Don't Count on Social Security

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President Obama recently warned that Social Security checks were not guaranteed to be paid in the event the debt ceiling does not get raised before August 3. Regardless of whether he meant it -- or if it was mere political posturing -- it underscores yet another problem with the Social Security system: It's not your money.

When all is said and done, your projected Social Security benefits are simply not your property. The Supreme Court has twice ruled that, in fact. You're simply assessed a tax based on your income and then may get something back in the form of a payment, should you live long enough and/or otherwise qualify -- and if funding remains available.

Add it to the list
So now, not only do you have to worry about:

... but you also need to worry about whether your benefits will be cut simply because of politics. The lesson in this is abundantly clear: Don't count on Social Security. Absent significant changes, its own trustees doubt its long-term solvency, and as the President warned, the benefits may be at risk as soon as next month.

Invest your money in your future
Whether it happens next month, the 2036 target that Trustees currently estimate for its trust fund to evaporate, or somewhere in between, Social Security is on track to reduce its payments. If you were counting on it to help fund your retirement, you essentially have two options:

  • Save enough extra of your own assets to cover your anticipated income gap.
  • Reassess your anticipated costs of living to determine what you can live without.

How much you need to replace depends on your specific circumstances, of course. For the sake of discussion, though, the average Social Security retiree received $1,181.59 this month, or an annualized rate of $14,179.08. If you believe the Trustees' version of the future, once the Trust Fund expires, Social Security will continue to pay out about three-quarters of its expected benefits.

In that scenario, the average retiree would need to cover around an additional $3,544.77 per year, inflation adjusted from today's dollars to their actual date of retirement. Based on the 4% rule, it means you'll need to save around an additional $88,619.25 in today's dollars to cover for Social Security's expected long-run shortfall.

If you're already aggressively saving for retirement, that's not an insurmountable additional hill to climb. If you haven't yet started, however, today's current politics-driven threat to Social Security should provide yet another incentive to help you get started.

Where to invest
If you're a firm believer that American ingenuity will triumph in spite of current political wrangling, you may still be willing to invest in America-centric funds. In that case, you might want to consider from among the following:

  • SPDR Trust (NYSE: SPY  ) : an ETF that tracks the S&P 500 index, 500 of the largest and most liquid companies headquartered in the US.
  • Vanguard's Total Stock Market ETF (NYSE: VTI  ) : an ETF that tracks the MSCI US broad market index, covering about 99.5% of the market of U.S.-headquartered listed securities.
  • iShares Russell 2000 Index ETF (NYSE: IWM  ) : an ETF that tracks the Russell 2000 index of small-cap U.S. stocks.
  • iShares Barclays TIPS Bond Fund (NYSE: TIP  ) : an ETF that holds Treasury Inflation Protected Securities, which are U.S. government bonds that are intended to hold their value in inflation-adjusted terms.

If, on the other hand, you think the rest of the world will benefit from America's malaise, an ETF like Vanguard's FTSE All World ex-US (NYSE: VEU  ) may be more to your liking. Then again, if you like the idea of one-stop global diversification but aren't ready to completely throw America to the curb, there's always Vanguard's Total World Stock Market (NYSE: VT  ) ETF.

You'll notice, though, that bonds got the short shrift in that list, with nary a mention other than the inflation-protected variety. Right now, Treasuries are priced to perfection and giving you a better chance at "return-free risk" than at anything resembling decent inflation-adjusted returns. In that kind of environment, long term Treasury funds like SPDR Barclays Capital Long Term Treasury (NYSE: TLO  ) can be quite risky, indeed.

If you still want to own bonds, beware of that risk. To help mitigate it, consider short durations, TIPS, or look for bonds ones with adjustable rates, which should provide some protection against rates rising in response to inflation.

Own your own future
Thanks to both the short- and long-term risks to the Social Security system, securing your own successful retirement falls more on your individual shoulders today than it has in generations. No matter how you invest your money, one of the best benefits may be knowing that it is yours and not subject to the political whims of the day.

At the time of publication, Fool contributor Chuck Saletta did not own shares of any ETF mentioned in this article. The Fool has created a ratio put spread position on iShares Russell 2000 Index. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended shorting iShares Russell 2000 Index. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Read/Post Comments (12) | Recommend This Article (14)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On July 19, 2011, at 3:06 PM, prginww wrote:

