Social Security benefits are often synonymous with retirement. In fact, the Social Security Administration (SSA) estimated more than 70 million Americans received a monthly benefit check as of October 2022. But this federal program is more than just a source of monthly income relied on by people who leave the workforce. It also provides payments to surviving spouses and children (just like life insurance), payments to disabled individuals, along with supplemental income for qualifying individuals.
Payments are determined by a number of factors, including the number of years spent in the workforce. And if you're claiming disability benefits, you must also have a qualifying medical condition. One thing most individuals don't consider is your earned income. This is the amount of money you make over the course of your working life—and it happens to be the most important factor so the more you earn the better it is for you in the long run.
But is Social Security considered earned income? The answer is no.
- Your Social Security benefits are based on the income you earned during your working years.
- Your benefits are permanently reduced if you take Social Security before you reach your full retirement age.
- Your benefit amount drops if you decide to work during retirement.
- You may collect unemployment and Social Security benefits simultaneously but you can't collect both Social Security and disability benefits.
- Benefits may be taxable based on your filing status and annual income.
How Social Security Benefits Are Calculated
The SSA keeps a record of your earned income every year along with the portion subject to Social Security taxes used to calculate your retirement benefits. The more you earn while working (and the more you pay into the Social Security system through payroll or self-employment taxes), the higher your monthly benefit will be, up to a certain maximum. For 2022, that maximum is $4,194 a month. For 2023, it is $4,555.
If you paid into the system for more than 35 years, the SSA only uses your 35 highest-earning years and does not include any others in its formula. If you did not pay into the system for at least 35 years, then a value of $0 is substituted for any missing years.
After you apply for benefits, these earnings are adjusted or indexed to account for past wage inflation and used to calculate your primary insurance amount (PIA). The PIA reflects the benefit that you are eligible to receive once you reach what Social Security calls your full retirement age (FRA):
- For anyone born from 1943 to 1954, the FRA is 66.
- For people born after 1954, the age rises by two months annually until it hits 67 for anyone born in 1960 or later.
The age at which you start collecting your Social Security benefits is another important factor. You can begin receiving benefits as early as age 62. But your benefits are permanently reduced unless you wait until your FRA. Conversely, your monthly benefit increases by 8% annually if you postpone collecting past your FRA, up to age 70. That's when benefits max out and there’s no further incentive to delay.
Your Social Security benefits may be partially taxable if your income exceeds a certain amount.
What Income Reduces Social Security Benefits?
What if you don't have enough money to live on between your Social Security benefits and investment income? You may find it necessary to find other sources of income—perhaps through a part-time job or freelance gig. If you decide to work during retirement, it's important to know that your Social Security benefits will be affected.
Some of your benefits may be temporarily withheld based on your income. This is based on which stage you're at when it comes to your FRA. For instance:
- Your benefits are reduced by $1 for every $2 you earn in excess of $19,560 for 2022 ($21,240 for 2023) until you reach your FRA.
- Your benefits are reduced by $1 for every $3 that you earn above $51,960 for 2022 ($56,520 for 2023).
- Your benefits will no longer be reduced beginning with the month when you attain FRA.
Note that these dollars are not lost forever. Your Social Security benefit increases to account for them after you reach your FRA.
Maximizing your retirement income with investments can help you achieve all of your retirement goals.
Do Unemployment and Disability Benefits Impact Social Security?
The SSA does not count any unemployment you collect as earned income. This means it doesn't impact your retirement benefits so you may be able to collect both. Keep in mind, though, that the Social Security checks you receive may have an effect on the unemployment benefits you're entitled to get. It's always a good idea to check with the unemployment office in your state about the rules for collecting both types of benefits.
You cannot, however, collect federal disability benefits and Social Security. Once you reach your FRA, any disability benefits you receive are automatically converted to retirement benefits. The amount isn't adjusted, which means your monthly benefit check remains the same.
Is Social Security Taxable?
That depends. Your income from Social Security may be partially taxable if your combined income exceeds a certain amount. Combined income is defined as your gross income plus any nontaxable interest that you earn during the year, plus half of your Social Security benefits.
For example, if you’re married filing jointly and your combined income ranges from $32,000 to $44,000, then you may have to pay tax on up to 50% of your Social Security benefits. If your combined income is greater than $44,000, then up to 85% of your benefits may be taxable. Those income numbers are $25,000 to $34,000 and greater than $34,000 for single filers.
Is Social Security Based on Income?
The amount of your Social Security benefit is calculated using the 35 highest-earning years of your lifetime. The sum of those earnings is then divided by the number of months in those years. The Social Security Administration also factors in the age at which you choose to take benefits. If you retire and take Social Security early, your benefits are permanently reduced. If you wait until you reach 70, your benefits increase by 8% annually.
Is Social Security Calculated With Gross or Net Income?
Your Social Security benefits are calculated using gross income.
How Do Unemployment Benefits Impact Social Security Benefits?
Unemployment benefits don't impact Social Security benefits at all. This means you can still collect both at the same time. But your Social Security may affect the amount of unemployment you receive. Be sure to check with your state agency if you're unsure.
Is a Pension Considered Earned Income for Social Security?
Only earned income is taken into consideration when it comes to your Social Security. This means income earned from wages, salaries, and tips from a full-time, part-time, contract, freelance, or self-employed job. So if you had to pay Social Security taxes through a payroll deduction or on your own, that income applies. Other sources of income, such as pensions, annuities, interest, dividends, and income from other investments don't count.
The Bottom Line
You've worked hard all your life, are ready for retirement, and are all set to start collecting the Social Security benefits. Before you wait for that monthly check to come in, it's important to know the basics so you can maximize your benefits. These benefits are based on the 35 highest-earning years of your lifetime. And there are other factors that help determine the amount you'll receive, including your age and whether or not you continue to work. If you know what to expect, you'll be better off in your leisure years.