9 Reasons Your Social Security Check Is Smaller Than Expected

Millions of retirees find their benefits might not stretch as far as they hoped.

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Updated July 18, 2024
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Social Security is a key component in the retirement budget of millions of retirees. Knowing that this cash is coming every month can help you retire stress-free.

But many people end up disappointed by the size of their Social Security benefit. There can be many factors behind this unhappy reality.

Here are some reasons that your Social Security check might be smaller than you expected.

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You took benefits early

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Applying for benefits early is one of the most common reasons that people have smaller monthly Social Security checks.

The advantage of collecting as soon as you can — at age 62 — is that the money starts rolling in right away. But if you file for Social Security before your full retirement age — which is 67 for everyone born in 1960 or later — your monthly benefit will be permanently smaller.

While filing early can make sense for some people, there is a big price to pay that can make it more difficult to manage your money during retirement.

You didn't earn a lot of money

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The income you earn during your working years helps determine the size of your Social Security check.

Up to a point, the more you earn, the larger your benefit is likely to be. So, the harsh reality is that your Social Security check is likely to be smaller if your career earnings were modest.

You didn't work long enough

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Social Security benefits are based on your highest 35 years of earned income. The government uses a formula to adjust the earnings from earlier years to account for changes in average wages over the years.

If you took time off to stay at home or retired before you completed 35 years of work, you might not have 35 years of income. When this happens, your record will show zeros for the years when you didn’t earn money. That drags down your lifetime earnings and results in a reduced Social Security benefit.

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You didn't pay what you owed to the IRS

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There are many advantages to being self-employed, but a big disadvantage is that you must pay all of your individual Social Security payroll taxes rather than splitting the cost with an employer.

Failing to pay these taxes could result in a lower Social Security benefit. More importantly, it could get you in hot water with the IRS.

You are paying Medicare premiums

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Medicare is a great benefit, but it comes with a premium that you must pay. Premiums for Medicare Part B — which covers doctor visits and other medical services — typically are deducted automatically from Social Security benefits.

It’s just another reason your benefit might be smaller than you expected.

You divorced

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Divorce can affect your Social Security income, especially if you stayed at home and didn’t work.

While it’s possible to collect benefits based on an ex-spouse’s earning record, you must meet specific conditions to qualify, including having been married for at least 10 years.

You took a lump sum for delayed benefits

trekandphoto/Adobe social security cards

Some people wait until after their full retirement age to file for benefits. If you do this, it can result in a larger check later. For each year you wait to file up to age 70, your monthly benefit will increase.

However, when you finally do file, you also have the option of getting a lump-sum payment for up to six months of those delayed benefits. If you choose this option, it will mean that your monthly payment will be a little smaller going forward.

You collected before full retirement age but kept working

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You can start to collect Social Security while you are still working. But if you do so before full retirement age, you will be penalized.

If you file for Social Security prior to full retirement age and continue to earn at least a minimum amount of money — $22,320 in 2024 — the SSA will deduct $1 from your check for every $2 you earn above that limit.

The good news is that this penalty ends the month you reach full retirement age, and the SSA will recalculate your benefit to pay back the money it deducted from your checks earlier.

You didn't check for errors on your earnings statements

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Government agencies make mistakes. That is why it's important to review your Social Security Administration earning statements and make sure they are accurate.

You can review these statements by establishing your own account on the SSA website. If you find errors, contact the SSA to get them corrected. If you don’t, your benefit could be reduced, putting your financial fitness in jeopardy.

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Bottom line

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Whether you're planning for retirement now or expect to keep working later into life, Social Security is likely to play a key role in your retirement finances. So, it can be a huge disappointment when your check is smaller than you had hoped.

If your benefit is not as robust as you expected, it’s time to take steps to ensure your finances are as sound as they can be. Consider speaking with a financial advisor or another pro who can help get you on the pathway to financial stability.

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Jenny Cohen

Jenny Cohen is a freelance writer who has covered a bit of everything, from finance to sports to her favorite TV shows. Her work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and FoxSports.com.