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What is Social Security?

15 minute read

Points to know

• Social Security retirement benefits are a safety net for retirees.

• Payroll taxes on employees and employers fund the Social Security program.

• Your Social Security benefits should be considered an important part of your retirement income.

Social Security 101

Social Security is a federal government program that provides a guaranteed monthly income adjusted for inflation for as long as you live.


Basically, it's similar to an income annuity, an insurance product that provides regular guaranteed payments. But it isn't intended to be your total retirement package.

1 in 4 Americans

over 65 rely on Social Security benefits for at least 90% of their income

Source: Social Security Administration.

Who pays for Social Security?

Social Security isn't like other retirement accounts —such as IRAs and 401(k)s —that enable you to invest with an opportunity for growth and then draw from your savings in retirement.

It's basically a pay-as-you-go system. While you're working, you contribute to Social Security through payroll deductions, currently 6.2%. Your employer also contributes 6.2%.

Your deductions fund the benefits for current recipients; in turn, when you claim benefits, the people who are working at that time will fund your payout with their payroll taxes.

There are 4 ways you can qualify for Social Security: by accumulating a minimum number of credits based on your earnings history; as a spouse; as a surviving spouse or surviving ex-spouse; or as an ex-spouse.

Your earnings history

Think of Social Security credits as the building blocks of your benefits. You need a minimum of 40 credits to be eligible—typically accumulated over 10 years of working.

Based on your total wages and self-employment income, you can earn a maximum of 4 credits per year.

In 2019, you need $1,360 in earnings to get one Social Security credit ($5,440 for the maximum 4 credits).

Your work credits permanently stay on your record, so if you don't have the required 40 credits yet, you can add to your record at any time by working more.

As a spouse

You're eligible for Social Security based on your own earnings record or even if you've never held a job that qualifies for Social Security.

  • You must be at least 62 years old.
  • If you claim Social Security before your full retirement age (FRA), you'll receive reduced benefits.
  • If you worked for a job that qualifies for Social Security, it's advantageous to coordinate your benefits with your spouse's.
  • If you never worked for a job that qualifies for Social Security, your benefits at FRA are equal to 50% of your spouse's benefits, regardless of whether your spouse is collecting his or her benefits.

Learn about benefits for spouses

As a surviving spouse

If your spouse worked and paid Social Security taxes, you may be eligible for benefits when your spouse dies.

  • Your spouse must have worked a minimum number of years (up to 10 years, depending on your spouse's age at the time of death).
  • You can receive full benefits at your full retirement age (FRA) or reduced benefits as early as age 60.
  • You may qualify for benefits based on other family situations, such as taking care of minor children.

Learn about survivors benefits

As an ex-spouse

If you're divorced, you may be able to receive benefits based on your ex-spouse's record if:

  • You were married for at least 10 years.
  • You aren't currently married.
  • Your ex-spouse is at least 62 years old and qualifies for Social Security. Note: If your ex-spouse hasn't filed for benefits, you can receive benefits on your ex-spouse's record if you've been divorced for at least 2 years.

Learn about benefits for ex-spouses

The Social Security Administration (SSA) uses a combination of factors to calculate your benefits, officially known as the primary insurance amount (PIA).

Birth date. Your birth date determines your full retirement age (FRA), which is when you're eligible to receive 100% of your Social Security benefits.

Find your FRA

Lifetime earnings. Social Security uses your 35 years of highest earnings to come up with your benefit amount. If you worked fewer than 35 years, those years will count as zeros in the calculation. In addition, past earnings are indexed to account for wage growth.

Start date. Your benefits depend on when you start collecting, which can be anytime between ages 62 and 70.

