Social Security is a government program, so you might use one word to describe it: complicated. In fact, Financial Engines asked 1,000 people who were getting close to retirement how much they knew about the retirement system that will be a major source of their income. The survey found that three out of four respondents had a C grade-level knowledge or lower, with only 5% receiving an A grade.
(For more, see Introduction to Social Security.)
Hats off to Social Security, though. The program’s website is one of the best government sites, using plain English 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 likely to help you answer your questions as you start to plan.
What’s more important than knowing the amount of your Social Security check? The awesome thing about this calculator is that it looks at your actual Social Security 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.
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 this calculator run by Social Security. 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.
Social Security says that it would rather you use the Retirement Estimator (discussed 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.
Here is another calculator that 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.
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, as you’re more likely to experience medical issues the older you get. Still, this isn’t something to pull up on days when you’re feeling a little down in the dumps.
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.
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? This 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.
Early or Late Calculator
This is another calculator that isolates one variable to show you how relatively small decisions can dramatically affect your benefits. This calculator shows how waiting longer to receive your benefits will substantially raise the dollar amount of your benefit checks.
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 in life, the agency has slowly raised the retirement age over the years. The retirement age is based on your birth date. Use this calculator to figure out when you can start receiving benefits. It’s not as straightforward as you might think.
(For more, see The Economics of Raising the Social Security Age.)
There’s a better-than-average chance that you won’t need this calculator. However, if you worked for a company or organization where your earnings weren’t taxed by Social Security but nevertheless 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 this publication from Social Security.
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 this calculator will tell you the effect on your spouse’s benefit amount.
(For more, see How Married Couples Can Maximize Social Security.)
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 benefit. 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 office 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 OSX version, though functional, is still under development and doesn’t work with newer versions of OSX. 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 Social Security records. As long as you’re on the Social Security website, any information you input on the forms is encrypted and considered to be safe. If you use calculators on other websites, there’s no guarantee that the information is accurate or your sensitive data is safe. Always start with calculators from the official Social Security website. You will probably find everything you need there.