Social Security in retirement explained: everything you need to know

1 min readLast updated October 23, 2023by Rachel Carey

The Social Security retirement benefit is a monthly check that replaces part of your income when you retire or reduce your working hours.

According to the US Government, an average of almost 67 million Americans per month will receive a Social Security benefit. In 2022, retired workers and their dependents made up 76.9 percent of total benefits, with just over 51 million people receiving monthly benefits.  

While it’s generally discouraged to depend solely on your Social Security once you retire, the benefit provides a welcome addition to your income. However, it is not guaranteed for every American. In fact, how much you receive depends on several factors and is different for each of its recipients.  

How do you qualify for Social Security retirement benefits?  

As mentioned, not every American is guaranteed Social Security retirement benefits.  

You must earn at least 40 Social Security credits to qualify for Social Security. You earn credits by working. In 2023, a person received one credit for each $1,640 they made. Workers can receive a maximum of four credits each year, meaning you must earn $6,560 to get the maximum four credits.  

Simply put, workers must pay into the system for 10 years to become eligible for Social Security by age 62.  

Spouses can also qualify through either their own earnings or their partner’s. Divorced couples can also claim benefits via their ex-spouse if the marriage lasted over 10 years and they are currently unmarried. Children and survivors of deceased earners can also claim benefits. However, these are subject to certain criteria.  

Earned credits do not expire. This means that those who have already left the workforce can rejoin and have the opportunity to reach 40 credits ahead of retirement.   

How do you apply for Social Security retirement benefits? 

When it comes time to apply for your Social Security benefits, you can do so in several ways: 

  • By phone  

  • By visiting your local Social Security office 

  • Online 

  • By visiting your local Embassy or consulate for those who live outside the US 

To complete your application, you will need to provide an array of personal information, including your birth date, Social Security number, marital status, bank information, and details about your professional career, such as your earnings and the names and addresses of your employer for the current year and previous year.  

Thankfully, the Social Security Administration provides a checklist of documents and information required when applying for Social Security benefits.   

What is the full retirement age for Social Security? 

Your full benefits only become available once you reach full retirement age. For those born during or after 1960, this is 67.   

This year varies depending on your birth year. For example, for those born during or after 1960, this is 67. Below is a breakdown of what your full retirement age will be depending on the year you were born, as detailed by The United States Social Security Administration:

BornFull (normal) Retirement Age
1943-1954 66
1955 66 and 2 months
1956 66 and 4 months
1957 66 and 6 months
1958 66 and 8 months
1959 66 and 10 months
1960-present 67

You can start receiving Social Security retirement benefits as early as 62.  However, these will be at a reduced amount.  

Retiring before 62 means you’ll receive no income from Social Security. If you stop working after 62 but before your full retirement age, you’ll receive between 70–75 percent of your federal retirement benefit. 

They will grow in value if you decide not to start receiving your benefits. However, this growth ends when you turn 70, after which you will receive no additional benefit increase by delaying claiming your benefit.   

How much is Social Security in retirement?   

According to the US Government, in 2022, the average monthly Social Security benefit was $1,825. However, how much you receive varies from person to person.  

So, how is Social Security calculated for retirement? 

Payments are calculated using the 35 highest-earning years of your career.  

The Social Security Administration calculates your benefits using “average indexed monthly earnings.” They explain that this average summarizes up to 35 years of a worker's average indexed monthly earnings (AIME).   

A formula is then applied to this average to calculate the primary insurance amount (PIA) – the amount you will receive each month if you claim benefits at your full retirement age. This formula reflects changes in general wage levels.   

As discussed by AARP – a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to empowering Americans 50 and older to choose how they live as they age – the formula breaks down your average monthly wage into three parts. 

In 2023, it is:  

  • 90 percent of the first $1,115 of your AIME;  

  • Plus 32 percent of any amount over $1,115 up to $6,721;  

  • Plus, 15 percent of any amount over $6,721.  

The sum of those three figures is your PIA, also known as your full retirement benefit.  

Social Security is also adjusted for inflation and the cost of living, known as cost of living adjustments (COLA).   

The COLA for 2023 saw an increase of 8.7 percent, the highest in four decades, bringing the maximum amount of earnings subject to tax to $160,200.   

For 2024, predictions are much lower. According to The Senior Citizens League, one of the nation’s largest nonpartisan seniors' groups, the COLA could be around 3.1 percent despite prices remaining high.   

It’s important to note your monthly Social Security check may not replace all your income. Often, it does not provide you with your monthly pre-retirement income , so relying solely on Social Security in retirement is rarely advised.   

How much tax will I pay on my Social Security benefits? 

Social Security benefits are not tax-exempt. How much tax you pay depends on your overall retirement income and several other factors.    

Simply put, the more money you make in retirement, the more taxes you'll owe on your Social Security benefits. The percentage of taxable benefits can be up to 85 percent, depending on your income.   

For example, according to the Social Security Administration, you must pay taxes on up to 85 percent of your Social Security benefits if you file a: 

  • Federal tax return as an “individual” and your “combined income” exceeds $25,000. 

  • Joint return, and you and your spouse have a “combined income” of more than $32,000. 

If Social Security is your only source of retirement income, it’s unlikely you will pay taxes on it as it will fall below the standard deduction level.   

Luckily, many states have zero state income tax, including retirement income. Plus, many states don't tax Social Security benefits. And if you want to be extra safe, some states specifically exclude retirement income from taxes.  

The following states levy no tax on your retirement income:   

  • Alaska – No state income tax.   

  • Florida – No state income tax.   

  • Illinois – No retirement income tax, including Social Security, pension, IRA, and 401(k).   

  • Iowa - Beginning in 2023, Iowa residents over 55 will not be taxed on their retirement income.    

  • Mississippi – No retirement income tax, including Social Security, pension, IRA, and 401(k).   

  • Nevada – No state income tax.   

  • Pennsylvania – No retirement income tax, including Social Security, pension, IRA, and 401(k).   

  • South Dakota – No state income tax.   

  • Tennessee – No state income tax.   

  • Texas – No state income tax.   

  • Washington – No state income tax.   

  • Wyoming – No state income tax.   

In contrast, the following 12 states will tax you on some or all your Social Security benefits: Colorado, Connecticut, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, and West Virginia.   

If you need help managing your finances in retirement or as you approach retirement, seeking expert advice is important. A good place to start is Unbiased. Here you can get matched with an independent SEC-regulated financial advisor who can ensure you’re getting the most out of your current plan and are on course to achieving your retirement goals.   

Find your perfect financial professional today.

Senior Content Writer

Rachel Carey

Rachel is a Senior Content Writer at Unbiased. She has nearly a decade of experience writing and producing content across a range of different sectors.