A Beginner’s Guide to Social Security

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Whether you are nearing retirement age or still have several years or decades of working ahead of you, everyone can benefit from learning about social security. This article provides an overview of the application process.

Prepare to Apply for Social Security at Least Three Months in Advance

The Social Security Administration (SSA) estimates that 20 percent of Americans receive some type of social security insurance (SSI) payment. However, not all relate to retirement income as the SSA runs several programs. People who cannot work due to a disability, for example, may be eligible for social security disability (SSD) payments.

People sometimes assume they will be eligible for SSI once they turn 65, but this isn’t always the case. The SSA requires people applying for SSI benefits to have worked and paid into the SSI system for at least five of the last 10 years. The SSA operates on a credit system and grants one credit for every quarter worked.

The reason we recommend a 90-day lead time to apply for social security is that you will need to gather a lot of information and documents. We include examples of what you need below, and you can also find the SSI application checklist on the SSA website.

  • Date and place of birth
  • Marriage history, including your current marriage and any marriage that ended in divorce or death of your spouse after at least 10 years.
  • Starting and ending date of jobs held in the last two years. For self-employed and gig workers, the SSA accepts net income reports and tax returns to verify income.
  • Information regarding military service if you served.

Having the above information and documents available before applying for social security can save you from making mistakes and experiencing frustrating delays.

You Can Apply for SSI Online

Most people will not need to report to their nearest SSA office to complete an application. This is especially true in light of the coronavirus pandemic. To apply for benefits online, you will first need to establish a My Social Security Account. You can complete the application in as little as 30 minutes as long as you have the information requested by the SSA readily available. If you prefer to schedule an appointment, call 800-772-1213 between 8:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. Monday to Friday to make sure the SSA offers this option first.

How the SSA Determines Your Monthly Benefit Amount

The monthly benefit you receive from SSA depends on earnings over your lifetime and how much you paid into SSI. According to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the average social security benefit in February 2021 was $1,543 per month.

The most you can receive under current SSA guidelines is $3,148 per month. However, you would need to retire at full retirement age (FRA) and be eligible for a 100 percent benefit from your earnings history. The FRA is currently 67 years old for people born in 1960 or later. A quick way to determine how much your SSI benefit might be is to use the SSI calculator. No matter how far away retirement is for you, we recommend contributing to a retirement account to supplement your SSI benefits.


About the Author: Lisa Kroulik has worked as a freelance content marketing writer for 10 years. She loves the work and the lifestyle it affords. Learn more about Lisa’s work and availability through Writer Access.

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