Is Social Security income enough to live on?

Whether you’re already retired—or are planning ahead for the time when you will be—it’s important to know how you’ll pay for your daily expenses. And your Social Security benefits likely play a starring financial role.

“Social Security is the major source of income for most people age 65 and over,” said Jennifer Teague, NCOA’s Director of Health Coverage and Benefits. “Nine of ten people in this age group receive a monthly benefits check, and recent data show that close to half of them rely solely on this money. That is, they don’t have pensions or savings to supplement it.”1

So, how do these benefits stack up?

According to the Social Security Administration (SSA), the average monthly benefit payment equaled $1,710.78 in November 2023.2 That may sound pretty good—until you consider the rising costs of living in the United States. A Forbes analysis based on publicly available data from 2023 reveals that, on average, Americans over the age of 65 spend an average of $1,697 per month on housing (which includes things like rent or mortgage payments, utilities, and upkeep) and $628 on health care.3

“Already, those expenses exceed average Social Security income,” Teague said. “It’s no wonder that far too many older adults can’t afford groceries or their prescription medicine.” In fact, poverty rates jumped yet again for this age group, reaching an unacceptable 14% at the end of 2022.

If you’re wondering, “how can I get more money from Social Security?”—you’re not alone. And despite the statistics above, there’s good news: You can boost your Social Security benefits. Let’s take a look.

How to increase your Social Security benefits: 7 strategies to consider

Before claiming

If you’re still working, your goal should be to maximize your Social Security benefits before you begin collecting them. Here are four common approaches:

1.    Remain in the workforce for at least 35 years

Anyone who is employed for at least 10 years becomes eligible for Social Security retirement benefits once they reach age 62. However, working longer literally adds up.

Why? Because the SSA uses your earnings history to figure out what your benefit amount will be at full retirement age (more on this below)—and they base their calculation on the 35 years in which you earned the most money. If you work for fewer than 35 years, the SSA puts a “0” into the formula for each year between 10 and 35 that you did not work.

Notably, you do not have to work for 35 years in a row. “As long as you are employed for a total of at least 35 years, you likely will get more money from your Social Security benefits,” Teague said. “If you take a hiatus for any reason, returning to the workforce later can help cancel out those ‘zero years’ and raise your baseline.”

2.    Continue working until your full retirement age

Depending on when you were born, your full retirement age falls somewhere between 66 and 67.3 (you can check yours by using the SSA’s Retirement Age Calculator). While you are eligible to claim benefits sooner, doing so comes at a cost. That’s because the SSA will reduce the amount you receive by a set percentage for each month you collect Social Security before reaching your full retirement age.4

Let’s say you were born after 1960, making your full retirement age 67. Using the SSA’s Full Retirement and Age 62 Benefit by Year of Birth chart, you can see that your Social Security benefit would be reduced by 30% if you began collecting it at age 62. (As an example, what might have been a $1,000 monthly check at age 67 becomes $700 at age 62. Over the course of five years, that adds up to $18,000 in lost benefits.)

Curious how this scenario might play out for you? Use the SSA’s Retirement Age Calculator to choose your birth year, then click on the blue button immediately below it. You will then see a chart that shows the monthly impact on your benefits should you claim them before full retirement age.

3.    Wait until you’re 70

The SSA offers delayed retirement credits for people who wait until after their full retirement age to collect benefits.5

“This isn’t always a practical or desirable choice for everyone,” Teague observed. “But if it makes sense for you and your individual financial situation, it absolutely leads to a bump in your monthly Social Security check.”

Although delayed retirement credits max out at age 70, your Social Security benefits will increase by a set percentage for each month you hold off on claiming them. Returning to the example above, if you were born after 1960 and waited until you turned 68 to collect Social Security, you would receive 8% more for that year. See the SSA’s Increase for Delayed Retirement chart to view the increase by month and how it applies to you.

4.    Consider claiming spousal benefits

Generally speaking, this strategy is best if you and your spouse:

  • Were born before January 2, 1954
  • Were both employed for at least 35 years (though you are eligible after 10)
  • Have reached your full retirement age (though you are eligible after 62)

Married people who were born before January 2, 1954 are allowed to file a “restricted application”—meaning they are choosing not to collect their own Social Security benefits and instead will collect based on their spouse’s earnings.6 They may switch back at any time, but the most advantageous route is to wait until age 70 in order to accumulate the highest number of delayed retirement credits.

