You may not have realized you weren’t getting this important document, but the House Ways and Means Committee recently passed the Know Your Social Security Act, which would require the government to resume mailing annual earnings Social Security statements to millions of workers 25 and older.
Your Social Security statement provides information about your earnings records, estimated benefits and about how much you or your family would receive in disability, survivor or retirement benefits. This data (assuming there aren’t major changes to your benefits by the time you retire) is key in determining how much you need to save and invest for retirement. In November, the average monthly retirement benefit was $1,431.06.
Initially, a personal earnings and benefit statement was mailed to eligible workers nearing retirement. By 2000, the Social Security Administration (SSA) began mailing the statements to workers about three months before their birthdays.
But in 2011, SSA stopped sending out the annual paper statements to save money. The following year, the agency launched a secure online version of the statement, which can be viewed at any time.
For a brief period in 2017, SSA reversed the decision to suspend the mailings, only to stop them again because of the expense. Paper statements are now sent only to people 60 and older who are not getting benefits and don’t have an account on the Social Security website.
Getting people to regularly review their statements is challenging. I find if they aren’t nearing retirement it’s not something they even think about doing. The percentage of registered “my Social Security” account users who accessed their statements online declined annually from 96 percent in fiscal 2012 to 43 percent in 2018, according to a report released this year by the SSA’s Office of the Inspector General in response to a House inquiry.
I agree with the bipartisan effort to get SSA to return to mailing people their statements. While there is certainly a cost to consider, there’s a bigger price we pay when people aren’t adequately prepared for retirement because they overestimate how much income they will receive from Social Security.
After last week’s newsletter about the bill making its way through Congress, a number of readers had questions. I asked SSA to address their concerns.
Q: I have a security freeze on my credit reports; which credit bureau does SSA use to obtain information to verify people’s identities?
SSA: People would need to remove the security freeze at Equifax. If people visit a Social Security office to create an account, there is no need to remove the security freeze. For more information read: Can I create a “my Social Security” account if I have a security freeze or a fraud alert on my credit report?
Q: If I have trouble setting up an account online, what steps should I take to establish an online account? For example, perhaps I didn’t answer the security questions correctly because I’ve forgotten information.
SSA: People can call Social Security’s toll-free number 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778) Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. They can also contact their local Social Security office.
Q: If I’ve forgotten my password or User ID what happens?
SSA: At ssa.gov you’ll find instructions on how to retrieve your username or password.
Q: In the event that mailings of the annual statement resume, can I opt out of getting a paper statement?
SSA: People may opt out of receiving notices by mail that are available online via the Message Center, including the Social Security annual cost-of-living adjustment, by creating a “my Social Security” account.
The agency mails paper statements to workers age 60 and older if they do not receive Social Security benefits and do not yet have a my Social Security account. People who have an account do not receive a paper statement. People should check their statement annually, and “my Social Security” account holders receive an email reminder to do so.
Q: Many people stop working but wait to claim Social Security. For anyone who does not collect immediately upon leaving work, isn’t the estimated amount shown on their benefit statement misleading? How can people calculate the benefit once they stop working but before collecting benefits?
SSA: For 2019 and later (up to retirement age), we assume the worker will continue to work and make about the same as he or she did in 2017 and 2018. Generally, the older the worker is and the closer he or she is to retirement, the more accurate the retirement estimates on the statement will be because they are based on a longer work history with fewer uncertainties such as earnings fluctuations. The agency provides many tools to help people plan for retirement. My Social Security account holders can use our “Retirement Estimator” tool that allows people to input various earnings scenarios and retirement ages to see how changes will affect their Social Security benefits.
Reader Question of the Week
If you have a retirement question send it to email@example.com.
Q: Saving for retirement and college for multiple children: I currently have a toddler, and I’m expecting another baby. I’m happy to say our toddler already has over $10,000 in her 529! With the arrival of baby number two, how do you recommend we prioritize saving for both of them and possibly another child in the future? The only way to contribute the same amount to our next child would be to decrease what we’re saving for retirement. Our ultimate goal is for all our kids to go to college debt-free, and we’re hoping once they reach school age we’ll be able to repurpose the hefty day-care cost for 529 and retirement.
