Millions of seniors rely on Social Security benefits to make ends meet in retirement. In fact, around one in four workers expects their monthly check to be their primary source of retirement income, according to a 2022 report from the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies.

Knowing how much you can expect to receive in benefits can make it easier to plan for retirement, and there are three factors that will determine your future benefit amount.

Stack of Social Security cards.

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1. The length of your career

To calculate your benefit amount, the Social Security Administration takes an average of your wages throughout the 35 highest-earning years of your career. That number is then adjusted for inflation, and the result is your basic benefit amount.

If you've worked fewer than 35 years when you begin claiming benefits, you'll have zeros added to your average to account for the time you were not working. That will reduce your earnings average and bring down your benefit amount.

2. Your career earnings

Your income plays a major role in the amount you receive from Social Security. The higher your income, the more you'll collect each month -- up to a certain point.

That point is the wage cap, which is the highest income subject to Social Security taxes. Once you surpass that limit, your benefit amount will not increase regardless of how much you're earning.

The wage cap changes from year to year to account for inflation, but for 2023, it will be $160,200 per year. The more you earn up to that point each year, the higher your benefit amount will be.

3. The age you begin claiming

You can file for Social Security benefits at 62 years old or any age thereafter, but the age you begin claiming will affect your monthly payments.

To receive your basic benefit amount (or the full benefit amount you're entitled to based on your work record), you'll need to wait until your full retirement age (FRA) to file. Your FRA will depend on your birth year, but it will fall somewhere between ages 66 and 67.

If you begin claiming before your FRA, your payments will be permanently reduced by up to 30%. But if you wait until after your FRA to claim (up to age 70), you'll receive your full benefit amount plus a bonus of up to 32% per month.

How to check your benefit amount online

Even if you're still years away from retirement, you can see an estimate of your future benefit amount by checking your Social Security statements online.

To do this, you'll need to create a mySocialSecurity account, if you haven't done so already. From there, you can check your earnings record and see an estimate of your projected monthly payment based on your real wages.

There are a few things to keep in mind when you check your benefit amount online:

  • Your actual benefit amount could be higher or lower. If you still have many years left in your career, your future earnings could significantly affect your benefit amount. It may be wise, then, to get into the habit of checking your benefit amount every few years to see how it's changed based on your income.
  • This estimate assumes you'll claim at your FRA. The estimate you see online is your full benefit amount based on your earnings record. If you end up filing before your after your FRA, it will affect the size of your monthly payments.
  • You won't see an estimate unless you qualify for benefits. To qualify for retirement benefits, you'll generally need to have worked and paid Social Security taxes for at least 10 years. If you don't qualify just yet, you won't see an estimate online.

Social Security benefits can go a long way in retirement, and by having at least a general idea of how your benefits are calculated, it will be easier to prepare for the future.