The choices you make today will affect your Social Security payment amount later on. This is true, even if you are in your 60s and are rapidly approaching retirement age. It’s especially true for our daughters and granddaughters, who still have several years, or even decades, to go before retirement age.
I always thought that everyone got the same amount for Social Security. I didn’t know that how much I earned and how many years I worked made a difference to what I would receive when I started collecting.
Like many women, I was very naïve. If I knew what I know now, I could have made different choices and would be in a better situation today.
Some of these suggestions may be too late for us, but, not for our daughters, granddaughters, nieces and their friends.
It’s important to pass this information along and empower the women of the future so that they make educated decisions that can mean the difference between living in poverty and having a better quality of life.
Earn More Money
The sad truth is that men earn more than women. Since Social Security is based on your earnings, a woman’s payment amount is generally less than a man’s.
The more you earn, the higher your payment will be until you reach the $118,500 limit. After that amount, you no longer pay Social Security tax on additional earnings and your monthly payment amount will not be affected.
It’s important to remind the younger women in our families to focus on earning more, earlier in their careers. Tell them to be bold and negotiate a good starting salary or ask for that raise they deserve.
Even if you are approaching retirement age, continuing to work can also increase your Social Security benefits. So, while early retirement is tempting, be sure that you can afford it.
Tip: Contribute to a Roth IRA
With a Roth IRA you pay the taxes upfront so that when you retire, your dispersements are tax-free. You pay no taxes on your original contribution or any earnings at the time of withdrawal. Small amounts invested while you are young can grow to large sums over 35-40 years. This can help make up for the effect of the gender gap on your Social Security payment.
Know the Consequences of Family Leave
Women are more likely to take time off to raise a family. This has a double whammy. You lower your Social Security payments and you are more likely to earn less when you return to the workplace.
Social Security calculates your benefit by taking your 35 highest earning years and putting them into a formula. Every year you don’t have income is calculated as a zero. This will bring your payment down. You may have to work extra years to make up the difference or accept a lower payment.
Social Security pays on a curve, which may work in your favor. Lower income workers receive a higher percentage of their salary for their payment. This was designed to provide the basic necessities to all workers.
When you do return to the workplace, you generally don’t go back right where you left off. You have missed your place in line for promotions and salary increases. You also have children now and may not want to put in the hours or endure the stress of a high-level position. Earning less now decreases your monthly payment even more.
Tip: Contribute to a traditional IRA
During your time off, you can contribute to a traditional IRA every year, based on your husband’s earnings. This will supplement your Social Security payments later on. Make this part of your arrangement. You need to take care of yourself.
Please don’t be lulled into thinking you don’t have to worry because you will have your husband’s Social Security to rely on. With a 50% divorce rate and spousal support being only 50% of your husband’s payment amount, you could end up getting the short end of the stick. It’s better to be prepared. The worst that could happen is you have more money for your retirement.
Pay Your Payroll Taxes
It’s often tempting to work off-the-books or not pay taxes on tips or business income. It may be helpful at the moment. You may even feel a little excitement about getting away with something, but it will hurt you in the end.
My neighbor owns an event planning business. She got a real wakeup call when she read my book, The New Retirement Basics. She had been manipulating her books and not showing her true earnings. As a result, she was not paying much in payroll taxes. She didn’t know that she was cheating herself out of future Social Security benefits.
Fortunately, Francine has changed her accounting practices and is working hard to beef up her earnings to increase her payment amount later on.
You can lose everything you own and still count on a monthly check from Social Security. It’s a great asset and comforting to know in this changing world.
I live in the Aspen area, and the cost of living is high. Because it’s so expensive, it is common to trade services. My friend Joanne got free housing for managing a property. Her apartment would have cost $1,500 per month. That’s $18,000 a year in unclaimed income. That would have given a nice boost to her Social Security payment.
Beth is 55 years old. She and her significant other Jimmy were never married. They were together 12 years and had two children. Sadly, he died in an accident, leaving Beth as a single mother. Her boys were able to receive Social Security on Jimmy’s work record, but because they were never legally married, Beth is not entitled to any benefits.
There is an accepted notion that if you live together for seven years you have a common-law-marriage. This is not true everywhere in the United States. Several states do recognize common-law marriages. In addition, the requirements vary and are not dependent on the length of time you are together. Beth did not live in a state where her relationship constituted a legal marriage.
As a single mother, Beth worked as a bartender, waitress, babysitter, etc. to make ends meet. She didn’t pay tax on most of her income. She does not show enough earnings over her working lifetime to qualify for Social Security. Because Beth doesn’t qualify for Social Security, she is also not eligible for Medicare.
It pained me when I heard Beth’s story. My heart really went out to her.
One of the best things Beth could do is Get Married. If Beth finds a nice man, and gets married, her situation would change considerably. After nine months she would be eligible for spousal benefits. If her husband passed away, she would be eligible for survivor benefits, and she would be eligible for Medicare at age 65.
Of course, I’m not suggesting she marry just anybody or just for the money. But, if she finds someone she loves, why not make it official? Many women our age don’t get married because they don’t see the point. Beth definitely has a point. Her very survival depends on it.
The other alternative is to start earning. Beth is 55. She has 11 years before her Full Retirement Age. To qualify for the minimum Social Security payment, you need to earn at least $5,040 per year for ten years. If she did qualify, she would also be eligible for Medicare on her own record. A part-time job could bring that in easily.
Currently, Beth watches her granddaughter three days each week. If she is being paid $100 per week, claimed that income, and paid the tax, she will earn $5,200 per year. The tax would be $6.20 per week, certainly worth it and her son might be able to get a child care deduction.
In the 60s and 70s, boomers were all about peace, love, freedom, happiness. Marriage was out of favor. Living together became a norm. I moved in with my boyfriend at 19. It was scandalous.
The truth is that marriage offers certain protections and rights, particularly for women. If you are in a committed relationship and plan on staying together, especially if you have children, consider getting married. When it comes to Social Security, that piece of paper does make a difference.
Stay Married for Ten Years
Can I get Social Security if I’m divorced? This is a common question and the answer is, in many cases, yes. To collect on your husband’s record you must have been married for at least ten years and divorced for two. This income can be a life-saver for many women in retirement.
Keep this time requirement in mind when considering divorce. If you are close, it may be to your benefit to wait the ten years to finalize your divorce.
If you do, you will be eligible for spousal support and survivor benefits. Even if you have enough earnings to qualify on your own record, if your ex-husband made more than you, you will be able to get the higher payment when he passes on. This could improve your quality of life at a time when you need it most.
After all, according to Social Security “17.3% of non-married elderly women (widowed, divorced, never married) are living in poverty today.”
I’ve worked off-the-books, I’ve traded services, I’ve owned my own business and I’ve been single my whole life. At 60 I am now seeing the fruit of my choices. It isn’t always pretty.
If I had known how the program worked early on, I may have done things differently. I share this so that you and the women you know can make better choices for yourselves and create a better financial future.