years. So if you don't have a full 35 years of work on record, you'll have a big fat $0 factored in for each year you were out of the workforce. If you accumulate too many $0 years, your final benefit may turn out much lower than you'd like it to be.
IMAGE SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES.
So what happens if you're nearing retirement and only have, say, 32 years of work in your personal history? It's simple: Consider working longer. For each additional year you stay on the job and pay Social Security taxes, you'll replace a zero with an actual income, thereby helping yourself avoid losing out on higher benefits in retirement.
2. Not knowing your full retirement age
Your full retirement age is the age at which you're entitled to collect your full monthly benefits based on your earnings history. That age, however, does not represent the earliest age to claim Social Security. Rather, it's based on your year of birth, as follows:
Year of Birth
Full Retirement Age
66 and 2 months
66 and 4 months
66 and 6 months
66 and 8 months
66 and 10 months
DATA SOURCE: SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION.
While you're eligible to take benefits beginning at age 62, not waiting until your full retirement age will result in a roughly 6.67% reduction for the first three years you file early, and a 5% reduction for each year thereafter. This means that filing at 62 when your full retirement age is 67 will slash your payments by a whopping 30%. It's estimated that 74% of Americans don't know their full retirement age, so do yourself a favor and commit that number to memory. You may not end up claiming benefits at full retirement age due to other circumstances, but you should at least know what you're working with.
3. Not fighting for raises during your career
The more money you make during your career, the higher your Social Security payments will be. Therefore, settling for a lackluster salary year after year could set you back financially in retirement by virtue of leaving you with a lower monthly benefit.
If you have reason to believe that you're being undercompensated -- say, you've done your research and have determined that your earnings are low for your job title and industry -- you should absolutely approach your manager and discuss the idea of a raise. Though that negotiation may not be easy, you can build a case by supplying data showing your company could do better moneywise. In addition, go in with a list of ways you bring value to the business, whether it's your unique skills or specific things you've done that have resulted in better output or increased revenue. Remember, it's often the case that the more money you make at one job, the more you'll command at the next, so fight for those raises as needed.
4. Not correcting errors on your earnings record
By now, you've gotten the message that Social Security benefits are based on your earnings. But if your earnings record contains inaccurate information that works against you, your benefits could get cut as a result. Imagine you worked for a full 35 years during your career, only for some reason, the Social Security Administration (SSA) only has 32 years of work for you on record. If you don't take steps to correct that error, you stand to lose out on money during your senior years.
That's why it's so important to review your earnings statements regularly and clear up any mistakes you spot. The SSA used to mail out these statements, but it no longer does for workers under 60, which means you'll need to create an account to access your records online.
Along these lines, be sure to keep copies of all pay stubs and tax documents for each year you work until you've verified that the SSA has the same information on file. Otherwise, you may need that paperwork to make your case for correcting an error.
Social Security often spells the difference between paying your bills as a senior and struggling to keep up. Avoiding these mistakes can put more money in your pocket during retirement, and that's reason enough to be vigilant.
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