Your payout from Social Security and Medicare

Old Woman Hand on CaneA reader recently wondered what the average person could expect from Social Security, compared to the taxes we pay into the system.

Urban Institute has done the math, and recently released “Social Security and Medicare Taxes and Benefits Over a Lifetime: 2013 Update.” The institute figured out net present values of money paid in and paid out for various situations: single male and single female, one-earner family, two earner families. Spoiler alert: in most situations, people in the simulations pay more in Social Security taxes than they get back in benefits–but they get back vastly more Medicare benefits than they pay in taxes. Overall, benefits received exceed taxes paid. Here’s one example with a cogent comment from the Wall Street Journal:

Consider: A one-earner couple with a high wage ($71,700 in 2013 dollars) retiring in 2015 can expect lifetime Social Security benefits of $640,000. The same couple can expect to get $427,000 in lifetime Medicare benefits—while paying only $111,000 in Medicare taxes. The latter figures help illustrate how Medicare, in particular, is expected to strain future federal budgets.

The report, which you’ll find here, is interesting reading. Obviously, there are caveats. Nobody can know for sure what his or her Social Security “payout” will be, since a lot depends on longevity. And that brings me to the most important point: it’s really not about money in, money out.

Social Security isn’t an investment scheme. It’s insurance. (The formal name for what we know as Social Security is Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance or OASDI). It’s insurance against poverty, against outliving your assets, against a downturn in the market at the wrong time that could leave you with too little money on which to live. You still should save and invest as much as you can on your own, but Social Security provides a safety net in case things don’t go as planned.