Social Security is a key program that pays benefits to tens of millions of Americans each and every month. Nearly everyone can expect to get Social Security payments at some point during their lifetimes, and the financial security that the program offers, both to retired workers and to those who become disabled during their careers, can be extremely valuable in helping them make ends meet. Yet there's a lot that people don't know about Social Security.

To help spread the word, the Social Security Administration (SSA) has declared April National Social Security Month, and the agency believes that now's the right time to do some retirement planning. In particular, the SSA has five things it's urging people to do in order to prepare for retirement and understand exactly how Social Security can help them get there.

Two Social Security cards sitting atop a $100 bill.

Image source: Getty Images.

1. Get to know what Social Security offers you and your family

Most people think of Social Security solely for the retirement benefits it pays, and it's true that the vast majority of Social Security recipients are older Americans who collect benefits based on their work histories. Yet the SSA sees the program as a lifelong support network, with most newborns receiving Social Security numbers soon after birth and immediately becoming eligible for the protection that children's benefits offer if something happens to their parents. When you start working, you also typically begin building an earnings record that will result in eligibility for Social Security benefits.

Life events, like getting married and having children, highlight the family benefits that the program offers. If you become disabled during your career, disability benefits can kick in that can offer financial support to you and your family. Finally, if you suffer the death of a spouse or parent, survivor benefits can provide much-needed protection from financial problems. Understanding everything that Social Security offers is crucial if you want to take maximum advantage of the program during your lifetime.

2. Make sure the SSA has your earnings correct

The SSA keeps records of your earnings history in order to calculate your benefits correctly. Social Security payments are based on the top 35 years of your earnings after indexing for inflation, so accurate information is critical to avoid getting less than you deserve.

In order to check your earnings history, the SSA urges Americans to create what's called a "my Social Security" account, where you'll find your personal information and can check to ensure its accuracy. If there are mistakes, you'll have the chance to contact the SSA to have the situation fixed.

3. Get an estimate of how much you'll receive from Social Security

Calculating your benefits can be tricky. However, the SSA provides a number of calculators and other tools to help you estimate what your Social Security income will be under various situations.

Some of these tools are simple, letting you enter basic information to see how changing circumstances can affect your benefits. Others use your actual earnings record and then extrapolate your likely income into the future in order to give a clearer picture of what your particular benefits are likely to be. By knowing what to expect, you can plan the rest of your retirement savings strategy, setting aside money in IRAs, 401(k)s, and other retirement accounts to ensure that you'll have enough financial resources to retire comfortably.

4. Learn how to apply for benefits

Applying for Social Security used to be a hassle that involved trips to local SSA offices and long interviews. Now, the SSA's online system makes applying for benefits much easier. Moreover, what many people don't know is that you can apply not just for retirement or disability benefits, but also for Medicare using the SSA's online application system. That makes things as convenient as possible for those seeking benefits.

5. Keep the SSA informed of changes

Finally, the SSA wants you to understand the need to manage your benefits over your lifetime. If you move, need to change your payment or direct deposit information, or want a benefit verification letter for credit purposes, then the SSA offers those options. You just have to keep up and ensure that Social Security can keep track of you and be there when you need it.

Be smarter about Social Security

It's always a good time to learn more about Social Security, but April's special status makes it easier than ever to start making the program part of your long-term financial planning. By following these five steps, you'll get a much better understanding of what Social Security will bring to the table when you need it.