A lot of people just give up when it comes to figuring out how Social Security works. The ways in which married couples have to coordinate their benefit decisions in order to come up with the best possible strategies, for instance, can befuddle even experts in the Social Security system. The government's own Social Security workers get things wrong from time to time.

Fortunately, you don't have to understand all the ins and outs of Social Security to be able to get a good idea about how the program works. In fact, Social Security really boils down to three things, and they're pretty easy to grasp.

Brass key on top of three Social Security cards.

Image source: Getty Images.

1. The more you earn, the more you'll get

How much you get from Social Security when you retire depends on how much you earned during your lifetime. The higher your income was, the more you paid in Social Security payroll taxes, and therefore the more you'll be able to collect from Social Security when it comes time to retire.

Where things get more complicated is in determining an exact dollar figure for your benefits. Social Security is set up so that you won't necessarily get double the benefits if you earned double the income during your career. Instead, Social Security is progressively based, and so as your earnings go up, the rate at which your benefits go up decelerates. Those with double the income will get higher benefits, but they'll be less than twice the size of the lower-earning person's check.

2. Married couples can sometimes get extra money, but it's not a double dip

Single people without kids only have to worry about the retirement and disability benefits that Social Security offers. However, if you're married, then it opens up a whole new area of spousal and survivor benefits that makes navigating Social Security a lot harder.

In simplest terms, a married person can generally claim half of the spouse's full retirement benefit. Moreover, if the spouse dies, then the survivor can receive a benefit that's typically equal to whatever the deceased spouse was getting.

However, it's vital to understand that if you have your own retirement benefit as well, you can't just add the two numbers together. Usually, Social Security will give you the larger of the two benefits as a total payment. Moreover, with spousal benefits, nearly everyone has to claim their own retirement benefits at the same time they seek to collect spousal benefits. These rules keep people from double-dipping and getting more in benefits than the program is designed to pay.

3. It's easy to find the answers that you really need

None of the advice above will give you much insight into exactly what you can expect from Social Security. But the program makes it easy for you to get personalized information that relates directly to your own situation. Specifically, by getting online access to your Social Security statement, you can learn key facts like:

  • How much money you'll get in retirement benefits, including the differences that apply depending on whether you retire at 62, full retirement age, or 70.
  • What your spouse can get in spousal benefits based on your work record.
  • What your spouse and/or children would get if you passed away and left them survivor benefits.
  • What you and your family would get if you became disabled during your career.

The statement has to make assumptions about your future career, so you can't rely on the advance projections to be perfect. But they should give you a good sense of where you stand generally, and that can be valuable in assessing what you need to do outside of Social Security to ensure that you have a financially secure retirement.

Don't panic about Social Security!

Getting information about Social Security can be daunting. But if you understand just the three main points above, you already know a lot of what you most need to grasp as you approach your retirement years.

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