Whether you’re applying for or already receiving Social Security disability benefits, it’s still possible to have a small revenue stream without affecting your eligibility. The key is to understand what the Social Security Administration (SSA) calls substantial gainful activity — or SGA.
Substantial gainful activity is pretty much what it sounds like: any activity you do for significant monetary gain. Some kinds of income don’t count as SGA — like VA benefits and passive income — but earning more than the SGA limit will mean losing eligibility for monthly benefits.
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What is substantial gainful activity?
Substantial gainful activity (SGA) is work you do that requires physical or mental exertion, usually including just jobs you do in exchange for pay.
According to the SSA, work is substantial if it requires significant physical or mental activity (or both). Work qualifies as gainful if you do it for pay or profit. Work activities that you don’t get paid for can still qualify as gainful if the SSA believes those activities are normally done for pay.
To look at some examples, doing volunteer secretarial work in an office can count as substantial and gainful activity, even if it’s only part-time and you don’t get paid for it. But babysitting your neighbor’s kid once per month for $50 doesn’t necessarily count as SGA. It could qualify as substantial and gainful, though, if you babysat enough to be earning a steady income and especially if the child required hands-on care.
What is the SGA limit for 2024?
In 2024, work is considered SGA if it earns you at least $1,550 per month ($2,590 if you’re blind). SGA usually considers your gross income (pre-tax) but for self-employment income the SSA looks at your profit (total income minus operating expenses).
The SGA limit also updates annually based on changes to inflation and the cost of living. Next year, the limit will increase slightly and you’ll be able to earn more per month without losing your benefits.
What counts as substantial gainful activity?
Any job or work that you do for pay is considered substantial gainful activity, even if it’s part-time, temporary, or self-employment. Something is also SGA if it’s done for a profit, whether or not you actually got paid. In other words, just about anything that could be performed for money can count as SGA.
So if your employer doesn’t cut you a check or if you do something in exchange for goods or services, the SSA may still treat it as substantial gainful activity. Technically speaking, the SSA could even count criminal activity as SGA if you’re somehow turning a profit.
Common examples of SGA
Below are some common activities that qualify as SGA:
Office jobs and secretarial work
Temp work, seasonal work, and part-time jobs
Rideshare driving, like for Uber and Lyft
Handyman work, including TaskRabbit and Thumbtack
Manual labor, even if you don’t get paid
Volunteer work, especially if you do it regularly
Again, doing these jobs won’t cause you to lose your Social Security disability benefits unless you’re earning more than about $1,550 per month in 2024.
What doesn’t count as substantial gainful activity?
Fortunately, you can still earn income without losing your disability benefits. Some common sources of income that don’t count as SGA include the following:
When looking at SGA, the SSA is looking at your active income. If you have passive income, including bank interest, rental income, or stock dividends, it doesn’t count against as SGA. Similarly, the SSA also won’t count Veterans Affairs disability benefit or retirement benefits.
Private short-term disability benefits aren't SGA, but you may find it difficult to qualify for SSDI and SSI. The SSA treats these benefits as proof that you intend to return to work at some point. The same is true for unemployment benefits.
Passive income is still counted for SSI and will reduce your monthly payment. Getting short-term disability through your state can also reduce your SSDI payments.
School work doesn’t count as SGA, but you may have a harder time qualifying for Social Security disability if you’re a full-time student. In some cases, the SSA or a disability judge could argue that attending school shows that you have the potential to earn above the SGA limit.
Let’s say you work in a job with reduced responsibilities to account for your disability. Maybe you can do three tasks a day while a coworker without a disability can do five. Or maybe you can do the same amount of work as a coworker but only with specialized support. If your employer pays you the same wage as your coworker, the SSA treats your income as subsidized.
The SSA will work with your employer to determine what it considers the “real value” of the work you perform. That value would be less than what you’re being paid and that value counts toward your SGA instead of your actual wages.
Impairment-related work expenses (IRWE)
If you need specific tools or services in order for you to do a job, you can deduct the cost of those things from your SGA. That’s true even if you use them in a non-work capacity. Your impairment-related work expenses (IRWEs) could include the cost of transportation to and from work, a service animal, an attendant, or assistive devices. (IRWEs may also be deductible on your tax return.)
If you want to try working again, you can explore returning to work without worrying about the SGA cap. The SSA allows for a trial work period (TWP) of at least nine months. During this time, you can collect your disability benefits even if your earnings exceed that year’s SGA limits in a given month.
Your TWP can extend over 60 months (i.e. five years). During that period, you can work nine months over the SGA cap without affecting your SSDI. Any month you earn over $1,110 (the adjusted monthly amount for TWPs in 2024) can count as one of your nine TWP months. If you successfully return to work after a trial work period, you will lose SSDI benefits.
How is SGA calculated?
Calculating your SGA is generally straightforward. The SSA adds up all of your monthly income sources that qualify as substantial and gainful. If applicable, it will subtract eligible expenses (like IRWEs) and make sure to properly factor any subsidized employment.
There are some exceptions to consider for SSI only:
$20 of general income is excluded from your total monthly income.
$65 of earned income is excluded and then only half of your remaining earned income is included.
How much can you make on SSDI?
In 2024, the monthly substantial gainful activity limit for non-blind people is $1,550. If you’re blind, your SGA limit for 2023 is $2,590. Making more than that amount will mean losing your disability benefits (outside of exemptions like a trial work period). With very few exceptions, your income doesn’t impact the size of your SSDI payment.
Even if you don’t exceed the SGA cap, doing work that contradicts the medical information you’ve given the SSA can also result in losing benefits. For example, if you’re trying to get SSDI for chronic back pain but you’re mowing lawns regularly for cash, the SSA may end your benefits because it believes your disability doesn't truly keep you from working — even if you earn below the SGA limit.
How much can you make on SSI?
The SGA limit for someone on SSI is the same as it is for SSDI: $1,550 a month if you’re not blind and $2,590 if you are. However, since the maximum monthly SSI check is $943 for individuals and $1,415 for couples in 2024, earning above those limits could mean losing SSI benefits.
Unlike SSDI, unearned and passive income does affect your SSI payment. Types of income that don’t count as SGA but can still reduce your SSI benefit:
If you’re applying for Social Security disability and you earn more than the SGA limit, the SSA is will deny your application for not meeting the technical eligibility requirements. You can appeal the denial but are unlikely to get approved unless your monthly income decreases.
Anyone who already receives disability but earns above the SGA level could lose their benefits. You’ll likely go through a continuing disability review (CDR) at least every few years. After that review, the SSA can deem your disability “ceased” in the month your SGA went over the limit. You’ll receive disability benefits for that month and the following two months, giving you a three-month grace period. If you’ve collected disability past that grace period, you will need to return the payments.
Can you choose to suspend benefits?
You can voluntarily request to have your benefits suspended in months you go over the SGA. To avoid losing your benefits, you may also want to call an over-the-limit month one in your trial work period. While you technically should have reported that work to the SSA ahrad of time — via phone, fax, mail, in person, or your mySocialSecurity account — retroactively calling it part of your TWP might work. A disability lawyer can better help you navigate these waters.
Get help with your SSDI application
If you’re applying for SSDI and want help navigating the long application process, Atticus can help. We can offer advice on your application and connect you with an experienced disability lawyer for free. (Applicants with lawyers are three times more likely to win benefits.) To get help today, take this quick disability quiz and someone from our team will reach out.
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Jackie Jakab is Atticus’s Legal Director. She’s a licensed attorney, a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, and has counseled thousands of people seeking disability benefits.
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