Percentage of Social Security benefits you'll receive by age


62 (earliest possible) 75.0%
63 80.0%
64 86.7%
65 93.3%
66 (full retirement age) 100.0%
67 108.0%
68 116.0%
69 124.0%
70 (latest possible) 132.0%


62 (earliest possible) 74.2%
63 79.2%
64 85.6%
65 92.2%
66 98.9%
66 and 2 months (full retirement age) 100.0%
67 106.7%
68 114.7%
69 122.7%
70 (latest possible) 130.7%


62 (earliest possible) 73.3%
63 78.3%
64 84.4%
65 91.1%
66 97.8%

66 and 4 months (full retirement age)

67 105.3%
68 113.3%
69 121.3%
70 (latest possible) 129.3%


62 (earliest possible) 72.5%
63 77.5%
64 83.3%


66 96.7%

66 and 6 months (full retirement age)

67 104.0%
68 112.0%
69 120.0%
70 (latest possible) 128.0%


62 (earliest possible) 71.7%
63 76.7%
64 82.2%
65 88.9%
66 95.6%

66 and 8 months (full retirement age)

67 102.7%
68 110.7%
69 118.7%
70 (latest possible) 126.7%


62 (earliest possible) 70.8%
63 75.8%
64 81.1%
65 87.8%
66 94.4%
66 and 10 months (full retirement age) 100.0%
67 101.3%
68 109.3%
69 117.3%
70 (latest possible) 125.3%


62 (earliest possible) 70%
63 75.0%
64 80.0%
65 86.7%
66 93.3%

67 (full retirement age)

68 108.0%
69 116.0%
70 (latest possible) 124.0%


The SSA website provides estimates for how much you'll collect if you start receiving benefits at age 62, your full retirement age (FRA) (between 66 and 67), and age 70.

Create a strategy to maximize your benefits

Social Security represents a significant source of retirement income for most Americans.

According to government statistics, the benefits replace about 40% of an average retiree's income. Yet in 2015, 62% of beneficiaries age 65 or older received at least half of their income from Social Security.

For 62% of beneficiaries 65 and older, Social Security makes up at least 50% of their income

Even for affluent retirees (age 60–79 with at least $100,000 in financial assets), a Vanguard study found Social Security accounts for 29% of total retirement income, on average.*

These statistics illustrate the importance of timing—knowing when it's most advantageous to collect benefits considering your health, life expectancy, current wealth, tax profile, and employment status.

Your decision will have a lasting impact on the amount you'll receive each month and can mean a difference of thousands of dollars over your lifetime. Collect Social Security before your full retirement age (FRA) and your benefits will be permanently reduced. Wait until after your FRA and your benefits will increase every month you delay.

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Consider the following factors

Your Social Security benefits should be a vital component of your overall retirement strategy.

Hopefully, you have a retirement plan in place. If not, we can help you get started.

• Look at how much you've saved and how much you expect to spend in retirement.

• Take other income sources into account, such as a pension plan, income annuity, 401(k), or IRA.

• Ask yourself if you need the benefits as soon as you're eligible or can you wait until your full retirement age (FRA) or even later.

Your marital status can be an important consideration in figuring out the best time to claim Social Security.

Married. It's advantageous for couples to coordinate their benefits.

Learn about benefits if you're married

Never married. Your best strategy may be to wait as long as possible to collect benefits.

Learn about benefits if you've never married

Divorced. You may be able to collect benefits on your ex-spouse's record.

Learn about benefits for ex-spouses

Surviving spouse. You may be able to collect benefits even earlier than the normal starting age.

Learn about benefits for surviving spouses

Realistically assessing your health—and your family's health history—can help you decide whether to claim early or to wait.

Generally, the longer your life expectancy, the more it pays to put off taking Social Security benefits to get the highest possible payout.

If your parents and grandparents lived into their 80s and 90s and you're in good health, you may want to delay benefits. By waiting, you'll protect against the risk that you'll outlive your assets. Even people with average life expectancies will usually benefit from delaying Social Security.

But if you have serious medical conditions or develop an unexpected medical issue, it may be prudent to take Social Security as soon as you can or when you need it.

According to the Social Security Administration:

  • A man reaching age 65 today can expect to live, on average, until he's 84; a woman until she's 86.
  • About 1 out of 3 of today's 65-year-olds will live past age 90.
  • About 1 out of 7 of today's 65-year-olds will live past age 95.

