Social Security: What Happens If You Work Less Than 35 Years?

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When it comes to Social Security, several factors can affect the amount of your benefits. One of the biggest factors is the number of years you work and when you retire. Typically, the longer you work, the more earning potential you have.

The other major factor in calculating your Social Security is how much you earned on average over a span of 35 years. “If someone works fewer than 35 years, their benefit amount will be calculated using a zero for each year of no earnings, resulting in a lower benefit amount,” said Loretta Kilday, Debt Consolidation Care spokesperson.

“For example, let’s say someone worked 30 years and had zero earnings for five years,” Kilday said. “Their benefit amount would be based on 30 years of payments and five years of zero earnings, resulting in a lower average earnings calculation and, therefore, a lower benefit amount.”

In other words, you could end up with a smaller Social Security payment if you don’t work for the full 35 years. Because of this, it’s usually a good idea to work 35 years unless you have another source of income or retirement account to fall back on.

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Eligibility for Social Security Benefits

You’ll typically need to be at least 62 years old to receive Social Security benefits. You’ll also need to have worked for at least 10 years — and have paid Social Security taxes during that time. The good news is that most employers will automatically deduct these taxes from your regular paycheck so you can receive benefits during retirement.

Another factor that can affect your eligibility for benefits is the number of credits you’ve earned. “Eligibility for Social Security retirement benefits are based on ‘credits’ people earn for every year they have worked,” said Chris Orestis, president at The Retirement Genius.

“People can earn four credits in one calendar year, and it takes a minimum of 40 credits earned over 10 years to qualify for Social Security retirement benefits,” Orestis said. “In 2023, people will get 4 credits once they have earned $6,560, and this annual amount of required earnings increases slightly every year.”

Since you only need 40 credits and 10 years of work, you could theoretically start withdrawing from your Social Security once you’re 62 years old. However, “this would only pay [you] the minimum possible benefit,” Orestis said. “A person could start collecting Social Security after 10 years and at the age of 62, but it will be significantly less than a person who maxed out their credits at 35 years and waits until age 70.”

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Another option some people have is to receive benefits through their current or ex-spouse. The amount and eligibility both depend on the individual’s current marital status — that is, whether they’re married, widowed or divorced.

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Social Security: Are There Advantages To Working Less Than 35 Years?

Some people either can’t or choose not to work the full 35 years before they begin pulling from their Social Security. There are a few advantages to working less than 35 years. For example, early retirement could result in more free time for hobbies and other interests or activities. It could also give you more flexibility in terms of your career choices.

But there are also quite a few drawbacks. “As was previously noted, if you worked for less than 35 years, your Social Security benefit may be smaller,” Kilday said. “Lower lifetime earnings from working fewer years might impact a person’s financial security and ability to save for retirement.”

If possible, consider your circumstances, financial situation and goals before making the decision to stop working early. You may even find that it’s better to work more than 35 years since this could increase your earnings potential.

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About the Author

Angela Mae is a personal finance writer specializing in consumer loans, debt management, investing, retirement planning, and financial literacy. She comes from a journalistic background and pulls from hands-on experience and deep-dive research to breathe life into her stories. Her goal is to help others achieve financial stability and independence. When not writing, she can be found traveling, honing her yoga skills, hiking, or exploring new means of healthy, sustainable living.
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