Ever wondered how much you have earned in your lifetime? It’s really easy to find out, and this bit of information can help you in a big way.
The social security website (ssa.gov) provides a lifetime earnings record for every US citizen. In fact, ssa.gov has tons of useful information available. Everything is laid out in an attractive, user-friendly format. It certainly exceeds my expectations for a government website!
I get it: social security is boring, and that’s probably a generous assessment. It’s not something you wake up on a Saturday morning thinking about. And the time when you will actually benefit from it seems so far away, so why bother?
Well…social security holds significance for many of us as we plan our futures. And the information on ssa.gov can help you plan that future more effectively, regardless of your age or location on the path to retirement.
Even if you think social security will be changed (or non-existent) by the time you need it, the data it tracks can help you answer important questions right now. We’ll get into that below.
But first, here’s a brief overview of how social security works.
How does social security work?
In terms of what you need to know, social security is a simple system.
Throughout your working years, you will accrue credits. A minimum number of credits are needed to qualify for social security.
Once you’ve earned enough credits to qualify, your benefit amount (AKA how much you will be paid each month in retirement) is determined by your earnings during your working years.
In order to qualify for a social security benefit, you must accrue (at most) 40 credits throughout your working years. For 2018, a credit is earned for every $1,320 of earned income (this amount is adjusted over time, based on average wages).
There’s an important caveat to remember: credits are capped at 4 per year. So if you earn $5,280 ($1,320 * 4) this year, you get 4 credits. Likewise, if you earn $100k this year, you still get just 4 credits. For an adult living above the poverty line, it’s pretty safe to assume they will earn the $5,280 required to get 4 credits in a year.
Thus it will typically take 10 years of work to qualify for social security benefits (10 working years * 4 credits/year = 40 credits).
Let’s say you’ve been working for at least ten years. You’ve earned your 40 credits and you officially qualify. Sweet! How much are you actually entitled to?
The behind-the-scenes calculation of your benefit amount is rather complex. What you need to know is that it’s based on the average of your highest 35 years of income from working.
If you are 65 and you’ve worked 35 years (AKA since age 30), your benefit is based on your average annual income over those 35 years. Or if you’re 65 and you’ve worked 45 years (AKA since age 20), your benefit is based on your highest 35 years of income in that 45 year span.
Have you worked less than 35 years? You will receive a zero for the years that make up the gap. Let’s take myself as an example.
I’ve earned an income every year since I was 15. So, through age 35, I’ve accrued 20 years of income history. If I were to never work again, my benefit would be calculated based on the average of those 20 years, plus 15 years of zeros (to bring me up to 35 years).
Those zeros would bring down my average significantly. And this is before factoring in how low my income was prior to graduating college.
I’m already entitled to a social security benefit no matter what (thanks to those 40 credits). But if I were to never work again, my benefit amount would be really, really low.
Did all of this get you wondering about your earnings history and/or benefit amount? Are you just so jazzed about how social security works? Then we need to be friends in real life.
But even if not, here’s how the info on ssa.gov can help you.
Lifetime Earnings History
As I mentioned at the top, ssa.gov provides access to your personalized lifetime earnings record. To view your earnings record, you must register for an account on the website.
Once logged in, click the Earnings Record link under Overview.
Understanding your earnings record
Your earnings record displays your taxed Social Security wages for each year you’ve worked, all in a simple table. The data is broken down by year, and displays your taxed Social Security earnings on the left and your taxed Medicare earnings on the right.
Your earnings record is updated every year to reflect earnings from the previous year.
Keeping tabs on your lifetime earnings history is helpful for many reasons. Not only does it allow you to see how much you’ve earned in your lifetime, it also allows you to:
- Calculate your lifetime savings rate
- See how your salary has progressed over time
- Estimate your social security benefits much more accurately
Lifetime savings rate
If you track your net worth (which you should be doing), it’s powerful to know how it compares to what you’ve earned in your lifetime. Numbers do not lie, and these numbers in particular offer a pretty comprehensive view into your overall financial health.
If you’ve worked for 10 years, earning $50,000/year, you will have earned $500,000. If your net worth is negative, or comparatively small, then it should serve as a reminder to start fixing it. You’ve earned $500,000, but what do you have to show for it?
There are legitimate reasons why you might have a low net worth, so don’t beat yourself up too much. You might have amassed consumer debt that you’ve been working diligently to pay off. You may have student loans. Maybe you provide financial support for family members/loved ones.
The key takeaway here is that you can’t improve what you don’t measure, and you shouldn’t plan based on unknowns. You can’t change your past, but you can change your future. If you don’t measure your net worth or your lifetime earnings, how can you really know how you’re doing financially? How can you plan for retirement or any other major life event?
