Chances are you're working today. So let's talk about retirement -- and a nice little surprise that might well be awaiting you and millions of other Americans.
We've been told our entire working lives that despite paying in for years, the system will run out of money and we'll likely never see a dime.
It turns out, both extremes might be greatly exaggerated.
Don't take my word for it. Instead, I suggest taking maybe two minutes to check out an impressive (but under-used) U.S. government website that tells you quickly how much money you are projected to get from Social Security.
I'll explain more about this below, but first, here are the links you need:
- My Social Security. This is the key link that lets you sign up, log in, and see your personal projected Social Security benefits, based on what you've paid into the system and expect to continue paying until you retire. It took only about 90 seconds for me to get my estimate.
- Estimated benefit calculators. This is your backup. The calculators aren't personalized, but if you have trouble logging into the link above, you can figure out some estimates while you figure out the sign-in issue. You can also play around with assumptions and see how they'd affect your expected payout.
The nice big surprises
Roughly 150 million Americans are "in the Social Security system," meaning that they're either working and paying into it, or retired and receiving benefits. But only 35 million have created digital accounts like the ones at the link above.
And of the smaller group, fewer than half have checked their benefits in the last year. So, millions of Americans are in for an enormous surprise when they do finally log in.
In many cases, their projected Social Security retirement income will be well over $2,000 per month -- and in some cases approaching $4,000. There are also likely to be substantial disability and survivors' benefits, too.
Now, would you want to retire on Social Security benefits alone? No, I'm certainly not advising that. And yes, there are big questions about the solvency of the system. (See below.)
Still, it's a nice feeling to log in and see a not-unsubstantial amount of projected benefits staring you in the face -- especially when you'd cynically been told your whole life to write it all off.
Social Security insecurity
Now, the big caveat: Social Security is still headed toward insolvency. The total cost of the program is projected to exceed income starting as soon as next year.
As Michelle Singletary of The Washington Post summarizes: "Absent any intervention, the combined trust-fund reserves are projected to run out in 2035, when there will only be enough income coming in to pay 80 percent of benefits."
I certainly don't pretend to have the answers to this. But most observers suggest that Social Security is such a key political institution that Washington won't have any choice but to find some way to sustain it.
That could mean raising taxes or reducing the benefits paid, or both. And granted, that means taking those projected estimates with a grain of salt. It's possible they'll turn out to be inflated.
That said, the U.S. government has a long history of waiting until the very last minute before fixing big financial political issues. Think of the government shutdowns, for example. So it seems the most likely result here will be some kind of fix -- but at the very last possible minute.
The old paper statements
Frankly, it's surprising that so few people have created accounts. It's especially noticeable given the stampede for things like the Amazon settlement website, or the recent Equifax settlement website, where people check to see if they're eligible for much smaller amounts of money.
Partly, it's because the Social Security Administration used to send paper statements every year around your birthday -- but it's now gone almost entirely digital. The government saves about $57 million a year as a result, according to the New York Times.
Of course, if you never log into the government website, or don't even realize it exists, you don't have any way of knowing what your benefits are.
Oh, one more advantage: Logging in will give you a pretty clear indication quickly if someone has been using your Social Security number, in any kind of identity fraud. That would be good to know, too.
But overall, it's worth taking 90 seconds or so and logging in to check your projected benefits. You might be in for a pretty nice surprise.