    Chuck,, you makes as much sense as saying dont count on oil supplies to be around for much longer.. Our economy is largely ruled by oil and natural gas with coal to a lesser degree. Investors are still wedded to those fossil fuel assets because of high safety without regard to the effects of high prices on our economy as well as all of our budgets ranging from individual to government level. We are still entrusted to the producers and their assuances that they will do all they can do to replenish the supplies . Actually we are importing oil as everyone already knew for past half century.. Quite interestingly, it is a parallel story as our economy start to fall apart right after the first embargo in 1973.. it was not as serious at first but gradually over the decades, things keep getting worse to this day when our government finallyis starting to teeter on default. Why ? Because investors are not willing to reallocate capital away from fossil fuel assets and toward other more "intelligent and sensible" assets that can enhance energy conservation as well as new energy resources.. Fossil fuel prices still keep rising and rising ... This is how Social Security is collapsing.. I dont think it willdo any of you much good to attempt to save some extra to supplement your threatened SS checks.. As youknow that fossil fuel prices keep rising, they will keep on destroying additional assets elsewhere that youhad invested in... maybe one day, Hollywood will cease to exist... Then maybe General Electric will lower the boom.. and so forth... There is one glaring example of our neglience, ALCOA! Why ALCOA? It makes aluminium a vital material for solar thermal energy , a limitless source of energy that can trump fossil fuel assets .. Photovotlaics isnot going to match solar thermal energy by a long shot. We are just unwilling to make much more new aluminium for apparently misguided enviromental reasons.. Environmentalists are totally wrong about aluminium! Simple as that.. Or that investors are doing all they can to protect fossil fuel assets from competition like aluminium and solar thermal energy that can hold the key to the renaisssace of America !

    Laugh all you want!!

  • Report this Comment On July 19, 2011, at 3:11 PM, prginww wrote:

    Social Security reducing benefits is clearly linked to fossil fuel prices... very clear!! If ou want to protect your social security income, use less oil, natural gas and coal... The money you save and spend elsewhere will go around and contribute more to Social Security coffers than through oil , gas, and coal ! This is modern Economic 101... Fossil fuel assets are the black hole of Social Security!!

  • Report this Comment On July 19, 2011, at 3:25 PM, prginww wrote:

    Also, I can point to credit card companies like Amex, Visa, MC , Discover, etc they are robbing us blind with fees, nose bleeding interest charges, etc.. Where dothe money go ?? to investors who can live without Social Security checks... Yes there is many people who think they can live without Social Security checks and that they think Social Security taxes are an unnecessary burden on them... Actually, many private companies are carrying own private "Social Security " or pension plans.. I am not talking about Keogh plans or 401K plans.. It is a complicated story but they are clearly attempting to dismantle Social Security for good. We need to increase solar thermal energy by spending trillons to harness the Sun! It is so huge out there ! Big Oil andnatural gas will become very small players in energy.. We need aluminium to do that.. Most people are still misinformed aboutaluminium as if it is only useful as soda cans or jets... There is so much more to aluminium that make our economy much bigger and better able to support necessary government programs.. Some of us just dont want to be bothered with solar energy as fossil fuel assets is too attractive and self destructive to our economy that we like to have.. How do we convince investors to reallocate a portion of their investments in fossil fuels and move them to aluminium and solar thermal assets? I am sure that many of them dont realize how destrucitve fossil fuel assets are to our economoy if they are continued to be invested in for higher prices! and bigger earnings and so forth... Oil, natural gas and even coal is finite reserves as well as very destructive to our evironment and health... They are bad investments that can be compared to tobacco, greasy burger joints, vices, etc Oil , natural gas, and coal is NO GOOD OVER THE LONG TERM, PERIOD!

  • Report this Comment On July 19, 2011, at 3:30 PM, prginww wrote:

    Why is it that car makers is losing money making fuel inefficient cars while Big Oil is reaping profits from buyers of inefficient cars made by our carmakers? This is utter nonsense!! To make matters worse, UAW is constantly messing with carmakers and shareholders all the times.. Why are we still owning car stocks afterall they benefits Big Oil not carmakers at all. We might think that we make right investments but look around us.. our economy, governments, families are already falling apart.. we are doing almost everything wrong except still making capital gains on those very wrong investment assets that continue to wreak havoc on ourselves.. We ignore assets that dont make money like alumiium but aluminium can realy save our economy by harnessing the Sun for almost limitless solar thermal energy .. Our economy, government, families need stable energy resources with stable prices as a bedrock for our prosperity.. Big Oil, Gas, Coal can not do that anymore because they are already too big and so destructive to the enviroment and they are already piling up liabilites on our very own backs without having to pay for it themselves... Investors love Big OIl for that.. We ought to whip them on the backs daily until they understand what they are really doing !!

  • Report this Comment On July 19, 2011, at 3:38 PM, prginww wrote:

    Ialready know that oil , gas, coal investors really dont care as long as they are making gains !! for themselves.. Some of them will be caught up in other misfortunes as results of their misinvestments.. The others will just move on to new counerproductive investments that keep paying well... They just cant care any les.s as they are so incapable of that.. Whatisthe use ! Social Security can collapse much sooner than the experts are saying right now if we continue to allow Big Oil, Gas, Coal call the shots without being challenged by solar themral energy which holds infinite amounts of energy that can really downsize Big Oil,Gas, Coal!! Investors know that and they arenot going to help ..The green energy movement is already veering off course by infiltrating disrupters coming from Big Oil, Gas , Coal .. They are using damage control to minimize the impact on Big oil, gas and coal earnings by weaking green energy technologies or delaying them or elminating them outright.. Aluminium can be one of those being under assault! to keep aluminium from growing and helping our economy. it is not all about this quarter earnings and price to earning ratios and future growths.. It is all about rebuilding our economy first above of all.. We are not going to rebuild our economy on oil , gas and coal again and anymore.. They will become minor energy resources in the future if we do things right ..

