Photo: kizzzbeth, Flickr

As you approach or just think about retirement, it's natural to wonder, "Will Social Security pay my bills?" The answer can be yes -- as long as your bills aren't too hefty. If you're making mortgage payments on a $700,000 house, for example, it will be difficult to get by on just Social Security. Still, plenty of people do manage to get their bills paid with Social Security money.

To get an idea of just how important and useful Social Security benefits are to many Americans, consider these statistics  from the Social Security Administration (SSA):

  • Fully nine out of 10 people aged 65 and up collect Social Security retirement benefits. That's close to 40 million Americans.
  • Social Security benefits make up roughly 39% of elderly Americans' total income, on average.
  • For many elderly Americans, it's much more than 39%, though: Social Security benefits make up 50% or more of the income of 53% of married people collecting Social Security -- and 50% or more for 74% of single people collecting it.
  • For a smaller subset, Social Security income accounts for 90% or more of their income -- about 22% of married beneficiaries and 47% of unmarried ones. (In other words, nearly half of single retirees collecting Social Security get 90% or more of their income from it -- that's a huge proportion.)

Source: Social Security Administration

Just how much can you expect?
So just how much are these folks getting? Well, consider these sobering statistics: The average Social Security retirement benefit was recently $1,344 per month, or about $16,000 per year. Clearly, that's not a lot of money, and it's not going to support anyone in any kind of lavish lifestyle. Still, it can be the difference between poverty and being able to pay your bills.

Remember, though, that that's just the average. It means, sadly, that many people receive less than $16,000 per year, but also that many people receive more.

The overall maximum monthly Social Security benefit for those retiring at their full retirement age was recently $2,639 -- or almost $32,000 a year. If your income throughout your working life was well above average, you can expect to collect more than that $16,000 in annual Social Security benefits -- though not more than $32,000. (By the way -- according to 2014 U.S. Census data, the median household income in the U.S. in 2014 across all jobs was $51,939.)

You can get a much clearer idea of how much to expect from Social Security in retirement from the Social Security Administration itself. It will send you a statement every few years with your expected benefits, but you can use its Retirement Estimator tool any time. You can also get a clearer idea of your expected benefits by setting up a my Social Security account with the SSA. 

If you have many bills, and they're big, Social Security likely won't be enough. Photo: Erich Ferdinand, Flickr

So: Will Social Security pay your bills?
Whether your Social Security check will be enough to support you in retirement will naturally depend on your expenses at that time. It's not a bad idea to take a few minutes and jot down what you expect those expenses to be -- then you can get a rough idea of how well Social Security might support you.

For context, here are some overall national averages, though your own costs may be very different:

  • The average American household spends about $2,127 a year on property taxes; those in states that levy vehicle taxes pay an additional $412 a year, on average.
  • The average 65-year-old couple will spend close to $250,000 on healthcare over the course of their retirement, per  Fidelity Investments data. The folks at Health View estimate  that a 65-year-old couple will spend an annual average of about $7,000 on healthcare -- though that figure will more than double by the time they're 85.

According  to a recent Consumer Expenditures Survey, annual spending generally falls as we get older, with annual expenditures averaging about $61,000 for those aged 45 to 54, $56,000 for those 55 to 64, $46,000 for those 65 to 74, and $34,000 for those 75 and older.

Source: Social Security Administration

What to do
Fortunately, how much of your expenses you'll be able to pay with Social Security is not entirely out of your control. There are many things you can do to improve the numbers. For starters, you'll make your Social Security benefits bigger if you delay collecting them. For every year that you delay from your normal retirement age (which is 67 for many of us these days) to age 70, you can make your eventual payments 8% bigger. Delay from 67 to 70 and you'll get checks that are 24% bigger, which can make a big difference. (True, that means collecting fewer checks overall. Starting to collect as early as age 62 or at your normal retirement age will mean checks as much as 25% smaller, but more of them.)

You can also strategize by planning, in retirement, to live in a smaller home or perhaps move to a more affordable part of the country -- one with lower taxes and modest utility, food, and insurance costs. You can plan to have your home paid off so that you don't have to make mortgage payments in retirement. You can help your kids to be self-supporting, so that they won't require much financial help from you in retirement.

You might also just save aggressively and invest effectively over the years, in order to have additional income streams from dividends, interest, annuities, or some other assets.

Plan ahead, though, and you may well be able to pay your bills with Social Security.