More than 60 million Americans rely on the income that Social Security provides, and tens of millions more are counting on Social Security to help them make ends meet in the future when they retire or if they become disabled. Not only do workers get valuable benefits, but spouses and other family members can also receive money from Social Security.

It can be hard to understand the full range of benefits that Social Security pays. To help make things simpler -- and to give you the chance to verify key information that the Social Security Administration collects about you and your benefits -- it's crucial to check your Social Security statement on a regular basis. The beginning of a new year is a great time to get the latest information about what you can expect from Social Security.

Blue Social Security card slipped into a pile of $20, $50, and $100 bills.

Image source: Getty Images.

How to get your Social Security statement

It used to be that the SSA sent out Social Security statements by mail on a regular basis. At one point, you could expect to receive a mailing each year, but funding constraints led the SSA to reduce that in the early 2010s to once every five years. More recently, the agency made more dramatic cuts, and so now, only those who are 60 or older and not yet receiving benefits will get a Social Security statement in the mail.

However, the SSA has moved most of its information online, and by signing up for its online service, you can get access to your Social Security statement via the internet whenever you want. The SSA calls its program "my Social Security," and it's intended to give you a central point to manage your benefits and get the information you need. To sign up, all you need is some key personal information for identification purposes, and you'll need to provide an email account that the SSA can use to set up the account. Before you know it, you'll be able to see your Social Security statement.

Understanding your Social Security statement

Your Social Security statement is designed to be as easy to understand as possible. Prominently displayed is the following information:

  • How much your retirement benefit is projected to be if you claim Social Security at full retirement age, at age 70, or at age 62.
  • How much you'd receive in disability benefits if something happened to you during the current year.
  • How much your spouse, children, and other eligible beneficiaries could receive in survivor benefits if you pass away in 2019
  • Your complete earnings records, which includes annual earnings for every year for which the SSA has information about your wages, salary, or other compensation that was subject to Social Security payroll taxes.
  • A summary of the amount of withholding taxes you've paid into Social Security and Medicare, as well as the share your employers have paid on your behalf.

Along with these numbers, you'll get an explanation of what assumptions the SSA made in coming up with the figures. For instance, one typical assumption is that your earnings over the past couple of years are likely to continue at or near their present level for the foreseeable future. If that turns out not to be the case, then your benefit estimates could be considerably different from what your statement says. However, to give you a ballpark figure to start your own retirement planning, the numbers on the Social Security statement do a good job.

How to get help

Another benefit of signing up for the online "my Social Security" program is that you can use it to keep the SSA up to date. If there's a problem with errors on your earnings history, you can correct them, thereby protecting yourself from an unfair reduction in your benefits. You can also get a replacement Social Security card using the online system, saving yourself the need to visit an SSA office near you.

You'll also find helpful information about Social Security in general. If you have questions about benefits you're entitled to receive or a notice you get from the SSA, you can find out what you need to know by using the program as well as the SSA's full website.

Check your Social Security statement today

Given how important Social Security is, you owe it to yourself to know the latest about your benefits. Even if you're years away from retirement, checking your Social Security statement early each year is a great way to stay on top of what you've earned from the program and what you can expect from Social Security for planning purposes.

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