This article was updated on April 9, 2018, and originally published on May 16, 2016.
Social Security isn't just for retirees; it's also designed to help people with disabilities stay afloat financially. As of 2017, nearly 9 million Americans received Social Security disability benefits. But as useful as those benefits might be, they're often not enough to help recipients cover their living costs in full. If you're receiving Social Security disability benefits, there's good news in this regard: You can work and continue to collect your monthly Social Security payments as long as you meet certain criteria.
To be considered eligible for Social Security disability benefits, you cannot engage in what's known as substantial gainful activity (SGA). The Social Security Administration defines "substantial" as earning more than a certain amount each month. For 2018, you can work and collect your disability benefits as long as your earnings don't exceed $1,180 per month, or $1,970 if you're blind . However, there are also exceptions to this rule.
Trial work period
Sometimes it's hard to know whether you'll be able to return to work following a disability. Thankfully, the Social Security Administration allows you to test the waters without compromising your disability benefits. During what's known as your trial work period, you can test your ability to work for nine months, during which you'll receive your disability benefits in full, regardless of how much you make. For 2018, any month where you earn over $850 is considered a trial work month. If you're self-employed, any month where you work more than 80 hours is also considered a trial work month. Your trial period will continue until you've worked nine months within a 60-month timeframe.
Extended period of eligibility
Once your trial work period is over, you can still receive disability benefits for any month in which your earnings fall below the SGA threshold. This extended period of eligibility lasts 36 months and offers additional protection in the event that you're unable to work consistently as a result of your condition. Furthermore, if your Social Security disability payments do stop because your income exceeds the SGA limit, you still have five years to get those benefits reinstated.
Offsetting your earnings with expenses
Earning more than $1,180 per month, or $1,970 per month if you're blind, can make you ineligible for disability benefits. However, the Social Security Administration will deduct certain disability-related expenses that allow you to work from your income to lower your earnings on paper. If, for example, you're unable to take public transportation to work because of your disability and must pay for taxis or car service instead, deducting that cost from your earnings could be enough to push you below the SGA threshold, which would help you hold on to your disability benefits while employed. Let's say, for instance, that you earn $2,000 per month but have $900 in deductible expenses. That $900 will effectively reduce your income to $1,100, leaving you eligible for Social Security disability benefits.
Remember, the Social Security Administration actually encourages those receiving disability benefits to pursue work opportunities, and has special programs in place to help make that happen. And working while collecting benefits could wind up being just as good for your health as it is for your bank account.