Michelle Singletary: With only so much money coming in, you do need to prioritize savings. Investing for retirement is vital, but you don’t have to sacrifice the college fund completely. If you’ve got a few decades before retiring, you could pull back on saving for retirement so that you free up some money to put in 529 college savings plans for your children.
Here’s something else to keep in mind. Part of planning for college costs is managing the expectations of your children — and yourself — about how much you can realistically save for higher education. Take debt off the table, which means your children may need to start out at a community college and then transfer to a four-year school. They may have to commute to school. There is also another way to reduce the cost of college, which I write about here.
I also recommend you read the following:
Retirement Rants and Raves
What are your thoughts on this week’s newsletter topic?
I’m also interested in your experiences or concerns about retirement or aging. You can rant or rave. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name, city and state. In the subject line put “Retirement Rants and Raves.”
Last week I asked: When was the last time you reviewed your Social Security statement? Would getting it in the mail be helpful?
Heidi Sobol from Portland, Ore., wrote, “I’m one of the compulsive planners who looks at my statement but have been surprised at how many others don’t know about it. I was doing a retirement planning pep talk with a friend recently and showed her how to access hers. She hadn’t even thought about it, and I explained that I thought of it in asset allocation terms. She breathed easier about how much she’d saved for retirement including this ‘hidden’ asset."
“I recently realized I was no longer receiving Social Security information by mail,” wrote Janie Yarbrough from Hoover, Ala. “Dutifully, I established a ‘my Social Security’ online account. Mind you, I am a ‘web’ person. I do everything I can online. However, after four attempts and 30 minutes of frustration I gave up. The problem is the two-step verification process. After you enter your username/password, you are advised that a ‘security code’ will be sent to your email address within two minutes to gain access to your account. The security code is only good for 10 minutes. In my four attempts, the code was not received before the 10-minute expiration. I made a final attempt a few hours later and succeeded. I promptly found the settings area and changed my preference to snail-mail. I don’t have time for that nonsense.”
The sign-up process for an online Social Security account stymied a number of readers.
Leslie Van Buskirk from Wisconsin wrote, “My frustration with the online Social Security account is that I have tried to set it up, but the complexity of the random information they pull from the credit file to quiz you on your identity is so specific I have never been able to set it up. If I can’t do it, I wouldn’t be surprised if others have difficulty also."
Eric Moore of Miami wrote, “The Social Security Administration should not send out paper statements regularly, anymore than they should encourage paper checks. Why? Because paper items are lost/stolen/tampered with, people move, or ignore the mailing. Paper is expensive. A friend, who doesn’t have Internet access, goes to the library. In this age, people are more likely to keep an email address longer than a home address."
Tracy Senat of Guthrie, Okla., wrote, “Maybe instead of mailing the full document each year, how about sending a simple reminder every year to go look at their account (or set one up)? This would help keep their account information safer because it’s not in the mail.”
“No, don’t kill trees to send annual Social Security statements,” wrote Sara M. from California. “Send them once at age 30 with a reminder to create an account. There’s no need to waste so much paper sending them to everyone annually.”
Krystal Bullers of Tampa says she reviews her Social Security statement as part of her semiannual retirement review, writing, “I, for one, am happy to receive the email reminder only. It comes every year in April, around the same time I used to receive the paper statement. I dislike receiving any statements like that by mail since then I have to worry about disposing of it safely and scanning in an electronic copy for my files. Perhaps the best solution would a hybrid of electronic and paper. Allow folks to opt out of receiving the paper version and that would at least reduce the amount of paper waste created a bit.”
“Mandatory paper statements would be a constant reminder that the finances and the politics of Social Security need to be fixed now,” wrote Mike Mundorff from Salt Lake City.
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