If you are married and were born after January 2, 1954, you still may be eligible for spousal benefits. However, you may not file a restricted application. Instead, you must apply both for your benefits and your spouse’s benefits at the same time (this is called “deemed filing”).6 In this instance, you will collect the higher of the two benefit amounts.

“Claiming spousal benefits is a very specific strategy and the rules and considerations that govern it can be somewhat complicated,” said Teague. "It is important that you talk to a qualified financial advisor to understand whether it’s right for you and how to proceed should you choose to.”

The SSA publishes a primer on retirement benefits that you may be interested to read through. For more details on spousal benefits, see pages 6-9.

After claiming benefits

If you already collect Social Security, it’s still possible to increase your benefits after receiving your first check. Here’s how:

5.    Look  for your annual cost of living adjustment (COLA)

In any year when consumer prices rise, the SSA must increase your benefits to account for inflation.7,8 In 2023, this hit an unprecedented 8.7% for most beneficiaries.

The SSA bases the COLA on the U.S. Department of Labor’s Consumer Price Index.9 Beginning in January 2024, more than 66 million Social Security beneficiaries saw a 3.2% bump in their monthly checks.

6.    Continue working after you begin collecting benefits

Remember: the SSA calculates your benefit based on your highest 35 years of income. If you choose to begin collecting Social Security after age 62—but have not worked for 35 years—you have the opportunity to replace any “zero years” with income you earn after the fact.7

Similarly, if you did work for 35 years but your earnings were low during some of them, you have the opportunity to replace those lower earnings with higher ones. The SSA checks your income each year and, if you’re eligible, will automatically increase your benefits check.7

Just be aware of one thing, Teague pointed out. The SSA limits how much additional income you are allowed to make in any given year that you collect benefits. In 2024, that limit is $22,320 per year if you haven’t reached full retirement age; and $59,520 if you have.10 If you earn more than your respective limit, the SSA will temporarily reduce your benefit.

7.    Qualify for a benefits adjustment

If you chose to begin collecting Social Security before your full retirement age, and continued to work during that time, you may be eligible for a benefits adjustment once you do reach your full retirement age.11

This adjustment only applies if the income you earned exceeded the allowed limit mentioned above. In that instance, the SSA will increase your benefit to account for the money they withheld.11

For more details, see the SSA’s How Work Affects Your Benefits.

The bottom line

In many parts of the United States, the cost of living exceeds the average monthly Social Security benefit. For older adults who rely solely on this income, it’s getting harder and harder to make ends meet. But there’s better news: there are ways to increase your monthly check, whether you currently collect Social Security or are looking ahead to the time when you will. This article shows you how.

Other ways to boost your budget

Did you know? NCOA offers an easy-to-use online tool that points you toward vital financial benefits that can help you pay for food, utilities, prescription medications, and more. Visit to browse programs in your area and learn how to qualify. It’s free and you don’t need to create an account to use it.


1. Social Security Administration. Fact Sheet. Found on the internet at:

2. Social Security Administration. Monthly Statistical Snapshot, November 2023. (Released December 2023). Found on the internet at

3. Robin Rothstein. Examining the Cost of Living by State in 2023. Forbes Advisor. August 24, 2023. Found on the internet at

4. Social Security Administration. Publication No. 05-10702. Additional Work Can Increase Your Future Benefits. June 2022. Found on the internet at

5. Social Security Administration. Starting Your Retirement Benefits Early. Found on the internet at

6. Social Security Administration. Delayed Retirement Credits. Found on the internet at

7. Social Security Administration. Publication No. 05-10035. Retirement Benefits. January 2023 (pp. 6-7). Found on the internet at

8. Jim Borland. Three Common Ways Your Social Security Payment Can Grow After Retirement. Social Security Matters. June 21, 2018. Found on the internet at

9. Social Security Administration. Cost-of-Living Adjustment (COLA) Information. Found on the internet at

10. Social Security Administration. Fact Sheet. 2024 Social Security Changes. Found on the internet at

11. Social Security Administration. Publication 05-10069. How Work Affects Your Benefits. January 2023. Found on the internet at