The future is uncertain. Health, work, finances: for American workers, they’re all somewhat unpredictable. Knowing that they can at least count on Social Security retirement benefits can be a great source of comfort. But many American workers question how much those monthly benefits will be worth. The answer? It’s different for everyone.
Factors That Determine Retirement Benefits
Two main factors affect how much a person’s retirement benefits will be. Those factors are:
- the person’s age at the time he retires. Each person has a normal retirement age (NRA), which is determined by his year of birth. (For example, someone who was born in 1955 has an NRA of 66 years and 2 months. For anyone born in 1960 or later, the current NRA is 67 years.) If a worker retires early, or before his NRA, his benefits will be decreased. If he keeps working past his NRA, his benefits will increase.
- the person’s lifetime earnings. Only earnings that are covered by Social Security (that is, those that the worker paid Social Security taxes on) are counted toward retirement benefits.
The SSA provides three different estimate tools that workers can use.
Using the Quick Calculator
The SSA’s Quick Calculator is great for quickly determining a rough estimate of a worker’s benefits. It asks for just a few pieces of data, including the user’s date of birth and earnings for the current year. Users also have the option of seeing their estimated benefits in either current dollars or inflated, future dollars.
The results will be different for workers of different ages and incomes. For example, take a worker who was born on 1/1/55 and earns $100,000 per year. According to the calculator, he’ll earn monthly retirement benefits of:
- $1,905 if he retires early at 63.
- $2,267 if he retires at his NRA of 66 and 2 months.
- $3,093 If he retires at 70.
(Whatever amount he earns at the time of his retirement is the amount he’ll receive each month for the rest of his life.)
Say he has a coworker who also earns $50,000 per year and is 20 years younger, with a birthdate of 1/1/75. If her salary stays the same for the rest of her career, she’ll earn monthly benefits of:
- $1,217 if she retires early at 62.
- $1,773 if she retires at her NRA of 67.
- $2,234 if she retires at 70.
However, the second worker is still in the middle of her career. If her earnings go up, so will her retirement benefits. The quick calculator won’t give her a totally accurate picture.
Using the Online Calculator
Workers whose earnings change dramatically year to year won’t get accurate results using the quick calculator. The SSA also offers a tool simply called the Online Calculator. The calculator asks the user to enter her birth date, estimated retirement date and her earnings for every year that she’s worked and paid into the Social Security system. It also asks for estimated future earnings.
Obviously, using this calculator is time-consuming and requires the user to have access to records of all past earnings. But for workers who remember roughly what they’ve earned each year, this tool can be fairly accurate.
Using the Retirement Estimator
For many workers, the SSA’s Retirement Estimator provides the most accurate benefits prediction. It uses a worker’s real earnings history to estimate his retirement benefits. The user must enter his personal information, including Social Security number and his mother’s maiden name, and the tool will return benefits estimates based on a few different retirement ages.
A worker who uses all three of these tools will typically get the same or similar benefit estimates. But the further the person is from retirement, the less accurate the estimate will be. For most people, it’s impossible to predict future earnings with 100% accuracy, and that’s an important piece of data for these calculations.
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