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Can an Average Couple Live on Social Security Alone?

By Daniel B. Kline - Updated Oct 18, 2019 at 6:59PM

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Your payments will vary, but it's important to know just how far the average benefit will go.

It's very hard to make ends meet if you plan to live on Social Security alone. It's possible, but it's not a situation you want to put yourself in, because living solely on your Social Security check means making sacrifices in where you live, what you eat, and whether you spend money on things many people consider basic necessities, like internet, cable, and even air conditioning or heat.

If you have no retirement savings, however, it's a little easier to get by if you're part of a couple simply because your biggest expense -- housing -- does not double; living either alone or with one other person basically costs the same amount of money.

Sand runs through an hourglass with coins on the table beside it.

The best thing you can do is start saving now. Image source: Getty Images.

How little are we talking about?

The average individual collects $1,471 a month in Social Security. The average retired couple took in $2,340 a month in 2018, according to the Social Security Administration, as my Motley Fool colleague Todd Campbell reported.

Note that the average couple only saw its total check increase by $869. That's likely a function of the fact that many women in the current generation of retirees left the workforce to raise their children and therefore contributed less money to Social Security over the course of their working lives and earned a smaller benefit.

Totaled up, $2,340 a month is $28,080 a year, well below the median annual pay of $54,179 earned by the average American worker. If you only have $28,080 a year to spend, you will have to pick and choose your expenses -- and keep them below what the average American household spends in a number of key areas, according to a 2018 Motley Fool article:

  • Housing: $18,886
  • Food: $7,023
  • Personal-care products: $707
  • Clothing: $1,803
  • Entertainment (cable included): $2,913
  • Transportation: $9,049

Obviously, a retired couple might be able to cut some of these costs. Having one car and not commuting to work might, for example, slash your transportation costs, and moving someplace that's inexpensive can lower your housing costs.

One major expense -- healthcare -- is not listed above because it's not entirely fair to compare younger and older people in this area. Still, even with Medicare, it's possible (maybe even likely) that retired couples will have to factor medical expenses into their budgets.

You can, but you would not want to

A couple living on an average combined Social Security payout has it easier than an individual does. That's a bit like saying for a novice, Mount Everest is an easier climb than Mount Kilimanjaro. You don't want to find yourself in a situation in which you have to live on $2,340 a month.

To avoid that, you can do a number of things. The first, of course, is to save money. That's an easier proposition for younger folks than those close to retirement, but it's always better to have some money saved, even if by most estimations, you would have not enough.

If you are older, the best way to increase your payout is to delay your retirement until you turn 70. Essentially, people who retire at 62 receive a reduced benefit, while those who wait until 66 or 67 (it depends upon when you were born) get the full amount, and those who retire at 70 get an extra 8% for each year they wait up until age 70. That means that someone born between 1943 and 1954, making him or her eligible to retire at 66, can earn an extra 32% a year just by waiting.

The most important thing for anyone to do, regardless of your age, is to take action now. Start saving, make a plan to forestall retirement, and/or begin cutting your expenses now. Social Security is meant to be part of your retirement plan, not the majority or total of it.

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