Knowing what your Social Security check will look like in retirement can help you make important financial decisions. For example, it might help you figure out when you can quit your job or how you should invest money for retirement.

Benefit Calculation Variables

There are several factors that go into calculating your Social Security benefits including your military service history, railroad employment history, or pensions you earned by working at a job at which you did not pay Social Security tax. These are just a few of the variables that enter into the equation. One of the most significant variables is the age at which you decide to receive your Social Security benefits. Take a look at When to Start Receiving Retirement Benefits – a publication released by the Social Security Administration. (For more, see: Maximizing Your Social Security Benefits.)

The publication shows an example of how getting benefits early results in a reduced monthly benefit:

"Let's say your full retirement age is 66 and your monthly benefit starting at that age is $1,000. If you choose to start getting benefits at age 62, we'll reduce your monthly benefit 25 percent to $750 to account for the longer period of time you receive benefits. This decrease is usually permanent.

If you choose to delay getting benefits until age 70, you would increase your monthly benefit to $1,320."

When you add the variables together, the calculation gets pretty daunting. Thankfully, the Social Security Administration has a tool to help you quickly determine what your Social Security check will look like in retirement. (For more, see: 4 Unusual Ways to Boost Social Security Benefits.)

Retirement Estimator

The Retirement Estimator at SocialSecurity.gov not only takes these variables into account, it uses your actual Social Security earnings record to come up with an estimate of what you should receive in retirement. However, even a program this powerful doesn't tell the full story. The Retirement Estimator amount may differ from what you actually receive in retirement due to a change in earnings, cost-of-living increases, law changes and the availability of Social Security funds in the future. (For more, see: Can Young Workers Rely on Social Security?)

The Retirement Estimator will ask for information including your:

  • Full name
  • Mother's maiden name
  • Social Security Number
  • Date of birth
  • Place of birth

You'll also be required to accept the terms of service which includes an agreement that you will only use the service to access your personal information. If you're helping a family member find out how much they might make from Social Security, make sure they are present and using the tool themselves. Once you proceed, you may be asked additional information to verify your identity or to more accurately estimate your benefits. (For more, see: Tips on Delaying Social Security Benefits.)

How to Get an Accurate Number

The only way to get a completely accurate picture of what your Social Security benefit will be is to actually apply for benefits. But remember, it may be best to wait to apply for benefits until you're several years past your normal retirement age so that you can receive a higher monthly payment. The Retirement Estimator is your best chance at figuring out your approximate benefits without actually applying for benefits. There are many circumstances that can change your eligibility to receive Social Security benefits. If you're a wounded vet, for example, keep in mind that you may qualify for Social Security benefits even at a young age.

The Bottom Line

Talk with your financial planner to not only get the full scoop on Social Security, but on retirement in general. A well-qualified financial professional can help you navigate the complexities of retirement so that you have the best chances of maximizing your Social Security benefits. (For more, see: Top 6 Myths About Social Security Benefits.)

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