Social Security: 3 ways your check can get bigger in retirement

So much of what we do here at is geared toward people who are nearing retirement and giving them advice on how to fatten their Social Security benefit before they retire.

But how about if you’ve already retired? Are you out of luck when it comes to fattening that check?

If you’re a relatively new Social Security recipient, you may think you’re locked into the dollar amount that you started with when you first claimed benefits. But it turns out there are several ways that monthly check can grow!

RELATED: This is the age when money expert Clark Howard plans to start collecting Social Security

3 ways your monthly check can increase after you claim Social Security benefits

COLA increases

The SSA recognizes that things get more expensive as times passes. That’s why it does a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) in years when there is inflation.

COLA is based on the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W), which is a broad measure of the price of food, energy, health care, housing, transportation and more.

Here’s a look at COLA increases over the past 10 years:

Year Cost-of-living-adjustment
2007 2.3%
2008 5.8%
2009 0.0
2010 0.0
2011 3.6%
2012 1.7%
2013 1.5%
2014 1.7%
2015 0.0
2016 0.3%
2017 2.0%
2018 ??

Note: These numbers are forward-looking to the next year.

Cost-of-living adjustments are typically announced in mid-October and take effect the following January. So, for example, the 2% COLA increase announced in October 2017 went into effect this year.

You’ll note that some years like 2009, 2010 and 2015 saw no COLA at all. That means there was effectively no inflation on consumer goods for those years.

The year 2018, however, is shaping up to be a different story. With a strengthening economy and the Federal Reserve raising interest rates, we have inflation again. According to the latest CPI-W numbers, there's been a 2.9% in the price of consumer goods over the last 12 months.

So while we don't yet know what the 2019 COLA will look like when it's announced in October, we know there will be one!

Working in retirement

Your 35 highest-earning years are used to determine your monthly benefit when you apply for Social Security. However, if you worked fewer than 35 years, some of those years were recorded as zero-earning years.

So, if you work a part-time job in retirement and earn even a nominal amount of money — say a few thousands dollars — your new earnings will replace those years that were previously recorded as zero. That automatically bumps up your benefit.

And if you happen to earn more one year working in retirement than you did during your pre-retirement working years, then that too would bump up your benefit.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) says it automatically monitors your earnings and will send a one-time check if your overall 35-year earnings picture increases for the reasons mentioned above. Then your monthly payment will be adjusted higher going forward, too.

Adjustment at full retirement age for reduced benefits

Full retirement age (FRA) is the age at which you can get the maximum monthly benefit you're due when you call it quits and stop working. You can see what your FRA is on this chart.

Though here’s the thing: If you elect to take your Social Security benefit before you reach your FRA, while still continuing to work some in retirement, then your monthly benefit could be reduced.

As of 2018, if you earn more than $17,040 while you have that monthly Social Security check coming in, the SSA withholds a minimum of $1 of benefits for every $2 in earned income.

But the good news is you get that money back once you reach your FRA!

"We will refigure your payment to credit you…and your monthly benefit will increase," the SSA notes on its blog.

More stories about Social Security: