What you need to know about Social Security and federal retirement

C.J. Burton/Getty

The latest on this key element of the government’s retirement package. 

Ten years ago, I created a Social Security quiz to test readers’ knowledge of this key benefit. I thought it was time to update some of the facts and figures included in it, in the form of a Q&A.

What is the average monthly Social Security retirement check in 2022?

$1,657, according to this Social Security fact sheet.

Sandy and her husband, Tom, were both born in 1956. Sandy began receiving a reduced Social Security benefit of $586 a month at 62. (This is 73.3 percent of the full benefit amount of $800 she would have received at her full retirement age of 66 years and 4 months). Tom is retiring this year and will receive $2,800 a month at his full retirement age—also 66 and 4 months. How much will Sandy receive after Tom retires?

She will get $1,115. This is a bit complicated, so don’t feel bad if you couldn’t figure out the answer. At full retirement age, a spouse is eligible for 50% of the full Social Security retirement benefit of their spouse or their own benefit—whichever is higher. But the fact that Sandy began collecting her own benefit at 62 affects the calculation of her spousal benefit when her husband retires. 

Social Security will use Sandy’s full benefit amount that would have been payable at her full retirement age, based on her own work record (not the amount she has been receiving since she was 62). That amount will be subtracted from 50%of her husband’s amount. Sandy’s full benefit would be $871 (it has grown from the initial amount of $800 by cost-of-living adjustments since 2018), so Social Security would subtract $871 from 50% of her husband’s full benefit amount of $2,800, or $1,400. The resulting sum of $529 would be added to her current benefit of $586, and her new benefit amount would be $1,115 per month. If Sandy had waited until her full retirement age to apply for Social Security, then she would have received the higher of her own full benefit amount or 50% of Tom’s, which would have been $1,400 a month.  

How much can you earn in 2022 if you are under your full retirement age without reducing your Social Security benefit?

$19,560. If you’re under your full retirement age for the entire year, Social Security will deduct $1 from your benefit for every $2 you earn above the annual limit. Here’s more information about how work affects your Social Security benefit.

What are the conditions under which you can receive a Social Security benefit based on your former spouse’s work record?

If you were married for 10 years or more, are not currently remarried, and are not receiving a pension from work not covered by Social Security. A former spouse who meets the requirements to receive a Social Security benefit is treated basically the same as a current spouse. This entitlement does not affect the former spouse’s own Social Security benefit or his or her new family’s. If the spouse is receiving a Civil Service Retirement System retirement benefit, then he or she will be affected by the dreaded Government Pension Offset, which will reduce the spousal benefit by two-thirds of the CSRS retirement. This will eliminate the benefit entirely in many cases. Read more in this Social Security publication: What Every Woman Should Know. 

Among beneficiaries 65 and older, what percentage rely on Social Security for more than 90 percent of their income?

For men the answer is 12%, and for women it’s 15%. It’s also interesting to note that 37% of men and 42% of  women rely on Social Security for 50% or more of their income.

What is the full Social Security retirement age?

The earliest you can start receiving Social Security retirement benefits is 62, but the benefit is permanently reduced for applying early. Your full retirement age is between 65 and 67, depending on your year of birth.

What can you do to increase the amount of your Social Security check?

Here are some of your options:

  • Delay receiving payment until you turn 70
  • Claim a benefit on your spouse's work record
  • Continue working past 62

Social Security was never meant to be your only source of retirement income. Knowing this, how should you plan your retirement?

Here are some steps you could take:

  • Learn to live on less now
  • Make saving mandatory and automatic
  • Plan for being single, even if you're not
  • Be realistic about when you can afford to retire

Always remember that the modern federal retirement has three key elements: a government retirement benefit, Social Security and personal savings, especially through the Thrift Savings Plan. Learning how to balance and maximize these elements is the key to a comfortable retirement. 

NEXT STORY: How to plan for your retirement

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