Give yourself a birthday gift, check your Social Security statement

Michelle Singletary
Columnist August 19

I’ve got a birthday coming up, and as a gift to myself, I checked my Social Security statement.

If you ask, I’ll say I’m 29. But truth be told, I’m one year closer to retirement age. (By the way, this doesn’t mean I’ll stop working when the time comes. It just means I won’t be working as hard as I do now.)

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.” View Archive

It used to be that a few months before each birthday, you would get a statement from the Social Security Administration telling you your estimated benefit if you elected to take it early, at 62; at your full retirement age (it’s 67 for me); or when you turned 70. You also would see the estimated amount you would get if you became disabled, plus information about spousal and survivor benefits. Although you don’t find out your true amounts until you apply for benefits, you need to have an idea of how much you’ll get from Social Security.

In a cost-saving move, the agency stopped sending out the annual paper statements. Now it’s up to you to set up an online account and get your own statement. If you haven’t done so, do it today. Then, going forward, to help you remember to take a look annually, make it part of your birthday celebration.

Go to www.socialsecurity.gov. Look for the sign-in link for “my Social Security.” If you’re already receiving benefits, you can get benefit-verification letters, change your address and phone number, and input or change direct-deposit information.

When I first set up my account, it took me less than 15 minutes to go through the verification process. The agency uses information from your credit file to verify your identity. Once you’ve set up an account, you can view your report anytime you want.

As is the trend for many causes or initiatives, Social Security has its own “my Social Security Week,” which started Sunday and runs until Saturday. As part of its advertising and social-media blitz to encourage people to sign up to get their statements, SSA is hosting a Twitter chat on Thursday from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. Eastern time. The Federal Trade Commission will be in on the chat, and I’ll be participating, too. To tweet your questions, go to @SocialSecurity and @SingletaryM. While participating in the chat, use the hashtag #mySocialSecurity. If you miss the chat, search for the hashtag on Twitter to read the questions and comments.

Once you get your statement, carefully review the information and heed this reminder that you’ll find on it: “It’s your earnings, not the amount of taxes you paid or the number of credits you’ve earned, that determine your benefit amount. When we figure that amount, we base it on your average earnings over your lifetime. If our records are wrong, you may not receive all the benefits to which you’re entitled.”

Your earnings data could be incorrect because your employer reported wrong information or used an incorrect name or Social Security number. Or perhaps you got married or divorced but didn’t report the change.

If your earnings information is incorrect, contact Social Security at 800-772-1213. You’ll need to provide a W-2 form, a tax return or a pay stub as proof of what you earned. If you can’t find proof, you still may be able to get the record corrected by providing Social Security with the dates you worked and your employer’s name.

On the statement, there’s also an important notice about Medicare. I’ve worked enough to qualify for Medicare at 65. And even if I don’t retire then, I’m reminded to contact Social Security three months before my 65th birthday to enroll in Medicare. If I don’t sign up for Medicare Part B (the part for doctor visits and outpatient services), there’s a late penalty. And it’s not cheap. You are assessed 10 percent for each year past 65 that you don’t sign up.

I like the slogans Social Security is using to promote its efforts: “Prepare for your Someday” and “Someday is here.”

If you’re young and starting out in your career, don’t put off retirement planning, thinking you have plenty of time. Ask the folks who have put it off. They’ll tell you that they waited too long to make retirement planning a priority and are worried they won’t have enough to retire when they want.

More than 13 million people already have created online accounts to get their Social Security statements. Make your someday today. Become informed.

I know. This is yet another thing to put on your to-do list. But this is an important to-do. It’s a gift to your future self.

Readers may write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or michelle.singletary@
washpost.com
.

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