Social Security operates as an income replacement formula, with higher benefits for those who work for more years. As a result, benefits are very limited for those who don’t work for very many years, and are much higher for those with a full working career.
To avoid confusing those who haven’t worked very many years yet – but plan to – the standard Social Security benefits statement projects out anticipated future Social Security benefits based on the assumption that the individual will continue working until retirement. Which allows the individual to understand what Social Security benefit they are “on track for” as they continue to work until full retirement age. Except, of course, that not everyone actually plans to work until full retirement age!
For those who intend to retire early, the end result is that the Social Security Administration’s projected benefits calculation may turn out to be substantially higher than what someone will actually receive if they retire early, and never actually work as many years as anticipated. The lower someone’s lifetime earnings overall, and the earlier he/she retires, the more dramatic the impact can be, commonly reducing benefits by 5% to 10% when retiring early, and potentially far more for “extreme” early retirement. Although the impact is also substantially affected by whether recent earnings were higher or lower than their long-term average… and whether they’ve already paid into the Social Security system for at least 35 working years (or not).
Ultimately, the reality is that Social Security benefits aren’t actually reduced for those who retire early – they simply stop accruing additional benefits when they stop working. But given that Social Security projects the assumption of work until full retirement age, it’s crucial to recognize that actual benefits may be lower for those who retire early – even if they wait until full retirement age to actually receive those benefits. In the end, that may not stop a prospective early retiree from making the decision to stop working – and notably, continuing to “work” even after retirement can continue to increase benefits as well – but at a minimum, it’s crucial to take a moment and look at the individual’s inflation-adjusted historical earnings, to understand whether or how much of an impact not working to full retirement age may actually have on projected benefits!