What Are Indexed Earnings?

Indexed earnings is a calculation the Social Security Administration (SSA) uses that takes inflation into consideration when determining life-long wages. The amount someone collects from Social Security after retirement or disability after an injury is based on the wages made over a lifetime.

How Indexed Earnings Work

For Social Security purposes, the indexed earnings are calculated, as explained on SSA.gov: “For each year prior to the last two years of current employment, an individual’s yearly wage is multiplied by an ‘indexed factor’ that increases the wage to account for inflation. For instance, for wages received in 1951, the SSA will apply an indexing factor of 15 or more and multiply this by the wages to determine the indexed earnings.”

The amount of disability payments (SSDI) a person is eligible for is based on average indexed monthly earnings. This is determined by taking the 35 highest years (prior to age 60) of indexed earnings and dividing that figure by the total number of months worked during those years.

Thus, if you worked every month, without fail, your average indexed monthly earnings would equal the sum of 35 years of work divided by 144 months.

The Significance of the Indexed Earnings Calculation

Making sure amounts are determined fairly and equitably for recipients of Social Security or disability is significant. Not factoring in inflation, thus lowering the wages benefits are based on, would certainly impact someone’s quality of life. A person might be forced to downsize from a larger home, cancel a planned vacation or stop contributing to their grandchildren’s education.

Social Security benefits in the U.S. are calculated using average indexed monthly earnings, a type of indexed earnings. Indexing earnings allow the Social Security Administration to award benefits which account for changes in standard of living. If earnings were not indexed in this manner, then retirees would receive much lower benefits that would be out of proportion to the true buying power of their earnings in prior years.