Whether you aim to retire in ten years, or fifty, it is always smart to think ahead and start planning early. Most people rely on Social Security in their later years, which comes in the form of a monthly benefit that you've paid into during your full career. You may need more income or savings than the amount of benefit to sustain your cost of living once you do retire, but it's a good starting point.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) website provides free calculators you can use to get a sense of the amount of money you'll receive in the future as your monthly benefit. The calculators are handy tools for getting a rough figure in mind to help you plan ahead and decide when to start your claim, but they can fall short in certain areas. They do not offer advice based on the full scope of factors in your life, so be sure to use them as a starting point, and not as the final say.
This quick and most basic tool on the SSA website asks for your date of birth and current yearly earnings. It then gives a rough estimate of how much your future checks might be. This is based on the amount of time you have to save, at the rate of income that you earn now.
Take note: This tool comes up with your earnings based on data that you provide. It does not access your true earnings record, and cannot predict what you might make years from now. You may even change career paths. So even though it comes from the SSA, it may not match what you see down the line on your checks or statement.
You can look at a recent pay stub to see how you're paying into your future each time you get paid. After gross wages at the top, you'll see all the things that are taken from your earnings. Taxes will take a few line items, and your SSA benefit will show up here as "FICA SS Tax," or a close version of that.
One thing to keep in mind is that the amount they predict assumes that you will keep working until the standard age of 65, which is when most people retire. There's no way to adjust this default if you plan to retire before age 65, or much later. Also, this figure won't reflect any changes in dollars to adjust for inflation. This is a shame because it causes many people to lowball how much they could receive in the future by waiting until age 70 to begin their claim.
There are three major factors that affect the dollar amount on your future monthly checks from the SSA:
- Your earnings from now until you stop working
- The age at which you stop working
- The age at which you start the claim and start receiving benefits
This feature on the SSA website allows you to change any of the three factors above to see how the changes will affect your future checks.
It asks for your Social Security number, date of birth, place of birth, and mother's maiden name. It uses this data to look in the system at your true work history and earnings record. It then provides you with a pretty close figure of what you can expect to receive each month after you retire.
This tool can work well if you are single, but if you are not single it may be flawed. For instance, it will not show you the extra impact that spousal or survivor benefits may have on your check, or on that of your current or future spouse. Keep in mind that if you have been married for over ten years (or if you will be by the time you retire), you may be able to receive ex-spousal benefits. The calculator described here does not have a way to plan for this option either.
The SSA's most detailed version is a program that you can download and run on your own computer. It offers many sample stories and ways to adjust figures. You can run through the program many times with new data to see how your future checks will look if you take one path or another. This is a great feature to use if you want to see how much your monthly checks will increase by working one, two, or ten years longer than the standard age of 65.
You will need a copy of your most recent Social Security statement as you must input your complete earnings since you first started working. The tool also makes it easy to see all the steps that happen behind the scenes, so you'll get a sneak peek of how the Feds come up with your final amount.
There are a few missing pieces though. It does not show you such perks as how to claim jointly for married couples. Many couples make the big mistake of looking at their benefit election as if they were single. By doing so, they don't factor in the effects of spousal and survivor benefits, and they end up making choices that don't serve their best case.
There are many laws that govern how spouses can claim money when they retire, and the effects this has on your taxes may differ by state. Be sure you have the full picture before you claim.
There are many other sources online that offer ways to predict your future benefit amount in greater detail. You can also find tools with more options to play around with factors like age, income, savings, spouse, and tax filing status. If you want an in-depth look at the factors behind the amount on your monthly checks, and need help deciding at what age you'll start the claim, you may want to invest in software. Deciding on the age at which to start your claim can be a tough choice with major impact. It may affect your choice of when you retire, and all the career choices that work up to it. It may also impact your taxes, and your spouse's as well. The advanced versions of these tools offer a deeper dive that can be well worth the small price they charge.