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"Your benefits are based on your average lifetime earnings." I thought that benefits were based on the highest 30 years of your earnings. Which is it? (Or is it something else altogether?)

SSA uses the highest 35 years of SS-taxable income, but the calculations are more complex than that. First they translate older years' earnings (5+ years old) into current dollars. Then they apply different formulae to 3 (IIRC) income brackets. It's similar to progressive taxation: there's a proportionally higher return on lower income levels. This is because the system was designed to keep elders out of poverty--higher earners are more likely to have significant savings and pensions. As an example, my husband earned twice as much as me on average over the years, but I'll get 70% of his SS benefit if we apply at the same time against our own records.

Those who had increasing earnings over the years can work longer to replace lower earning years with higher numbers for a bigger benefit (you fall into that category as a professor). Those who lost a high-paid job in their 40s or 50s and then got a part-time/lower-paid job (like my husband), aren't helped much or at all by working longer at the lower-paid job. Then again, people like me, worked minimum-wage jobs in early years, then a SAHM for 10 years, then enjoyed increasing income but retired early, would increased their benefit by working longer. I have some zeros in my SS calculations as I worked fewer than 35 years.
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