How to calculate lifetime savings rate
Take your net worth and divide it by your lifetime earnings. If your net worth is $50,000 and your lifetime earnings is $500,000, your lifetime savings rate is 10%.
Your savings rate is very nuanced, and there could be a lot of history that justifies where it’s at. But there’s no denying that it offers an important barometer of overall financial health.
Salary progress and benefits estimation
Your earnings history makes it really easy to see how your earnings have changed over time. It’s interesting to see what you were making right out of college and observe how that amount has incremented over the years.
This also helps project future earnings growth, which is a key component when estimating your social security benefit amount. If you have a sizable work history, you can reasonably project future growth based on the past.
There’s a calculator on ssa.gov that allows you to enter your earnings history, as well as adjust some base assumptions. The calculator produces an estimate of your social security benefit amount based on what’s entered. Plan to retire super early? You can see how that would impact your social security payout down the line.
The calculator ties together everything discussed in this article. I plugged my numbers in and was able to see what my benefit payout will be assuming I never work again. Of course, I’m not planning to never work again – it’s just interesting to run through various scenarios.
No one knows what social security will look like 30 years from now. It’s been widely reported that, by 2034, the system won’t be completely solvent. Only $0.77 per dollar will be paid out if nothing is done. There will likely be strong political will to inject fixes, but that remains to be seen and, at this point, is purely speculative.
Due to the overall uncertainty of social security’s future, it’s unwise to assume it will be a major component of your retirement. But in spite of that uncertainty, there are many valuable takeaways in understanding how it works and getting a better snapshot of your personal history.
Take some time to play around on ssa.gov and see how you are doing so far. If it helps you make adjustments, then you’ve already won.
This was an interesting read. I knew about the 40 credits bit, but I always thought once you earned those you were done. The averaging-in of zeros for years not worked (to pad up to the 35 years mark) was news to me!
Yeah. Same for me before I found out about it. I always thought it was more complex and never bothered figuring it out. Glad you learned something!
Great article! It was very enlightening to have someone finally and simply explain this to me. I intend to go home after work and log in to my ssa.gov account and follow the steps that you clearly laid out. Questions: How do you know if you are getting the right Social Security payment if you were married but not working for 25 years but were in the job market working before and after marriage? After a divorce, you are entitled to your ex-husband’s Social Security payment (if you don’t remarry), but it is real confusing to figure out for me. How can a divorced woman, married 28 years, know if she is getting the proper amount? Thanks, Susan
Thanks! I’m glad this was helpful for you. I would approach this with a few different items:
1. Tabulate your social security benefit based purely on your work/income history, using the formula laid out in this article – just so you have a standalone number to work off of that is independent of your marriage history. This would provide a baseline context to go off of.
2. Call up the social security office and lay out your questions based on your marriage/divorce. I get that it’s difficult to know for sure that you are receiving the correct amount if the information isn’t completely transparent, so the SSA should be able to help clarify that.
3. You may want to reach out to your divorce attorney with these questions as I’m sure they were part of the divorce settlement. Your attorney would be able to provide legal advice on this.
Those would be my suggestions on how to approach this. Hope it helps.
Thanks Andrew for the sound advice and wise counsel. I will follow those 3 steps and get back to you on how I did because I am sure that I am not the only one. Susan
Fun exercise! Even with all of my mistakes, I have a lifetime savings rate of ~22%. I believe that fact is due to higher salaries in the last four years when I have been focused on saving. It is a little depressing to look at my mediocrity in my 20s and the fact I’ve earned $1.18M since I was 18. : (
That’s still really great. And imagine discovering this 15 years from now, and wishing you could have acted on it sooner! You sooner you know this info, the sooner you can improve upon it. But sounds like you are kicking ass regardless.
Tread Lightly, Retire Early
I keep meaning to go on and figure this out for myself, but I haven’t done it yet. Will do that this weekend! Thought I’m not sure I want to know my lifetime savings rate ?
All great journeys start somewhere! Better to know where it starts, makes it that much more fun to measure your growth along the way.
Tread Lightly, Retire Early
Oh we’ve done reasonably well to this point. We’ll just do significantly better in the next few years ?
Love it man!!! The key is def. comparing it all to what you’ve held onto over the years as it’s def. eye opening, haha… I calculated my “lifetime wealth ratio” as I’ve dubbed it a few years ago, and while it was decent (because of market returns), it was still pretty enlightening to see… Cool to see other bloggers sharing similar ideas too ?
Thanks for stopping by and reading! Yes it’s a really powerful thing to monitor. Even if it’s awesome to begin with it’s nice to watch that growth over the years.
Excellent article! I loved your tip on including your earnings history with your net worth. Now I’m adding yet another tab to my spreadsheet.
Thanks for reading and glad you enjoyed it!