How Many Years Do You Need To Work To Receive Social Security?

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In theory, earning Social Security retirement benefits is a simple process. First, you work and pay taxes into the system, then when you retire, you receive monthly benefits for the rest of your life. While those broad strokes are true, it’s important to know the details of Social Security to ensure that you both qualify for benefits and receive the maximum amount you can. Here are the basics about how you can qualify for Social Security, how long you have to work and how the Social Security Administration calculates your benefits.

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40 Quarters of Coverage

To qualify for Social Security benefits, you’ll need to earn 40 “quarters of coverage.” You can earn a maximum of four quarters per year, which for most people means you’ll need to work for at least 10 years to qualify for retirement benefits. But there is technically no “10 years of work” requirement, you simply need to earn 40 quarters of coverage. 

Retire Comfortably

For 2022, you can earn one quarter of coverage by generating $1,510 in earnings. If you can earn that $1,510 in a single week, for example, you can work just one week per quarter for a total of four weeks per year and still earn the maximum four quarters of coverage for that year.

35 Years of Earnings

An important part of determining your Social Security retirement benefit is the amount that you earn during your work career. But the SSA only uses your 35 highest-earning years for purposes of calculating your payout. While there is no requirement to work 35 years to earn a Social Security retirement benefit, if you want to maximize your payout, it’s a necessity. If you work fewer than 35 years, the SSA will fill in any blanks with zeros, which will drag down your retirement payout. This is why you’ll want to do your best to generate at least 35 years of high earnings. For some workers, this may translate to working a few additional years before retirement in order to plug those gaps with higher earnings.

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Social Security Retirement Calculation

As with many things regarding Social Security, the idea behind the retirement benefits calculation is easy, but the details can get quite complex. Essentially, the SSA takes your 35 top-earning years and uses a formula to determine your benefit at full retirement age, which is 67 for workers born in 1960 or later. But the actual calculation employs a number of adjustments.

According to the Social Security Administration, these are the basic steps it takes to compute benefits:

  • Base Social Security benefits on your lifetime earnings.
  • Adjust or “index” your actual earnings to account for changes in average wages since the year the earnings were received.
  • Calculate your average indexed monthly earnings during the 35 years in which you earned the most.
  • Apply a formula to these earnings and arrive at your basic benefit, or “primary insurance amount.”
Retire Comfortably

If you file for Social Security early, at age 62, your benefits will be permanently reduced by up to 30%. However, for every year after your full retirement age that you wait to claim your benefits, up to age 70, your payout will increase by 8%. 

The Bottom Line

While you don’t have to work 35 years in order to file for Social Security, if you can put in at least 35 high-earning years, the size of your ultimate payout will increase and make retirement at least a little bit easier.

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About the Author

After earning a B.A. in English with a Specialization in Business from UCLA, John Csiszar worked in the financial services industry as a registered representative for 18 years. Along the way, Csiszar earned both Certified Financial Planner and Registered Investment Adviser designations, in addition to being licensed as a life agent, while working for both a major Wall Street wirehouse and for his own investment advisory firm. During his time as an advisor, Csiszar managed over $100 million in client assets while providing individualized investment plans for hundreds of clients.

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