Is there a calculator that will estimate my SSA benefit amounts given:

  1. a list of all FICA contributions I (and my spouse) have made till date (and plan to make)
  2. the age at which I intend to start claiming benefits

There are a few estimators that predict a monthly value given a yearly income, but I wanted one that takes specifically FICA contributions into account.

The reasons why I ask such a question:

  1. I have the option to file taxes as a non-resident (hence, elect out of contributing to FICA.)

    However, that only makes sense if the potential return from FICA contributions << potential return from investing the same money elsewhere

  2. I am trying to gauge if SSA benefits can be simplified to "it's essentially X% ROI over Y years".

    For example, can SSA benefits be simplified to say "it's essentially 40% ROI over 40 years"?

    In other words, if I contributed $10k/year for the next 30 years to SSA, I can expect to be "paid" $3k/year 30 years from now?

  • 1
    "it's essentially X% ROI over Y years" - No. Its a program based on actuary calculations and mandatory coverage. Actuary calculations change with life expectancy, mandatory coverage changes with legislation.
    – littleadv
    Commented Jan 10, 2013 at 2:33
  • How do I find out how much I can expect from the SSA based off my fluctuating contributions?
    – sekharan
    Commented Jan 10, 2013 at 2:38
  • In general terms, the ROI on Social security is horrible. My quick research says that on average the annualized rate adjusted for inflation runs about 1.23% and can easily be negative for low income people and those who die early. [Personal opinion]: That's why the argument about how risky it is to privatize this system is ludicrous.
    – JohnFx
    Commented Jan 10, 2013 at 20:00
  • 1
    I used to get a document yearly from the Social Security Administration telling me what I put in, what I get in certain scenarios, and predictions on the future. I guess they stopped mailing those out, but here is an online version. socialsecurity.gov/myaccount Go look.
    – MrChrister
    Commented Jan 25, 2013 at 21:59

3 Answers 3


Some details in case you are interested:

Being a defined benefit kind of pension plan, the formula for your Social Security benefits isn't tied directly to FICA contributions, and I'm not aware of any calculator that performs an ROI based on FICA contributions.

Rather, how much you'll get in retirement is based on your average indexed monthly earnings. Here's some information on the Social Security calculation from the Social Security Administration - Primary Insurance Amount (PIA):

For an individual who first becomes eligible for old-age insurance benefits or disability insurance benefits in 2013, or who dies in 2013 before becoming eligible for benefits, his/her PIA will be the sum of:
(a) 90 percent of the first $791 of his/her average indexed monthly earnings, plus
(b) 32 percent of his/her average indexed monthly earnings over $791 and through $4,768, plus
(c) 15 percent of his/her average indexed monthly earnings over $4,768.

Here's an example. Of course, to calculate a benefit in the future, you'll need to calculate projected average indexed monthly earnings; more details here. You'll also need to make assumptions about what those bend points might be in the future. The average wage indexing values for calculating the AIME are available from the Social Security Administration's site, but future indexing values will also need to be projected based on an assumption about their inflation. You'll also need to project the Contribution and Benefit Base which limits the earnings used to calculate contributions and benefits.

Also, the PIA calculation assumes benefits are taken at the normal retirement age. Calculating an early or late retirement factor is required to adjust benefits for another age. Then, whatever benefits you get will increase each year, because the benefit is increased based on annual changes in the cost of living.

Performing the series of calculations by hand isn't my idea of fun, but implementing it as a spreadsheet (or a web page) and adding in some "ROI based on FICA contributions" calculations might be an interesting exercise if you are so inclined?

For completeness sake, I'll mention that the SSA also provides source code for a Social Security Benefit Calculator.

