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Social Security Explained

Signed into law as part of the New Deal in 1935, Social Security was designed to pay retired workers a continual income after retirement.

In the years that followed, the initial program has grown to include several different types of Social Security:

  • Retirement Benefits,
  • Disability Benefits,
  • Survivors Benefits,
  • and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

There is a lot to cover in order to explain Social Security, so on this page we’re just going to cover Social Security Retirement Benefits, which is the most common.

Eligibility for Social Security

In order to qualify for Social Security benefits, you must meet the following criteria:

  • Be a U.S. citizen or “lawfully present alien”

  • Be at least age 62 (or younger if disabled)

  • Have enough work credits (typically 10 years)

Qualifying from a Spouse (or Ex-Spouse)

If you were a stay at home parent, you may be able to draw benefits based on your marriage to a spouse who qualifies for Social Security.

  • If you are married, you qualify after only 1 year of marriage.
  • If you are divorced, you qualify if you were married for 10 years. 

Spousal benefits are NOT in addition to your own benefit. You’ll choose either your own benefits or, if 50% of your spouse or former spouse’s benefit is more than 100% of your benefit, you are eligible to draw off your spouse.


The spousal benefit tops out at 50%. In order to get the full 50% you’ll need to reach your Full Retirement Age. If you draw early, you won’t get 50%, you’ll get less depending on how early you draw.

Determining Your Benefit Amount

Everyone wants to know what their benefit is and when to take Social Security. We go into the calculation below.

Full Retirement Age (FRA)

Your Full Retirement Age is when you are eligible to receive your full benefit amount. Taking your Retirement Benefits any earlier than your FRA will result in you receiving less each month than you would have had you waited until your FRA. 

So what is your FRA? No, its not age 65. That is the age for Medicare benefits. Depending on when you were born, your Full Retirement Age will be somewhere between age 66 and 67. Check the chart below to determine your Full Retirement age.

Full Retirement Age by Birth Year
Year of Birth
Full Retirement Age
65 and 2 months
65 and 4 months
65 and 6 months
65 and 8 months
65 and 10 months
66 and 2 months
66 and 4 months
66 and 6 months
66 and 8 months
66 and 10 months
1960 and later
67 years old

Check your SSA.gov account

In 2024, the average American received roughly $1,907 per month from Social Security. Many people think that they will get that amount or more, but you don’t have to guess. You can go to www.ssa.gov and set up a free account now. 

The amount SSA.gov shows you is an ESTIMATE.
This amount is based on you continuing to work until your FRA and earning about the same as you do now.

Social Security is not guaranteed. You get back what you paid in. If you didn’t work much, you won’t get much (unless you draw off a spouse). 

When you set up your Social Security account, you can see your earnings history and check it for errors. If you see a year with a $0 and you know that you worked, your employer may not have had your correct SSN or didn’t report it correctly.

Where do you find the answers to your questions? You must call your local Social Security office to find out amounts, but keep in mind that they are not allowed to give you advice.

Earning Limit

The Social Security earnings limit for 2024 is $22,320 for those that draw Social Security prior to their Full Retirement Age. At your Full Retirement Age you can work and earn as much as you want for the rest of your life too. But many spouses want to draw their benefits early. Everyone that qualifies for Social Security Retirement can choose to draw as early as age 62. If you draw your own benefit early or as a spouse you draw at age 62—you will have a limited amount of wages you can earn.

This isn’t as bad as you think because there are lots of sources of income that will not count: private pension, IRA, dividends, capital gains, alimony, child support, rent, royalties, gambling winnings, lawsuit settlements, back pay, unemployment, disability, worker’s compensation and more. If it isn’t money earned from wages in this calendar year, chances are good that it won’t count.

How to Sign up for Social Security

When you’re ready to sign up for your benefits, you’ll do that through the ssa.gov website. Click here to find more information on how to sign up for Social Security.

Once you start drawing your Social Security Retirement benefit it basically is the permanent amount that you’ll receive for the rest of your life. For as long as you live, you’ll get about the same amount. If you continue to work, it could go up a little bit, but not much. You will also get a small Cost Of Living Adjustment to help you keep up with inflation.

Once you choose whether to draw benefits off your own work record or off your spouse’s work record—you are locked into that choice. You no longer can change as people used to be able to do. One exception is if your are drawing spousal benefits and your spouse or former spouse passes away. You may be able to move to Survivor Benefits (up to 100% of what s/he was drawing) if that is more than your current benefits.


What is the Social Security Earnings Limit?

The earnings limit is the maximum you can earn while drawing Social Security benefits before your Full Retirement age. After that limit, your benefit will be reduced based on 


Still have questions about Social Security? Check out our Frequently Asked Social Security Questions page for more information.

Sylvia Gordon, aka Medicare Mama®, is an expert on all things Medicare and Social Security. She is the 2nd Generation here at The Medicare Family and has served on the advisory boards of major insurance companies like UnitedHealthcare®, Cigna, and Anthem. In her free time, she can be found taking care of her animals (dogs, goats, peacocks, chickens), and reading a good book. Learn More.
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