After decades spent in the workforce, you should be able to celebrate and reflect on all you’ve achieved in retirement. But this is challenging as pensions have largely fallen to the wayside and ensuring you have enough income in retirement is no easy task. Now more than ever, Social Security is a crucial part of financial planning.

As more people pay attention to their Social Security benefits, they’re beginning to understand how complicated it is. However, you have more control than you realize regarding how much your benefit amount could be.

Here’s how to plan for Social Security and make the most of it in retirement.

Have 35 Years of Work History

To be eligible for Social Security, you must accumulate 40 credits over your lifetime. The maximum number of credits available to earn in a year is four, so most people qualify after working for 10 years.  Even though collecting a benefit is possible after just 10 years, the Social Security Administration determines your monthly benefit by averaging your top 35 years of income.

If you only have 10 years of earned income, your average will include 25 years of zero earnings--which can significantly reduce your monthly benefit check. Working longer than 35 years can boost your benefit amount if your income is significantly higher at the end of your career than it was at the beginning. Additionally, the longer you work, the longer you can wait to file—which can increase your benefit further.

To maximize your Social Security benefits, plan to work at least 35 years.

Wait for Full Retirement Age to File

“Full retirement age” (FRA) is the age when you are eligible to receive your full monthly Social Security benefits. While filing for Social Security early makes sense for some, you might wait until FRA to get a higher benefit in your older years.

Waiting is an important consideration because the difference in your monthly check can be significant. If you were born between 1943 and 1954, claiming Social Security at age 62 instead of waiting for your FRA of 66 can reduce your monthly benefit by 25%. When you realize a $1,000 check goes down to just $750, that’s a huge difference.

For those born in 1960 and later, you get the most severe reduction of 30%--decreasing a $1,000 benefit to $700. The average life span in the U.S. is 78 years, which equates to 16 years of benefits if you retire at age 62. A loss of $300 a month for 16 years adds up to $57,600 in benefit money you’ll never collect.

Consider Delaying Benefits until Age 70

You can maximize your benefits if you wait to file for Social Security until you reach the age of 70, because Social Security rewards you with a larger monthly benefit every year after your FRA that you wait to collect.

While you might not think the extra cash is worth the wait, you might reconsider when you realize it’s a guaranteed 8% increase to your monthly payout. 

As your retirement savings dwindle after the first 10-15 years of retirement, the boost in Social Security income can be a lifesaver. With such a large increase, waiting to file until age 70 could become a crucial strategy in your Social Security planning.

Maximize Spousal Benefits

You might be eligible to collect spousal benefits if you are currently married or were married in the past. This is a key factor in planning for Social Security because you could receive up to 50% of your spouse’s benefit. 

A few rules apply and your eligibility depends on how long you’ve been married. If you’re currently married, you must be 62 and have been married for at least one year before filing. If you’re divorced, your marriage must have lasted for at least 10 years and you must be officially divorced for at least two years. 

Keep in mind that delaying spousal benefits past FRA doesn’t deliver any increase in the benefit amount, but you can expect to collect a lower amount if you opt to collect before your FRA.

Don’t Earn Too Much Money

If you retire with a low income and rely solely on Social Security, earning too much in retirement isn’t something you’ll need to worry about. However, if you work a part time job or take IRA withdrawals while collecting your monthly benefit, it could trigger a reduction in your payment.

For 2019, your Social Security benefits will be reduced if you earn more than $17,640. If you’re below FRA, Social Security will reduce your benefit by $1 for every $2 you earn above the limit. If you reach FRA in 2019, you can earn up to $46,920 without penalty, but for every $3 you earn over that amount prior to reaching your FRA, $1 will be taken out of your payment. 

Having your benefits reduced can be significant financial burden in retirement. A CFP® professional can help you maximize your Social Security benefits and potential complications.