A popular question that I hear from baby boomers getting ready to retire is “how are Social Security benefits calculated?” This is an important question because it could affect how long you need to work, whether you should continue to work during your retirement years, or other aspects of your retirement plan.
First, please note that you receive a Social Security retirement benefit estimate each year in the mail, usually around your birth date. There are also several calculators available on the Social Security website to help you estimate how much your Social Security benefits will be, so you don’t need to know how to calculate the benefit yourself.
How Social Security Benefits are Calculated
It’s still helpful to know how Social Security is calculated, however, so here are the basics:
Basically, your top 35 years of earnings are indexed for inflation, then averaged to determine the basis for your monthly benefit. If you worked less than 35 years, the missing years will be calculated as zero for purposes of determining your benefit amount.
Planning tip: If you have close to 35 years of earnings and you are close to retirement, you will benefit greatly by continuing to work until you have 35 full years of earnings to include in your benefit calculation. The majority of people this will affect are women who took time off work to raise a family.
The top 35 years of earnings are then divided by the number of months in 35 years to arrive at your average indexed monthly earnings (AIME). A formula is applied to your AIME to determine your primary insurance amount (PIA).
We won’t go into the specifics of the formula; the important thing to note is that your PIA is the full unreduced benefit you would receive if you retired at your full retirement age (age 66 for people born between 1943 and 1954). This amount will be reduced if you take early retirement or increased if you retire after age 66.
The PIA is also the basis for other benefits such as spousal benefits, so it’s important to understand that your PIA is not necessarily the same amount that you will receive. If you are married and your spouse will be collecting benefits based on your earnings instead of her own, then you may want to maximize your own PIA to maximize the total Social Security benefits you and your spouse will receive.
If you’d like to estimate your benefits, check out the Social Security retirement calculator at ssa.gov.