Social Security is complicated.
Partly that’s because there is a lot of terminology unique to Social Security, like “full retirement age.” It’s also because Social Security is a forward-looking program that has plenty of time to change before you retire.
The Social Security program has already gone through a great deal of change in the past century, and what was true for your parents may not be true for you. It changes a little bit every year.
Fortunately, it’s complicated in the same way for a lot of people. Keep reading, and we’ll answer some of the most common questions people have about Social Security.
How much can I get from Social Security?
The average monthly Social Security benefit in January 2023 was $1,827, but that number fluctuates month to month.
The highest benefit possible for anyone is currently $4,555 per month. How much you specifically can get depends on how much you — or the person whose earning record you claim benefits through — earn during your 35 highest-paid working years and when you begin claiming benefits.
To dig into the details, check out “9 Factors That Affect the Size of Your Social Security Check.”
When should I claim Social Security?
There is no one correct answer to this question — it’s very personal. But before you make a decision, there are a few key things to know, including:
- Your full retirement age is when you become eligible for your baseline “full benefit.” For most people alive today, it’s somewhere between age 66 and 67.
- You can get retirement benefits sooner, as early as age 62, by taking a permanent reduction as large as 30%.
- You can get a larger permanent benefit by waiting until as long as age 70.
As you can see, there are pros and cons along that entire eight-year window. You might want to claim early if you sorely need the money, your health isn’t great or there are other people in your home to consider.
You might want to wait if you can keep working, both because of the automatic increase from delaying benefits and because higher-earning years will push lower-earning years out of the benefit calculation.
If you’re curious how others handle it, check out “This Is When the Most People Claim Social Security.”
Can I claim Social Security on my spouse’s benefits?
Probably. It’s possible to collect benefits through a spouse (qualifying for up to half of what they would get) even when you have never worked in a job that pays into Social Security. You have to meet eligibility requirements, and there is a limit on how much in total a family can receive through one person’s earning record per month.
Trying to double up, though? Fat chance. If you qualify for your own benefit and your spouse’s, you get whatever is higher — not both.
If you’ve divorced or remarried or your spouse has passed away, things get tricky. Learn some of the details in “7 Social Security Spousal Benefit Rules Every Married Couple Should Know.”
Can I claim Social Security while still working?
Yes, but it may reduce your benefit amount in the short term. If you are under your full retirement age and make over a certain amount, Social Security will hold onto $1 of your benefits for every $2 or $3 you earn over that amount.
Once you reach your full retirement age, the Social Security Administration will no longer reduce your benefit over earnings. And they will recalculate your benefit to account for the withheld amounts, eventually catching you up.
Will Social Security keep up with inflation?
Social Security is designed specifically to keep up with inflation, though whether it succeeds is up for debate.
Each month, the Department of Labor calculates an estimate for how much the cost of living has changed, based on a predetermined “basket of consumer goods and services.” The math is based on costs paid by working families who represent approximately 30% of the U.S. population.
Additionally, most Social Security recipients are retirees and their families, not the working families on which the calculation is based. Their monthly expenses tend to be different so their rate of inflation may not fit the national norm. Older households spend less on transportation and more on health care, for instance.
Some critics, such as The Senior Citizens League, argue increased health care costs outstrip increased benefits.
“In many years, Medicare premiums and out-of-pocket costs are among the fastest-growing costs in retirement,” the league says. “An inflation measure that does not adequately measure and accurately accounts for the portion of income spent on health care tends to undercount the actual rate of inflation and shortchange the Social Security COLA.”