Q: I took my Social Security in Jan 2011 at age 65 1/2 and have continued to work full time. By the end of this year, I figure I will have contributed around $5,500 into Social Security in each of the past four years. Knowing I made more money in recent years than I did in the prior years—the years on which my Social Security was based—I expected a readjustment, but my benefits didn't change. My local Social Security office told me that any readjusting would have been done automatically in January. Then last month I got a letter stating that my check will increase by $1 per month, attributed to the 2013 year. What about 2011 and 2012? Nice return on $5,500! Do I have any recourse? Don
A: First off, I agree that it is very hard to keep paying into Social Security after you've started receiving benefits and not feel like you're getting anything out of it. I think payroll taxes should be reduced for people who have reached full retirement age (it's 66 now and will rise to 67 for people born in 1960 and later). Doing this would benefit workers and also give employers an incentive to hire older workers. To say the least, I am not holding my breath waiting for such changes to be enacted.
The specifics of how your future benefits are affected by your recent earnings is all about how Social Security calculates your earnings base. Social Security keeps track of all your covered earnings (earnings on which you paid Social Security payroll taxes) during your working life. Each year, it applies an index factor to your earnings to adjust them for the wage inflation that has occurred since that year.
In this way, money earned during 1985, for example, carries the same weight in calculating your Social Security benefits as money earned in 2005 or 2010 or 2014. This indexing stops when you turn 60; any earnings after that age are included in your earnings record on an unadjusted basis. Because of wage inflation, it's quite likely these later-age earnings will raise your benefits.
The agency uses your highest 35 years of earnings to determine what it calls your Primary Insurance Amount (PIA), the benefit you'd get if you began collecting benefits at your full retirement age, which in your case is 66. If you do not have 35 years of eligible covered earnings, the agency enters a zero for each "missing" year. So, for example, if you had only 20 years of covered earnings, Social Security would calculate your benefit by using the earnings for those 20 years, adding 15 zeroes, and using this average to determine your PIA. (The PIA is also used in determining benefits to your spouse or former spouse that are based on your earnings record.)
Now, even though your earnings have been increasing, it's possible they would not become one of your new top 35 earnings years. And even if they did, they might not raise your earnings base very much.
Perhaps you already have obtained your earnings record from Social Security. If not, you can get your earnings record at the Social Security website. It's also possible, but a lot of work, to use this record to compute your earnings base.
The only recourse I can suggest is to take your earnings record to a Social Security office and ask a representative to walk you through it to make sure you're being properly credited for your recent work history.
I hope this helps—though I realize my suggested remedy may only lead to more frustration for you. Best of luck.
Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. His book, “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security,” will be published in February by Simon & Schuster. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.