How much can I earn while on SSDI?
Social Security disability benefits (SSDI) are intended to provide income for workers whose careers are cut short by disability. So, obviously, the Social Security Administration (SSA) won’t pay benefits to someone who is still earning a living through work. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t work at all if you’re receiving SSDI.
The question many people ask rolls two issues together into something along the lines of “How much can I make and get Social Security disability?” The information on this page is about earnings while you are receiving SSDI. But, income is also considered in determining initial eligibility.
Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA)
One requirement to qualify for SSDI is a finding that you are unable to engage in substantial gainful activity. SSA defines substantial gainful activity as earning at least a specific amount per month. That number is updated every year. In 2023, $1,470/month in income is considered substantial gainful activity. If you’re blind, that number is increased to $2,460.
SGA is measured based on your gross income, not the amount you actually take home in your paycheck or receive in your direct deposit. For example, if you work 25 hours/week at $15/hour, your gross income is $375/week, though you may only receive (net) about $293. If you added up your net income for a month, you would see a total of about $1,260 and might mistakenly believe you were below the SGA threshold. But, when you use the gross income amount, you’ll get a total of $1612.50–too much to qualify for SSDI unless you are blind.
Note that this applies only to earned income. Unlike Supplemental Security Income (SSI), SSDI is not need-based. That means unearned income and other resources have no effect on eligibility for Social Security disability benefits.
Earning While Receiving SSDI
After approval, the earnings calculation for SSDI becomes much more complicated. Generally, you can earn a limited amount on an ongoing basis without jeopardizing your benefits. That number changes every year. In 2023, it’s less than $1,050/month. But, that doesn’t mean that you’ll instantly lose benefits if you earn $1,050 or more in a month.
Of course, SSA wants people who are able to return to work to do so. And, they recognize that many people who are interested in returning to work may not be sure whether or not they will be able to keep working. So, SSDI recipients have the option of returning to work on a trial basis through its “Ticket to Work” program. But, there are some restrictions, and tracking how much income you can earn and for how long is complicated.
SSDI Trial Work
Trial work periods can be a valuable tool for people who receive disability benefits and want to try to re-enter the workforce. With trial work, an Social Security disability recipient can:
- Test out working without risking permanent loss of benefits if returning to work doesn’t work out, and
- Retain medical benefits while working
You get nine months of trial work, but that work can take place in any rolling 60-month period. The nine months don’t have to be consecutive. If you’re considering trial work, it’s very important to thoroughly understand how this works. If your ability to work is sporadic or unpredictable, you could lose your benefits through periodic bursts of work, even though you may not be able to make a consistent living.
What Constitutes Trial Work?
When you’re receiving SSDI, you’re required to report any earnings. But, not all earnings will disqualify you from receiving benefits, and not all earnings will count as trial work. Here’s how it works:
- Any month in which your gross earnings are $1,050 or more counts as a “service month”–in other words, counts toward your nine months of trial work
- During your trial work period, you will still receive your full SSDI benefits no matter how much you earn
- Your Medicare and Medicaid benefits will continue
What Happens if You Successfully Complete a Trial Work Period?
If you earn $1,050 or more in any nine months in a five-year period, SSA will consider your trial work period to have been successful. That moves you into a new phase called the “Extended Period of Eligibility.” This extended eligibility lasts for 36 months, and provides a safety net. During this three-year period, you will continue to receive benefits as long as you:
- Still have the disabling condition you are receiving benefits for, and
- Earn less than the amount SSA currently considers substantial gainful activity
If you reach the SGA threshold, SSA will determine that you are no longer disabled. You’ll receive benefits for that month and the next, but then will no longer be eligible. However,there is still a bit of a safety net built in. If your earnings fall below SGA while you’re still in the three-year period, your benefits can be restarted without a new application. And, there’s an expedited process for reinstatement within five years of the termination of benefits.
The Upshot on Earnings While on SSDI
For Social Security disability benefits, there’s no one landmark number that will disqualify you for benefits if you earn too much in a given month. If you haven’t yet started a trial work period or are in a trial work period, then no amount of earnings in a particular month will disqualify you–it will simply count as a “service month” and move you one month closer to completing a trial work period.
However, if you’ve already accrued eight service months in a 60-month period, earning just $1,050 in a month will kick you into the next phase. And, if you’re in an extended eligibility period, your benefits will terminate if you have gross earnings at or above the SGA threshold in a single month.
If you’re working while on SSDI, it’s essential that you understand what triggers a trial work period, how trial work periods function, and when you’re at risk of losing benefits.
Your benefits are too important to gamble with. Disability Help Group assists people with all phases of the Social Security disability application and appeals process. To learn more about how we can assist, contact us or call (800) 800-3332 today.