How Are Social Security Benefits Calculated?

Social security is an important part of retirement planning and yet, few people don’t understand how the benefits are calculated or what factors determine the amount received monthly or over its lifetime. Even when using a social security benefits calculator, not understanding the different aspects that go into determining the number can give you the wrong result and likely unnecessary worry. 

To better understand how social security benefits are calculated, read below and learn the different areas that contribute to your retirement benefits. 

AIME and PIA: Essential Retirement Benefits Factors

Understanding the calculation of your social security benefits means diving deep into two primary concepts: Average Indexed Monthly Earnings (AIME) and the Primary Insurance Amount (PIA):

Average Indexed Monthly Earnings (AIME)

AIME plays a key role in calculating Social Security benefits, but what exactly is it?

 AIME represents an average of your monthly earnings over your highest-earning 35 years, adjusted for inflation. The Social Security Administration doesn’t only look at your raw earnings; instead, it indexes them. This means that earnings from earlier years in your career are adjusted to account for inflation and wage growth over time, providing a more accurate reflection of your earnings in today’s dollars.

To arrive at the AIME, the SSA takes your annual earnings for each year (up to a particular maximum that might change annually), indexes those for inflation, and then identifies the 35 years in which you earned the most. By adding those highest-earning years together and then dividing by the total number of months in those 35 years (420 months), the AIME is figured out.

Primary Insurance Amount (PIA)

Once the AIME is calculated, it’s time to determine the PIA. The PIA is essentially the baseline amount you would receive at full retirement age.

To calculate the amount, the SSA uses a progressive formula that breaks the AIME into portions and then multiplies each segment by a specified percentage. For instance, the first segment of your AIME could be multiplied by 90%, the next by 32%, and any remaining amount by 15%. The sum of these results is your PIA.

What’s crucial to understand is that PIA is central to the benefits you’ll receive. While factors like choosing to take benefits before or after your full retirement age can influence the final amount, the PIA sets the groundwork.

Solving the SSA’s Approach: From Earnings to Benefits

At the heart of social security payments is a comprehensive process that is based on your earnings history and age. This formula recalculates your benefit annually, ensuring accuracy and fairness by tallying up the earned income you made in your top earning years and applying specific adjustments. The benefits also depend on other factors besides AIME and PIA: 

Factors That Can Influence Your Social Security Benefits

The other factors that can influence the amount of social security benefits an individual might receive include. Understanding the other factors that influence the amount of social security benefits received is essential to making informed decisions about when and how to claim benefits:

  1. Claiming Age: As mentioned earlier, the age at which you start claiming benefits can impact the monthly amount. Claiming before your full retirement age will result in a reduced monthly benefit, while delaying can lead to increased monthly payouts, up to age 70.
  2. Work While Claiming: If you claim benefits before reaching full retirement age and continue to work, there’s a limit to how much you can earn before the amount is temporarily reduced.
  3. Lifetime Earnings: The more you’ve earned, and therefore paid into the Social Security system, the higher your benefit will be, up to a point. Social Security is designed to replace a percentage of your pre-retirement income rather than it being your only source.
  4. Cost-of-Living Adjustments (COLAs): The SSA may adjust benefits to account for inflation to ensure that the purchasing power of your benefits doesn’t decline over time due to inflation.
  5. Taxes: Depending on your overall income, a portion of your Social Security benefits might be taxable.
  6. Government Pensions: If you receive a pension from a job where you didn’t pay Social Security taxes (such as some government positions), it could affect the amount of your Social Security benefits.
  7. Family Benefits: If you have children or a spouse who are eligible for benefits based on your work record, it could mean a higher total family benefit, though individual benefits might be reduced.

Understanding Retirement is Crucial 

Navigating social security benefits can be daunting, but with the right knowledge, understanding, and professional guidance it becomes much easier. Here at Marken Law Group, we are extensively experienced with social security, having represented hundreds of claimants in Washington, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and California to obtain what is rightfully theirs. We focus on your individual needs rather than treat all clients as the same, bringing our comprehensive experience to help guide you through. 

Whether you’re years away from claiming Social Security or on the brink of retirement, understanding these terms and how they factor into your benefits can make a significant difference in your financial planning.