10 Things You Didn't Know About Social Security

The system is bigger than the economy of most countries. Find out how to maximize your payout.

By + More

The Social Security program turns 75 this week. Since Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act on August 14, 1935, few workers have not been impacted by the social program. Almost all Americans pay into the system, and Social Security is the largest source of income for citizens age 65 and older. Yet this huge entitlement has many facets, some of which are not widely known. Here are 10 things you may not know about Social Security:

The system is bigger than the economy of most countries. For the past 20 years, the Social Security program has been the largest single item in the federal government's budget. "The amount of money flowing through the Social Security system each year is larger than the total economies of all but the 16 richest nations in the world," says Larry DeWitt, the U.S. Social Security Administration historian. The Social Security program has collected $13 trillion in income and expended $10.6 trillion in payments since the first tax collections began in 1937 through 2007. That's an amount of money that Social Security's first beneficiary, Ida May Fuller of Ludlow, Vt.—who collected initial payments of $22.54 a month for 35 years—probably never dreamed of.

[See 10 Places to Reinvent Your Life in Retirement.]

It's not just a retirement program. The original Social Security program paid benefits only to retired workers. Later, disability benefits and payments for a beneficiary's spouse and children and were added to the program. "If you graduated from college four years ago, you are already protected against disability," says Edward Berkowitz, professor of history and public policy and public administration at George Washington University. "If you are married and have children, your dependents are protected." Annual Social Security Administration mailings to all workers age 25 and older include an estimated amount that you would be paid if you become disabled and how much your spouse and children would receive if you should pass away.

You pay 6.2 percent of your income into the system. Almost all American workers (94 percent) pay 6.2 percent of their taxable income, up to $106,800 annually, into the Social Security trust fund. Employers pay a matching 6.2 percent for each worker. Self-employed workers must contribute 12.4 percent of their income annually.

There haven't always been cost-of-living increases. Annual cost-of-living adjustments didn't become a part of Social Security until 1975 (as a result of a 1972 law). Prior to 1975, an act of Congress was required to increase benefits to keep up with consumer prices. "Before then, benefits were protected from inflation only when Congress chose to notice it," says Berkowitz. Now increases in payments are tied to the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers. Annual increases have ranged from 1.3 percent in 1996 and 1998 to 14.3 percent in 1980. For the first time in 2010, there was no cost of living boost because the index did not increase between the third quarter of 2008 and 2009.

Retirees can increase annual payments by waiting to claim. Workers can begin receiving Social Security benefits at age 62. But payouts increase by 7 to 8 percent for each year you delay your start date, up until age 70. Workers who sign up early receive smaller monthly checks over a great number of years, while those who delay claiming receive bigger payouts for the rest of their life. "If you know you are going to live past the age of 80, you are better off delaying Social Security," says Lita Epstein, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Social Security and Medicare. "Baby boomers who know they are going to have a long life are much better off waiting." Epstein, who is spending down her Roth IRA assets in order to delay claiming Social Security, says her benefits will increase by about $500 each month by waiting until age 70 to sign up.

Couples have extra options. Spouses are entitled to Social Security benefits of up to 50 percent of the higher earner's check if that amount is higher than the payments based on his or her own working record. Widows and widowers are entitled to the higher earner's full retirement payout. Dual-earner couples who have reached their full retirement age can even claim twice by first signing up for a spousal payment, then claiming again later based on their own work record (which will then be higher due to delayed claiming). Ex-spouses are also eligible for benefits if the marriage lasted at least 10 years.