Social Security plays a critical role in the retirement plans of millions of Americans. The program pays each qualified retiree based on either his or her unique earnings record or the record of that person's spouse. While that customized payout model helps better tie Social Security's benefits to the taxes a person paid into the system, it makes it outright impossible to predict what your benefit will be.

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Nobody -- not even Social Security itself -- knows for sure what you'll get until you actually file for benefits. Still, the Social Security Administration is in a great position to provide you with its very best estimate and is happy to do so.

How to get your personalized estimate of your Social Security benefit

The fastest way to get your hands on your personalized Social Security estimate is by creating a "My Social Security" account via this link. Once you create the account, you can access your most recent Social Security statement, which shows you the best available estimate of what you'll get.

Image source: Social Security. 

In addition to your estimated benefit, the statement shares what your earnings history looks like, what would happen if you collect early or late, and what survivor benefits are available if you pass away. On top of that useful financial data, the statement does include a warning about the pending shortfall of Social Security funding and how that puts a portion of your benefits at risk. 

What if you don't want online access to your Social Security account?

If due to privacy, identity theft, or other concerns you don't want online access to your Social Security account, you can block it through this link. If you do so, nobody -- not even you -- can retrieve your Social Security data online.

If you block online access, you can still get a copy of your statement via mail. Simply fill out form 7004 (available here) and mail it into Social Security at the address provided on the form. Within four to six weeks, your statement should arrive. In addition, if you don't have a Social Security online account, Social Security will mail you your statement at ages 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 50, 55, and 60 or older, up until you begin collecting.

Know what you can expect from Social Security

While Social Security provides the foundational retirement benefits for millions of Americans, the typical retiree currently receives $1,350 per month from the program. Over time, benefits will likely grow at about the rate of inflation, and the program is facing a massive financing shortfall that will cut benefits to about 79% of expected levels in 2034  if nothing is done about it. Your specific benefit is based on your or your spouse's earnings record, but in general, benefits run about that level and the program's shaky financial footing affects all Americans.

With your benefit information in hand, you can better figure out how much additional money you'll need to cover your expected costs in retirement. With that, you can start to build the plan that can take you to and through a comfortable retirement.