  • Report this Comment On July 19, 2011, at 3:42 PM, prginww wrote:

    I may make readers frown a bit and probably start tothink that I am crazy about my aluminium argument . They might decide to avoid ALCOA for good.. Let me remind them that coudlnt care any less aboutwhat they might think of what I am saying above.. They has to own up to the fact that big oil, gas , coal had been up to no good for our economy for past half century, If they think they can find some greener energy assets elsewhere , Imean, no oil, natural gas and coal, fine withme,, go ahead! I still have the trump card with "ALUMINIUM" PRINTED ON IT... You can all pretend to do away withit.. suit yoruself!!

    go do as youdamn please!!

  • Report this Comment On July 19, 2011, at 3:45 PM, prginww wrote:

    If you choose to wait until I am dead or gone before you start investing in aluminium. You should stop and think about the lingering damage and upheavel that is contniuing on this very day and forward.. How much longer can you afford to wait me out? I will never know but I know that you are just wasting your capital and other people 's capital as well. I am simply staring at you all in total disbelief!! you are all insane!!

  • Report this Comment On July 19, 2011, at 4:23 PM, prginww wrote:

    I have never hoped to receive money from Social Security. It is a Ponzi scheme directed by professional politics. I have taken "advantage " of tax deferred retirement plans (IRA's, 401k's ) but now I realize that one cannot escape the long arm of the Government.. He that gives can takeaway.. Last year our government spent 40% more than it took in and financed that overspending by persuading the Federal Reserve to buy our treasury bonds.. The Fed bot 70% of the bonds sold this year. China, Japan and individuals have a concern about the safety and yield (1%). At the next auction if not enuf buyers show up the price goes down and the interest paid will go uo INFLATION. Solution..By execxutive order the President can require that 25% of monies in any tax deferred pension plan be invested in treasury bonds. They know where these funds are , we have to tell them on April 15 of each year. This would only be done to protect us from those RASCALS on Wall Street. Problem solved. The government can now live off your IRA account(This would enclude union and teachers retirement funds)

  • Report this Comment On July 19, 2011, at 7:13 PM, prginww wrote:'s an investment site for Heaven sake.

  • Report this Comment On July 20, 2011, at 9:38 AM, prginww wrote:

    I've been saying for years that SS is the biggest Ponzi scheme around. I'm glad to finally see it in electronic print.

  • Report this Comment On July 20, 2011, at 1:29 PM, prginww wrote:

    I find it so amusing that some readers are swallowing the myths about Social Security.. Granted, some people are biased against contributions to Social Security coffers for their own selfish reasons like already having other retirement incomes from different sources much simiilar to NIMBY mentality.. like you are here first and you want no more people coming to join you.. Social Security commissioners are doing a shoddy job of guarding the coffers over the past decades.. AARP is too slow to wake up and fight even though it is advetising themselves as a fighter for Social Security. Most is not understanding how Social Security is constantly undermined over the decades by external factors like rising oil prices, lack of economic growth on intent, job outsourcings, etc.. It has been a systemic dismantling of Social Security all along. More successful people are considering Social Security as non essential to

    their retirement plans while the average Joe Six packs are so clueless about how their economic behaviors contributes to the destruction of Social Security.. Nobody is really protecting the Joe Six Packs..

  • Report this Comment On July 20, 2011, at 10:06 PM, prginww wrote:

    Ross Perot put out graphs 19 years ago, showing Social Security could NOT mathematically survive long when baby-boomers reached retirement age.

    The Social Security "surplus" turned to deficit yearly a while back, and with Medicare changes enacted by Obama, the transfer of wealth at present rates and those projected soon will cause mass chaos in the economy. We MUST change their current trajectory, if America's government is to survive.

    This isn't earth shattering news, but something investors have had plenty of time to digest, at least two decades running.

    What are our leaders doing to help Americans save and invest in their own futures? Oh that's right, Americans are punished daily, weekly, monthly and yearly for saving money with ZERO for interest rates, and a weak stock market for 11 years running, my bad. The imbalances in the economy are growing daily, as we become Greece x 50. Our debt problems will only get more difficult to deal with as time passes.

    With a structural deficit running at 9%-10% of GDP, and using a standard economic theory multiple of 2 or 3 for the effective impact on reductions in fiscal spending in the economy, we will have to REDUCE the size of the overall economy by 20% or more to balance things and find an equilibrium or sustainable economy for our kids. Massive tax increases, spending cuts and inflation are 100% guaranteed for the next 5-10 years. I don't know how we can skirt around reality much longer.

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