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Advice on how to prepare for life after government.

Social Security’s Top 10

I had the pleasure this week of interviewing Lester Austin, longtime public affairs specialist at the Social Security Administration. He was a guest on the Federal News Radio show that I co-host with Bob Leins of the National Institute of Transition Planning called "For Your Benefit." Austin was full of helpful information about Social Security and Medicare. (An archived version of the show is available online.)

What struck me about Austin was his enthusiasm for and dedication to the job of providing information about Social Security. That includes helping veterans being treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center understand benefits they could be entitled to, and working to help victims of natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and events like the Sept. 11 attacks get what they need to apply for benefits.

I was fascinated to learn about the ways Social Security reaches out to Americans. Austin told us he had a change of clothes in the car for his evening assignment at the Montgomery County (Md.) Agricultural Fair, where he would be staffing a booth.

Austin said he was especially proud of the services available on Social Security's Web site. That gave me the idea of writing my own Top 10 list of helpful information on the site. Do yourself a favor and pick one of the items below to expand your knowledge about the largest insurance program in the world.

  1. Find out whether Social Security really is a Ponzi scheme. There's a superficial analogy between pyramid or Ponzi schemes and pay-as-you-go programs like Social Security, in that money from later participants goes to pay the benefits of earlier participants. But that's where the similarity ends.
  2. Use a handy online calculator to estimate your future benefits. You can create different scenarios depending on when you want to retire and how much you think you'll earn in the future.
  3. Get fact sheets on a wide variety of topics, including the windfall elimination provision, the Government Pension Offset, how your retirement benefit is figured, survivor benefits and how to correct your Social Security record.
  4. Learn some history. If nothing else, it's interesting to find out that Ernest Ackerman got the first payment in 1937 -- 17 cents.
  5. Find answers at an extensive and up-to-date frequently asked questions catalog.
  6. Watch a webinar or video to learn more about Social Security, including how to apply for benefits online.
  7. Learn about the Disability Insurance Program.
  8. Get special information if you're currently receiving benefits, such as taxes paid, getting benefits outside the United States, and what to do when someone dies.
  9. Find out how to apply for Medicare.
  10. Apply for Social Security benefits online. Austin says the process takes less than an hour -- a far cry from the days of gathering all available information about your personal history and making a trip to the local Social Security office to take a number and wait in line.

Tammy Flanagan has spent 30 years helping federal employees take charge of their retirement by understanding their benefits. She runs her own consulting business at and provides individual counseling as well as online training for the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, Plan Your Federal Retirement and the Federal Long Term Care insurance Program. She also serves as the senior benefits director for the National Institute of Transition Planning Inc., which conducts federal retirement planning workshops and seminars.

For more retirement planning help, tune in to "For Your Benefit," presented by the National Institute of Transition Planning Inc. live on Federal News Radio on Mondays at 10 a.m. ET on WFED AM 1500 in the Washington-metro area. Archived shows are available on

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