Social Security is a government program serving about 65 million people, so you might use one word to describe it: complicated. Hats off to the Social Security Administration (SSA), though. It produces one of the best government websites, using plain English (and 13 other languages) to explain its rules. It also has plenty of calculators and worksheets to help.
We pulled together some of our favorites. Keep this list handy next time you’re sifting through the maze of Social Security rules and regulations. You won't need all 11, but some of them will likely help answer some of your questions as you start to plan.
- Social Security offers plenty of online calculators to help you estimate benefits and—if you care to know—your life expectancy, too.
- They range from simple to complex.
- The best and most accurate pull data from your actual Social Security account.
1. Retirement Estimator
What’s more important than knowing the amount of your Social Security check? The awesome thing about the Social Security Administration's Retirement Estimator is that it looks at your actual account to estimate your benefits. It will ask for your name, Social Security number, and your earnings last year to calculate your estimated benefits.
It gives you estimates based on different retirement ages in an easy-to-read format. There are all kinds of disclaimers on the calculator saying that it’s only an estimate, so if your situation is more complicated, these numbers may not apply. Still, it’s a good place to start.
2. Benefits Planner
If you don’t want to enter your personal information into the Social Security website, you can still get a pretty accurate estimate of your benefits by manually entering a whole lot of information into the Benefits Planner. You’ll need to know your earnings for the years that you’ve worked along with a bunch of other information, but you’ll get a similar result, assuming the information you provide is accurate.
If you use calculators on third-party websites, there’s no guarantee that the information is accurate or that your sensitive data is safe.
Social Security says that it would rather you use the Retirement Estimator (described above) because its readings are based on your actual personal information. You can feel relatively confident that your information is safe, but if you would rather not give the Social Security website your Social Security number, use this calculator.
3. Quick Calculator
The quick calculator, complements of Social Security, estimates your future checks, but this one is about as simple as they come. Enter your birth date, current year’s earnings, and estimated retirement date, and the calculator will give you an estimated payout. You can even select the amount in today’s dollars or inflation-adjusted future dollars. Remember that the less information you enter, the less accurate your results are likely to be.
4. Life Expectancy Calculator
If you enjoy embracing your mortality, check out Social Security’s Life Expectancy Calculator. Enter your gender and date of birth, and it will give you a rough estimate of how long you can expect to live if you reach certain age milestones. Who will live longer? You or your loved one? Turn your research into a really dark and depressing competition.
The practical application of this calculator is to help with retirement planning. The longer you live, the more money you will need in your retirement account, both to support yourself and because you’re more likely to experience medical issues the older you get. This isn’t something to pull up on days when you’re feeling a little down.
5. WEP Calculator
If you work or have worked for a company that gives you a pension based on work not covered by Social Security, the basic calculators above aren’t an accurate representation of your benefits. Like the online calculator above, the WEP Calculator requires you to manually enter a lot of information that you probably won’t have at the ready. You’ll have to do some digging. Social Security recommends that you use its Detailed Calculator, explained below.
6. Earnings Test Calculator
You probably know that your benefit amount is largely based on how much money you’ve earned. The more you make, the more you pay into Social Security, so you deserve a larger benefit, right? The Retirement Earnings Test Calculator shows how the amount you make affects your benefits. Remember that this calculator is overly simplistic—it only takes into account one of your retirement variables.
7. Early or Late Calculator
Early or Late Retirement is another calculator that isolates one variable to show you how relatively small decisions can dramatically affect your benefits. It shows how waiting longer to receive your benefits will substantially raise the dollar amount of your benefit checks.
8. Retirement Age Calculator
In the past, the retirement age was set at 65, but because Social Security has found itself low on cash—and because people are living and working longer—the agency has slowly raised the retirement age over the years. Your retirement age is based on your birth date. Use the Retirement Age Calculator to figure out when you can start receiving benefits. It’s not as straightforward as you might think.
9. GPO Calculator
There’s a better-than-average chance that you won’t need the GPO Calculator. However, if you worked for a company or organization where your earnings weren’t taxed by Social Security—but you expect to receive spousal benefits—the amount may be reduced by something called the Government Pension Offset. (Confused yet?) This calculator helps you figure out how the offset will affect your benefits. If you don’t know if GPO applies to you, read Social Security's publication that explains it in detail.
10. Spousal Benefits Calculator
When you file for Social Security benefits, your spouse may be eligible for benefits as well. The subject of spousal benefits gets quite complicated depending on individual family variables. Simply enter some basic information, and the Spousal Benefits calculator will tell you the effect on your spouse’s benefit amount.
11. Detailed Calculator
Some people’s financial situation is simple and straightforward. The Retirement Estimator calculator listed first in this article takes into account a few variables other than age, earnings, and credit. Many people have additional factors to consider when calculating their benefits. If that’s you, you need to use the Detailed Calculator. It’s as close as you will get to the calculator that a Social Security employee would use to calculate your earnings.
The SSA warns that it’s not easy to use, and you have to download and install it on your PC. There’s no official mobile app, and the Mac OS X version, though functional, is still under development and doesn’t work with newer versions of OS X. You can download a user’s guide and the calculator from the website.
The Bottom Line
The best calculators to use are the ones that pull your actual record from the Social Security Administration. As long as you’re on the Social Security website, any information you input on the forms is encrypted and considered to be safe.
Always start with calculators from the official Social Security website. You will probably find everything you need there.