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What Is Social Security

For many older Americans, their Social Security check is their only source of income. Without it, nearly 15 million retirees would be below the poverty level, according to the Center on Budget and and Policy Priorities. Established in 1935 as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, Social Security provides a progressive benefit. This means it’s weighted so that it replaces a larger percentage of earnings for workers who were on the low end of the income scale than on the high end.

Still, how much you get depends on a formula that uses your earnings. In January 2020, the average Social Security check was $1,503, while the maximum check for someone who retired at full retirement age (currently 66) was $3,011. As a result, most Americans who want to maintain their current lifestyle in retirement need to save – and grow their nest egg. If you’re not sure how to do this, especially the growing part, a financial advisor can help. In the meantime, read on for more about one of the federal government’s most successful entitlement program. 

What Is Social Security?

Social Security is America’s social insurance policy. In addition to retirement benefits, it provides for disabled workers, widows, widowers, ex-spouses and children of older or deceased parents. Combined, 63 million Americans rely on Social Security. It can be a complex system, but it’s there when you need it.

Social Security is most known, though, for the retirement benefits it provides. As such, they were designed to be one leg of the “three-legged stool of retirement.” The other two legs are individual retirement savings and pensions from employers. Yet as pensions disappear as an employee benefit and many people struggle to build retirement savings, Americans rely on Social Security more than ever before. Fortunately, Social Security comes with cost of living adjustments that are inflation-indexed.

Social Security Eligibility Requirements

What Is Social Security

In order to be eligible for Social Security benefits, you must earn at least 40 “credits,” which works out to 10 years. That means you have to pay income taxes for at least 10 years (they don’t have to be consecutive) to receive a Social Security check when you retire.

How much will your Social Security check be for? The Social Security Administration (SSA) uses a formula that takes into account your highest earnings for 35 years. The result is called your “primary insurance amount,” which, in turn, represents what your benefits will be once you reach your full retirement age (FRA). Your FRA depends on when you were born:

Full Retirement Age
Birth Year Full Retirement Age
1943 – 1954 66 years old
1955 66 and two months
1956 66 and four months
1957 66 and six months
1958 66 and eight months
1959 66 and 10 months
1960 and later 67 years old

Don’t be fooled by the term “full retirement age,” though. Just because you’ve reached your FRA doesn’t mean your benefits are at their maximum level. In fact, you have to retire at 70 to get the maximum. Generally, for every year you delay retiring after your FRA and until you reach 70, your benefit increases 3% to 8%, depending on the year you were born.

On the flip side, every year you retire before your FRA, starting at 62, reduces your benefit. So that retiring at 62 will reduce your benefit by 30%.

Social Security Taxes

Before you retire, Social Security taxes are taken out of your wages with every paycheck. Those payroll taxes help pay for the vast benefits program of the SSA. That’s where things can get controversial, with some saying that Social Security is too expensive, too insolvent and too large. Overall, though, it’s one of the most popular government programs. Polls show that a majority of Americans would even be willing to pay higher taxes to keep Social Security going.

As far as exact Social Security tax rates go, the standard is 12.4%. However, this rate is divided between you and your employer to the tune of 6.2% each. Self-employed individuals must, by law, cover that entire 12.4% on their own. If you’re self-employed, you may be able to get some of that back via an above-the-line deduction.

For 2019, the IRS would only levy the 6.2% Social Security tax on up to $132,900 of your income. Starting in 2020, though, that limit will jump to $137,700. Because of this, the most you’ll pay in Social Security taxes annually in 2019 is $8,239.80. You’ll pay a maximum of $8,537.40 in 2020.

Here’s an overview of what the Social Security tax looks like in practice:

Social Security Tax Examples
Annual Salary Total Social Security Tax
$30,000 $1,860
$50,000 $3,100
$75,000 $4,650
$100,000 $6,200
$150,000 $8,537.40 (above the cap)
$200,000 $8,537.40 (above the cap)

Social Security and You

What Is Social Security

If you’re approaching retirement, you’re likely wondering how big your Social Security check will be. You can estimate your Social Security benefits and start working on a budget for your post-work years even before you apply for Social Security benefits. Our retirement calculator can help you determine if you need to save more.

One of the most important decisions you’ll make around retirement is when to start claiming your Social Security benefits. You can claim reduced benefits starting at age 62, wait to claim until your full retirement age at 66 or 67 (depending on when you were born) or delay any time up to age 70. While it may sound counterintuitive, you may end up receiving more if you delay. Of course, whether you do receive more depends on how long you live, or if you’re married, how long you and your spouse live. You should take your and your spouse’s health into account when deciding when to sign up for benefits.

Bottom Line

Social Security helps millions of people live with dignity. When people fall into poverty, they suffer – and so does the economy. Americans with no income can’t buy goods and services or invest in companies. The idea behind Social Security is to protect individuals and society as a whole by providing a safety net.

Of course, some people pay into the system who don’t really need the Social Security checks they eventually claim. To wealthy people, Social Security retirement benefits are a drop in the bucket of their total financial resources. Even so, the fact that it’s a universal benefits system – not just one that targets middle-class and working-class Americans – is a large part of Social Security’s enduring popularity. However, some argue that all Americans could potentially see stronger benefits through a system of privatized Social Security.

If you’re young, you might think of Social Security as the reason your paycheck is a little smaller. You might even grumble about the transfer of wealth from younger people to older people. If a disability keeps you from working, though, you’ll be glad that Social Security has your back. Beyond that, no matter how your 401(k) or IRA performs down the road, you’ll have some inflation-indexed income headed your way every month.

Tips for Retirement Planning

  • Saving is important. But you likely can’t stow away enough to last all of your golden years. You’ll need your savings to grow through investments. For help with this, contact a financial advisor. Our free matching tool will put you in touch with three fiduciary advisors who fit your needs.
  • Taxes can take a big chunk out of your retirement income, depending on where you live. To find out if you should relocate after you hang up your hat, check our story on the best states to retire for taxes.

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Amelia Josephson Amelia Josephson is a writer passionate about covering financial literacy topics. Her areas of expertise include retirement and home buying. Amelia's work has appeared across the web, including on AOL, CBS News and The Simple Dollar. She holds degrees from Columbia and Oxford. Originally from Alaska, Amelia now calls Brooklyn home.
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