Social Security benefits are based on the number of work credits you’ve earned over your lifetime. To be eligible for retirement benefits, you need a minimum of 40 credits (10 years of work). But exactly how much work experience does 40 credits represent? Here’s a closer look at Social Security work credits and years of work.
What Are Social Security Work Credits?
Social Security work credits are based on your total annual wages or self-employment income. You can earn a maximum of 4 credits per year. So 40 credits represent 10 years of work (4 credits x 10 years).
The amount of income you need to earn 1 credit changes each year. In 2023, you earn 1 credit for each $1,640 of wages or $3,280 of self-employment income. So to earn the maximum 4 credits in 2023, you would need $6,560 in wages or $13,120 in self-employment income.
How Work Credits Translate to Years of Work
Although 40 credits represents 10 years of work, that doesn’t necessarily mean you worked 10 full calendar years. Here are some examples of how 40 credits could translate to actual work experience:
- You worked 10 consecutive calendar years, earning 4 credits each year.
- You worked 8 calendar years, earning the maximum 4 credits each year, plus an additional calendar year earning 1 credit.
- You worked sporadically over 12 calendar years, earning 3-4 credits in some years.
As these examples illustrate, the 10 years for 40 credits is based on earning 4 credits per year, not actual calendar years worked. So it’s possible to earn 40 credits in significantly less than 10 calendar years if you max out your credits each year.
Earning Additional Credits Beyond 40
While 40 credits is the minimum needed for retirement benefits, every additional credit you earn will increase your future Social Security benefit amount. You can earn a maximum of 4 credits per year, and credits don’t expire once earned.
Most people continue working beyond 10 years and accrue well over 40 credits by retirement age. The maximum number of credits you can earn over a lifetime is unlimited.
How Additional Credits Increase Benefits
Your 35 highest earning years are used to calculate your monthly retirement benefit. Each additional year of credits you earn replaces an earlier lower-earning year in that calculation. This results in a higher average lifetime earnings and a higher monthly benefit.
For example, if you earned the maximum 4 credits every year for 35 years, you would have 140 credits at retirement. That’s 100 more credits than the minimum 40 needed. Your benefit would be significantly higher than if you stopped working after earning just 40 credits.
Early Retirement with Less than 40 Credits
It is possible to claim Social Security retirement benefits with fewer than 40 credits, but your benefit amount will be reduced as a result. Here are a few scenarios where you may be able to claim benefits with under 40 credits:
- Disability benefits – You need just 20 Social Security credits to qualify for disability benefits.
- Family benefits – Spouses and children can claim benefits based on a worker’s earnings record, even if they themselves don’t have 40 credits.
- Early retirement – You can claim retirement benefits as early as age 62. If you have between 30-39 credits at that point, your benefit amount will be reduced beyond the normal early retirement reduction.
How Each Credit Impacts Benefits
As a rough guide, each Social Security credit you earn increases your future monthly retirement benefit by about $5-$15 per month. But the exact value per credit depends on your total average lifetime earnings that the credits represent and the age you claim benefits.
For those with average lifetime earnings, each $1,640 in covered earnings represents about a $10 increase in monthly benefits. Higher lifetime earners may see a benefit bump of $15 per credit or more.
The more credits you earn through age 60, the higher your Primary Insurance Amount (PIA) will be. Your PIA is then reduced if you claim benefits before your full retirement age. Delaying benefits past your full retirement age results in credits earned after age 60 providing an increased benefit of 8% per year up to age 70.
Maximizing Social Security Credits
To maximize your future Social Security benefits, focus on earning the maximum 4 credits each year throughout your working career. Some tips for maximizing credits include:
- Check your Social Security statements each year to verify your posted earnings and credits.
- Correct any errors in your earnings record as soon as possible.
- Work for at least 35 years to get the highest benefit calculation.
- If you have years with low earnings, consider working longer to replace them.
- Coordinate benefits with your spouse to maximize household benefits.
Special Rules for Credits
A few special rules apply to Social Security credits in certain situations:
- Self-employed – Earn credits based on your net self-employment income.
- Military – May receive special credits while in active duty.
- Railroad – Credits earned under the railroad retirement system can be counted.
- Public service – Some government workers don’t pay Social Security taxes but can earn deemed credits.
Credible Sources for Claiming Benefits
When you’re ready to claim Social Security benefits, make sure to use credible sources for guidance on the best claiming strategies. Some good sources include:
- Social Security Administration website and local office
- Official Social Security handbooks and publications
- Financial planners with expertise in Social Security claiming
- Reputable educational websites, books and articles
- Software tools for analysis and claiming strategies
Get personalized advice tailored to your specific earnings history and expected longevity. Understand all your claiming options from age 62 up to age 70. Consider your health, marital status, life expectancy, financial needs, and other sources of retirement income. With the right information and smart claiming strategy, you can maximize your Social Security benefit.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do Social Security credits expire?
No, Social Security credits do not expire once earned. You can accumulate credits throughout your working career up until you start claiming benefits. Even if you have breaks in employment, previously earned credits will still count towards future benefits.
Can I check my Social Security credits online?
Yes, you can check your Social Security credits on the Social Security Administration’s website by creating a “my Social Security” account. Your online statement will show your entire earnings history and how many credits you have earned to date.
What happens if I don’t have enough credits to qualify for benefits?
If you don’t have at least 40 credits by retirement age, you won’t qualify for Social Security retirement benefits based on your own work record. You may still qualify for spousal benefits or survivor benefits though based on a spouse or ex-spouse’s work record.
Do Social Security credits impact Medicare eligibility?
No, Medicare eligibility is not based on Social Security credits. You qualify for premium-free Part A Medicare coverage at age 65 after paying Medicare payroll taxes for 10 years (40 quarters). Social Security credits don’t impact Medicare eligibility.
Can I buy additional Social Security credits?
No, there is no way to purchase or make up additional Social Security credits beyond what you actually earn through work. The only way to increase your credits is to work more years and maximize your earned income that’s reported for Social Security tax purposes.
40 Social Security credits represent about 10 years of work. But depending on your earnings history each year, you may accumulate those 40 credits over a shorter or longer period than 10 calendar years. Every credit you earn over your career increases your future retirement benefit. Maximizing your credits, income, and time in the workforce is key to getting the highest Social Security benefit possible.