retirement

What Is the Social Security COLA?

For the average recipient, the 2021 monthly increase won't even cover a fill-up at the gas station — but it beats nothing.

Update: See our latest Social Security COLA forecast for 2022

The Social Security Administration has announced that benefits will increase by 1.3% in 2021. That is the smallest cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) since 2017 — but consider that, earlier this year, thanks to pandemic-induced price gyrations — retirees were looking at the prospect of no 2021 increase at all.

The estimated average monthly Social Security benefit payable in January 2021 will increase from $1,523 in 2020 to $1,543 — that’s one Andrew Jackson. The average monthly benefit for a couple who are both receiving benefits will rise $33, from $2,563 to $2,596. And the maximum Social Security benefit for a worker retiring at full retirement age will increase from $3,011 per month to $3,148, an additional $137.

Also, more of workers’ income will be subject to the Social Security tax in 2021. The Social Security tax will apply to the first $142,800 of earnings, up $5,100 from $137,700 in 2020.

COLAs are calculated using the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (similar to, but not exactly the same as, the urban dwellers’ consumer price index used in inflation reporting). If prices don’t increase and even fall, the COLA is zero. That happened in 2010 and 2011, as the economy struggled to recover from the Great Recession, and again in 2016, when plummeting oil prices swept away any chance of a COLA for that year.

How Is the 2021 Social Security COLA Calculated?

As mentioned, any COLA adjustment is driven by changes in the wage earners’ consumer price index. National average prices are used, not regional. SSA also calculates the percent change between average prices in the third quarter of the current year with the third quarter of the previous year. The reason the fourth quarter isn’t used is because that number is typically not available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics until mid-January, and the SSA has to make its adjustment on January 1.

History of Social Security COLA Adjustments, 2009-2021

  • 2021: 1.3%
  • 2020: 1.6%
  • 2019: 2.8%
  • 2018: 2.0%
  • 2017: 0.3%
  • 2016: 0%
  • 2015: 1.7%
  • 2014: 1.5%
  • 2013: 1.7%
  • 2012: 3.6%
  • 2011: 0%
  • 2010: 0%
  • 2009: 5.8%

Most Popular

11 Good Reasons to Cancel Amazon Prime
Budgeting

11 Good Reasons to Cancel Amazon Prime

You probably aren't using most of the perks tucked into that $119 annual fee -- which you don't need to pay to get the free Amazon shipping you crave.
April 13, 2021
2021 Child Tax Credit Calculator
Tax Breaks

2021 Child Tax Credit Calculator

See how much money you'll get in advance under the new child tax credit rules for 2021.
April 14, 2021
Monthly Payments of the 2021 Child Tax Credit Will Begin in July
Coronavirus and Your Money

Monthly Payments of the 2021 Child Tax Credit Will Begin in July

After doubts about whether it was up to the task, the IRS says it's on schedule to start sending monthly child tax credit payments this summer.
April 13, 2021

Recommended

14 Social Security Tasks You Can Do Online
retirement

14 Social Security Tasks You Can Do Online

Why visit a government office to get your Social Security business done? You can do much of that online.
April 2, 2021
Social Security Earnings Tests: 5 Things You Must Know
social security

Social Security Earnings Tests: 5 Things You Must Know

If you’re still working and claim Social Security early, your benefits could be reduced, at least temporarily.
April 14, 2021
Social Security Recipients Are Finally Getting Their Third Stimulus Check
Coronavirus and Your Money

Social Security Recipients Are Finally Getting Their Third Stimulus Check

The IRS is finally sending third stimulus check payments for Social Security and other federal beneficiaries who didn't file a 2019 or 2020 tax return…
April 13, 2021
10 Questions Retirees Often Get Wrong About Taxes in Retirement
retirement

10 Questions Retirees Often Get Wrong About Taxes in Retirement

You worked hard to build your retirement nest egg. But do you know how to minimize taxes on your savings?
April 7, 2021