When to apply for Social Security (and other common questions)

October 27, 2023


As you plan for retirement, you expect that Social Security benefits will play a part in your retirement income stream. Read more to get answers to common questions, like when to apply and how to get the most from Social Security.

Confused about all the details surrounding Social Security? You’re not alone.

Even though we pay into Social Security for much of our working lives, only one in four Americans feel highly informed about Social Security.1

As you plan for retirement, you expect that Social Security benefits will play a part in your retirement income stream. But how big a part depends on you and the decisions you make both before – like when to apply for social security – and after you retire.

So, what can you do to maximize the benefits you receive from this important government program? To get you started, here are some common questions and answers to help you decide how to make Social Security work best for you.
 

When should I apply for Social Security?

You can generally start collecting Social Security benefits at age 62. However, if you want to maximize your monthly payment, it can be better to wait. How long? That depends.

Your monthly benefit will grow every year until you reach your full retirement age. That age is somewhere between 66 and 67 years old, depending on when you were born. You can wait even longer and see a bonus increase of about 8% in your monthly check for every year that you do until you reach age 70. After 70, your monthly retirement benefit won’t increase further.2

So, what’s the right age for you to begin collecting retirement benefits? If you’re not dependent on Social Security to meet your living expenses, it might be better to wait so you can receive larger monthly payments later.
 

When I apply for Social Security, do I just get what I paid into it… plus interest?

It might feel like the amount you pay into Social Security out of each paycheck is a loan to the government. After all, you won’t get to see it for years.

But Social Security is there for workers who develop disabilities and families in which a spouse or parent dies, but the most common beneficiaries are retirees and their families. The amount you receive as a retiree – and the percentage of your pre-retirement income that this amount covers – depends on factors including your lifetime covered earnings, the consistency of your employment, and when you choose to start collecting benefits.

Because your contributions go to pay current beneficiaries, there’s no pot of money with your name on it accruing interest as with, for example, an IRA or 401(k). Relatively low-income earners will see Social Security replace about 75% of their pre-retirement wages, medium earners will see about 40%, and maximum earners about 27%.3
 

Can I work and still collect Social Security?

Yes, you can continue to work and still receive retirement benefits – although maybe not as much as if you weren’t working.

First, the good news: Money you earn after you reach full retirement age won’t reduce your Social Security benefits. The bad news: You will receive a cut in Social Security benefits if your earnings exceed certain limits before you reach full retirement age. The size of the reductions and limits depends on how long before your full retirement age you file for benefits and continue to earn money. So, feel free to continue earning money in retirement – just be aware of the earning caps and how they can affect your income.
 

Is Social Security Taxed?

About 40% of people who collect Social Security retirement benefits pay federal income tax on a portion of those benefits.4 You could be part of this group if your adjusted gross income, nontaxable interest, and 50% of your Social Security payments exceed specific thresholds. Those thresholds are $25,000 for individuals and $32,000 for couples. If you’re over those limits, you could be required to pay taxes on 50% to 85% of your Social Security income.
 

How can I get the most from Social Security?

If you’re wondering when to apply for Social Security, the real question you’re probably asking is how to maximize your Social Security benefit:

  • Work for at least 35 years. You’ll achieve a higher average income level, which the government uses to calculate your benefit.
  • Earn more now to receive more later. The closer you make to the Social Security earnings cap for calculating your contributions ($160,200 this year), the more you’ll see in benefits.5
  • Take advantage of survivor’s benefits. If you die, your spouse and minor children could qualify for benefits based on factors including their ages and whether they have qualifying disabilities.
  • Consider your children. When you start receiving Social Security payments, any children you have up to age 18 (or 19 if they’re still in school), may also qualify for benefits.

How do I decide what’s best for me?

Your financial planning professional and the Social Security Administration (www.ssa.gov) can help provide answers for your specific circumstances. Also, check out our Social Security Calculator, which can help you decide when to begin collecting your Social Security benefits.

 

 

1. Wharton University of Pennsylvania, Pension Research Council, "How Much Do People Know About Social Security?," November 2010.

2. Ssa.gov, “Understanding the Benefits,” January 2023. 

3. Ibid.

4. U.S. News & World Report, Emily Brandon, “How to Minimize Social Security Taxes,” March 8, 2021. 

5.  Wendy Connet, “Maximum Social Security Benefit: What Is It, How Is It Figured?,”  May 2023. 

 

 

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