Estimate your life expectancy

If you decide to claim early, remember that you won't qualify for Medicare until you're 65. You'll need to account for where you'll get health insurance until then.

Learn about Social Security & Medicare

Social Security benefits are backed by the U.S. government, so the risks you face with retirement plans don't exist with Social Security.

  • Your monthly benefit represents steady income for as long as you live.
  • For every year you wait to collect past your full retirement age (FRA), your benefits increase by 8% (⅔ of 1% per month) until age 70, when the increase stops. That's a 32% increase if your FRA is age 66.
  • The stock markets have no effect on Social Security benefits.
  • You receive regular cost-of-living increases to keep up with inflation.
  • Your benefits may help you avoid dipping into other retirement investments to meet your basic living expenses.

A big surprise for many retirees is that Social Security benefits and retirement investments are subject to taxes.

In fact, about 40% of Social Security recipients pay income taxes on their benefits.

The good news is that while a portion of your benefits may be subject to federal taxes—and possibly state taxes—it's never 100%.

Learn about taxation of Social Security benefits

A Gallup poll released in May 2017 found that 74% of Americans planned to work past retirement age. Most of them (63%) planned to work part-time.

If you're going to keep working in any capacity, you'll need to factor in those plans in deciding when to collect Social Security.

You can earn as much as you want after you reach full retirement age (FRA) without affecting your Social Security benefits.

Earnings before you reach FRA are subject to an earnings test, meaning that if the earnings exceed certain limits, some of your benefits will be temporarily withheld until you reach FRA.

Learn more about working & collecting Social Security

What if you change your mind?

Say you claim Social Security and then change your mind. Perhaps you're still working, you take a part-time job, or you get an unexpected windfall.

If you think you no longer need the benefits, you have 2 options:

Learn more about what to do if you change your mind

If you start collecting reduced benefits before your full retirement age (FRA) , you can "reset" your benefits and erase the reduction.

  • You must withdraw your benefits claim within 12 months of filing.
  • You must repay all benefits your family received based on your earnings record.
  • By deferring your benefits, you’ll receive the increased benefit amount when you reapply for Social Security.


  • You can repay benefits interest-free.
  • There’s no penalty for repayment.
  • You have flexibility if your situation changes.



  • You must repay the money in a lump sum.
  • You may only reset your benefits once.


See how it works: The "reset" rule

See how it works: The "reset" rule

If you started collecting reduced benefits before your full retirement age (FRA) and missed the reset deadline, you can suspend your benefits once you reach FRA and restart them later.

  • You start claiming Social Security benefits before reaching your FRA.
  • Upon reaching FRA, you decide you don't need the money and suspend your benefits.
  • You can delay resuming benefits as late as age 70.


  • Your benefits grow 8% a year between FRA and when you resume collecting. If you wait the full 4 years (for those whose FRA is 66) before you restart, you could boost your benefits by 32%.
  • The delayed benefits also include the program's annual cost-of-living adjustments for inflation, if any.
  • You have flexibility if your situation changes.


  • When you resume receiving benefits, the higher payout will be calculated based on the reduced benefit you locked in when you first claimed Social Security. (It will still be higher than if you hadn't suspended your benefits at FRA.)
  • The "stop" period will fully suspend any benefits your family may be receiving. Their benefits will resume when you restart yours.

See how it works: Voluntary suspension

See how it works: Voluntary suspension

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What’s next?

Social Security provides more than just retirement benefits.

And the federal government offers more than just Social Security benefits. As you put your retirement plan together, check to see whether you qualify for other government benefits, such as family and children services, tax assistance, and active military or veterans benefits.

Go to benefits.gov to see which benefits you qualify for

Apply for Social Security

You can file for Social Security benefits online, over the phone, or in person at a local Social Security Administration office.

Learn how to file for Social Security benefits

Find a Social Security office near you

* Source: Anna Madamba, Stephen P. Utkus, and John Ameriks, 2014. Retirement Income Among Wealthier Retirees. Valley Forge, Pa.: The Vanguard Group.

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