If you could get 88% more from Social Security benefits, then you would, right? As the majority of Americans rely – at least to some degree – on Social Security benefits to fund their later years, it seems like a no-brainer. To do it, however, you need a basic understanding of how benefits work and the steps you can take to maximize them.

The biggest danger – and opportunity – comes if you've had a gap in your life that means you don't have 35 years of earnings on your record when you're planning to start your benefits. That's the important finding of a new working paper from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

According to the paper, 46% of women and 15% of men could replace a zero-income year by working until age 63 instead of 62, if they'd been planning to retire early. And if late-career income can replace a zero in your benefits calculation, you could lock in a higher benefit. The benefit becomes staggering if you also work – and wait to collect – until you're 70.

Women vs. Men

Spending an extra year at work to ensure that you have a full 35 years of earnings on your record can boost your benefits in two ways: You’ll have more earnings factored into the Social Security calculation, plus you’ll delay receiving benefits for one more year. If you start receiving payments before your normal retirement age (which falls between age 65 and 67, depending on the year you were born), your benefits will be permanently reduced. What's more, every year you wait beyond normal retirement age until you turn 70 increases your benefit by 8%.

According to the Center for Retirement Research paper, a woman could boost her benefit by as much as 88% by replacing a zero-income year (by working an additional year) and by waiting until age 70 to collect. For men, a similar scenario would result in an 82% bump.

“Women stand to benefit most from working longer because they tend to have more zeroes in their earnings records,” Matthew Rutledge, a research economist and author of the paper, told CNBC. On average women spend 29 years in the workforce, compared with 38 years for men. The difference? Women take an average of five-and-a-half years away from work to care for children and another 1.2 years to care for an older adult.

As the paper explains, if late-career earnings increase your average indexed monthly earnings (AIME) by $1 (AIME is the average of the highest 35 years of wage-inflation-indexed earnings, divided by 12), your benefit will increase by 90 cents if you have very low career earnings, by 32 cents if you’re like most workers, and by 15 cents if you’re a higher earner.

Particularly likely to benefit are stay-at-home parents, those who have suffered a long-term illness or injury, and those who otherwise have gaps in their careers. “We were really surprised at how many people have zeroes in that top 35, especially women,” said Rutledge to CNBC.

Women vs. Men

Spending an extra year at work to ensure that you have a full 35 years of earnings on your record can boost your benefits in two ways: You’ll have more earnings factored into the Social Security calculation, plus you’ll delay receiving benefits for one more year (remember, your benefit goes up 8% each year that you wait past normal retirement age).

According to the Center for Retirement Research paper, a woman could boost her benefit by as much as 88% by replacing a zero-income year (by working an additional year) – and by waiting until age 70 to collect. For men, a similar scenario would result in an 82% bump.

“Women stand to benefit most from working longer, because they tend to have more zeroes in their earnings records,” said Rutledge to CNBC. On average women spend 29 years in the workforce, compared with 38 years for men. The difference? Women take an average of five-and-a-half years away from work to care for children and another 1.2 years to care for an older adult.

Should You Wait to Collect?

Even if you don't have a zero-income year, waiting to collect can pay off. Of course, delaying won’t be the right choice for everyone, and a number of factors must be considered before making any decisions, including:

  • Current cash needs
  • Health and family longevity (how long you expect to live)
  • Other sources of retirement income
  • Work plans during retirement
  • Future financial obligations
  • Potential Social Security benefit amounts

The Bottom Line

To know where you stand, get a copy of your Social Security statement to review estimates of your future retirement benefits, your earnings to verify the amounts on record and an estimate of the Social Security and Medicare taxes you’ve paid. The statement lists your earnings by year, so you’ll be able to count the number of years you have on record to help you determine if spending an extra year or two in the workforce would boost your Social Security benefits during retirement. Pay particular attention to how many zero-income years you have, if any.

Keep in mind, though, that you may have access to benefits based on your spouse’s (or ex-spouse’s) earnings record – which could be larger than you would be entitled to even if you worked those couple of extra years. (For more, see How to Navigate Spousal Benefits Under New Social Security Rules and 5 Tricks for Stretching Your Social Security Benefits.)

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