E-Government Tool Reviews: SSA's Retirement Estimator Calculator

Reviewed by Kristin Conlin:

In an attempt to dispel my long held assumption that social security benefits would run dry by my official retirement, I investigated the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) Retirement Estimator Calculator. This simple tool was nested within the Retirement Planner section of the SSA’s website inside the text of the tutorial on financial planning. The purpose of the calculator is straightforward enough -- it is designed to provide the user with an estimate of their anticipated social security benefits based on their income, paid social security (which is relative to their income), and the age the user plans on retiring. Yet this tool cannot be found on the main page of the SSA’s Retirement Benefits page. To use the Retirement Planner tool, the user must navigate through the tutorial on financial planning for retirement.

Possibly due to an administrative error, the Estimator Calculator tool’s address is not hyperlinked and must be pasted into a new window to be used.

 

Once the new page is loaded, and the link to the tool is discovered farther down the page, it is a short, 3 step process to determine my potential future social security benefits. A simple biographical request form must be submitted as well as my current annual income, but the resulting page provides 3 options for retirement as well as what the options provide financially:

 

 

What this tool does not volunteer is the generalized nature of the information provided. Through additional investigation of other pages on the SSA website, I was able to find a muchmore informative tool on benefits confusingly named, “Calculators: Online Calculators”. This Calculator applet differentiates itself from the simple Retirement Estimator Calculator tool that was just described as well as the more detailed calculator that must be downloaded to the user’s computer. The applet appears to provide another method of calculating retirement income. All three tools provide the user with basic information on retirement income from social security benefits, but none claim to provide an accurate answer. The applet specifically stated, “for the most accurate estimates, use the Detailed Calculator or Retirement Estimator”. The applet goes one step further and advertised another applet produced by Employee Benefit Research Institute called Ballpark E$timate.

While the Retirement Estimator Calculator satisfies my topical curiosity on retirement benefits, it is doubtful that the generalized answer will provide any useful information for Americans nearing retirement age. The multiple sources that all point away from their attributes and redirect the user to another tool is misleading and frustrating. The estimated amount of social security benefits received is helpful for financial planning purposes, but a user would be hard pressed to trust the tool that points away from itself for accurate estimates.

Kristin Conlin is an MLS student at the University of Maryland iSchool