  • Thanks Chris for such a detailed answer! If Social Security benefits isn't tied directly to FICA contributions, would it be safe to assume that a person can rely on his SSA benefits to provide him with an "income" level that will keep him above the poverty level as long as he is eligible for the SS benefits (he has made atleast the minimum contributions for 40 credits etc)?
    – sekharan
    Commented Jan 11, 2013 at 18:59
  • I wouldn't suggest that's a safe assumption. "Safe" is having adequate other savings to fall back on. Social Security would be just one piece of a retirement plan. And when I say SS benefits aren't tied directly to contributions, I mean to say that the FICA contributions aren't invested to grow on your behalf, as contributions would be (say) in a defined contribution plan. Commented Jan 11, 2013 at 19:48
  • 1
    FWIW, there is a correlation between how much you put into Social Security and how much you get out. But money you put in is not the money you get out .. your $ goes to today's retirees, and when you retire, your benefits come from future workers paying into the system. Commented Jan 11, 2013 at 19:53
  • Understanding that took me time but now I get it. However, for a individual that is minimally qualified for SSA benefits, is the minimum retirement amount paid out by the SSA enough to keep him above the poverty line?
    – sekharan
    Commented Jan 11, 2013 at 20:11
  • That I wouldn't know. Sorry. Commented Jan 11, 2013 at 21:40

There has been an abundance of articles in recent years which make it fairly clear that many participants in the Social Security system-- especially those who have started contributing recently, and going forward from that-- will experience negative rates of return. In other words, they will put in more than they will get out.

Some examples of such articles:

Time Magazine:

But it is now official: Social Security is a lousy investment for the average worker. People retiring today will be among the first generation of workers to pay more in Social Security taxes than they receive in benefits over the course of their lives, according to a new analysis by the Associated Press.

That AP piece, referenced by Time:

People retiring today are part of the first generation of workers who have paid more in Social Security taxes during their careers than they will receive in benefits after they retire. It's a historic shift that will only get worse for future retirees, according to an analysis by The Associated Press.

A piece which appeared in DailyFinance (includes a helpful graphic summary):

Graph showing SS benefits, negative returns

10 Myths About Social Security:

Myth 4: Social Security Is a Good Deal for Today’s Workers
Even if there were no reduction in benefits or increase in taxes—an impossibility given Social Security’s looming financing shortfalls—Social Security is an extremely bad investment for most young workers. In fact, according to a study by the nonpartisan Tax Foundation, most young workers will actually receive a negative return on their Social Security taxes— they will get less in benefits than they paid in taxes. Some studies indicate that a 30- year-old two-earner couple with average income will lose as much as $173,500. That actual loss does not even consider the opportunity cost, what workers might have earned if they had been able to invest their taxes in real assets that yield a positive return. In fact, a study by financial analyst William Shipman demonstrates that, if a 25-year-old worker were able to privately invest the money he or she currently pays in Social Security taxes, the worker would receive retirement benefits three to six times higher than under Social Security.

Has that answered your question?

  • You didn't address the survivor's benefits...
    – littleadv
    Commented Jan 10, 2013 at 6:05
  • 1
    @littleadv - agreed. Politics aside, SS is not a retirement plan. It's impossible for me to think of it as anything else, but then I'm reminded it has the survivor and disability components. We're never told what fractions each of these are. Commented Jan 10, 2013 at 19:07
  • @Joe exactly, and that was the reason I suggested the OP to consider paying FICA, not the retirement. SS is what it is - social security insurance. Retirement is only part of the social security scheme, and in many countries retirement SS benefits have nothing to do with the salary or taxes withheld, but rather with the current poverty line in the country.
    – littleadv
    Commented Jan 10, 2013 at 19:21

The social security administration has a webpage to get your Social Security estimate.

It replaces the yearly estimate they used to mail everybody. It shows the amount you paid for social security and medicare and what they estimate you will receive at your retirement age.

They also discuss disability benefits. Everybody should do this every year. Though it does take a few months to get the previous years numbers updated into the system.

If you notice a problem with the money they think you paid into the system in a particular year, you can send them an old W-2 and get the numbers corrected.

  • 2
    I doubt if it helps the OP as he never paid into the system. He's trying to figure out whether its worth his while to pay FICA this year.
    – littleadv
    Commented Jan 10, 2013 at 3:16

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