Social Security serves as a financial lifeline for millions of retired seniors. But most of today's workers are doubtful those benefits will be around once it's their time to retire.

In a newly released Northwestern Mutual study, only 20% of Americans think it's extremely likely that Social Security will be around in the future. This means that the overwhelming majority of workers have their doubts about the program's long-term viability. The question is: Are they right?

Social Security is facing challenges

Though Social Security isn't currently in danger, its future is somewhat dubious. That's because come 2034, the program's trust funds are expected to run dry, and once they do, Social Security's incoming tax revenue won't suffice in keeping up with scheduled benefits. This means that future beneficiaries can anticipate major cuts if Congress doesn't intervene with a viable fix -- something it's failed at to date.

Social Security cards


Now the extent to which future benefits are slashed under this sort of scenario are up for debate. Currently, the projection sits around 23%, which means future beneficiaries might only collect 77% of what they'd otherwise be entitled to. And given the number of seniors who rely on those benefits in the absence of independent savings, that's definitely not a good thing.

On the other hand, we can choose to look at this from a positive angle. As of today, Social Security's anticipated worst-case scenario is nothing more than a 23% reduction in benefits, which means future recipients will still collect the bulk of what they're eligible for. So while it's understandable for the public to have its doubts about Social Security, those who are ready to give up on it may, in fact, be jumping the gun.

Then again, forgetting about Social Security isn't such a bad thing, either. And if more people do it, they might actually take steps to save for the future, which is something we all need to be doing in the first place, regardless of whether those benefits actually come through for us.

Take control of your retirement

If you're among the bulk of Americans who are ready to write off Social Security, here's some reassuring news: Those benefits were never designed to fully cover your senior living costs in the first place. Rather, Social Security currently replaces about 40% of the average worker's preretirement income. Most folks, however, need double that amount, if not more, to pay the bills during their golden years. That's why saving independently is crucial -- regardless of what the future has in store for Social Security.

Here's some more good news: You don't need to set aside a huge chunk of your paychecks to attain some financial security down the line. If you start putting money away early enough in your career, you can turn a series of relatively small contributions into a sizable nest egg over time.

The following table illustrates this concept more thoroughly:

If You Start Saving $200 a Month at Age:

Here's What You'll Have by Age 65 (Assumes an 8% Average Annual Return):
















You can't help but notice the difference between kick-starting your savings efforts at 25 or 30 versus doing so 10 or 20 years later. Furthermore, the above table assumes a fairly modest monthly contribution of $200 -- not a life-changing amount. But if you're willing to save more, you'll end up with more. It's that simple.

Of course, the longer you delay your savings efforts, the less you stand to gain from investing. In our example, saving $200 a month starting at age 25 means forking over a total of $96,000 in out-of-pocket contributions. Yet over 40 years, that amount has the potential to grow into $622,000 if we apply an average yearly 8% return on investment, which is more than feasible with a stock-heavy portfolio.

Of course, if you've already been working for many years and have yet to start building a nest egg, which is the case for numerous Americans, then you'll obviously be looking at a narrower savings window, in which case you'll need to ramp up your contributions going forward to make up for lost time. But even so, you still have a pretty decent opportunity to establish some level of savings, which is critical regardless of Social Security's ultimate fate.

We don't know what the future holds for Social Security. Maybe we'll collect most of our benefits, or maybe they'll face further cuts as things evolve. But one thing's for sure: Independent savings are a must no matter what happens to Social Security, and the sooner more people accept that, the better off they'll be down the line.