There's a reason workers of all ages are worried about Social Security. The program is facing some serious financial challenges that, if left unaddressed, could result in major benefit cuts in the future. And while the Social Security Trustees Report released earlier this year painted a less-than-favorable picture, new research from the University of Pennsylvania indicates that the situation may be even worse than the trustees think it is.
The main issue boils down to Social Security's trust funds running out of money. Once that happens, recipients can expect a reduction in benefits unless Congress intervenes with a fix. According to the trustees' report, those funds will be depleted come 2034, but Penn's researchers think it will happen two years earlier -- in 2032.
The reason? Social Security gets the bulk of its funding from payroll taxes. That's why the program will still manage to cover the bulk of its scheduled benefits even after its trust funds run dry. But due to expected economic conditions over the next decade and beyond, we may see a reduction in the size of the wage base used to finance the program. That means Social Security will have to draw more heavily from its trust funds, thereby depleting them sooner.
Of course, there's a difference between Social Security reducing its benefits versus not paying them at all. And to be clear, we're talking about the former scenario here, not the latter. Still, for the millions of seniors who depend on Social Security for the bulk of their retirement income, losing any percentage of those benefits could be financially catastrophic.
All of this underscores one key thing: the importance of saving for retirement independently. Relying too heavily on Social Security is basically a recipe for disaster, and the sooner more workers realize that, the more empowered they'll be to salvage their future.
Take matters into your own hands
Contrary to popular belief, Social Security was never designed to sustain retirees by itself. In a best-case scenario -- meaning no future cuts in benefits -- it will replace about 40% of the average worker's pre-retirement income. Most seniors, however, need about double that amount to cover their expenses, especially when we consider that common living costs like housing, transportation, food, utilities, and healthcare don't necessarily drop when workers retire. And that's precisely why you need your own savings to pick up where Social Security leaves off.
If you still have a number of working years ahead of you, you have a great opportunity to build your own nest egg. Currently, workers under 50 can contribute up to $18,500 a year to a 401(k) and $5,500 a year to an IRA. Those 50 and over, meanwhile, can contribute up to $24,500 annually to a 401(k), and $6,500 to an IRA.
So let's imagine you don't have access to a 401(k) through work, but rather, you manage to max out an IRA between the ages of 30 and 65 at today's limits. Assuming your investments grow 7% a year on average during that period, you'll be sitting on $785,000 to use in retirement. And that will buy you some breathing room in the face of Social Security cuts.
Another option? Extend your career. These days, Americans are living longer, which means that if you're hoping for a 20-year retirement, you might easily get one even if you end up putting in another few years in the workforce. In the above scenario, if you were to retire at 70 rather than 65, all the while continuing to max out your IRA, you'd wind up with $1.14 million. Additionally, you'd get the option to hold off on filing for Social Security past your full retirement age, thereby growing your benefits.
Regardless of what the future holds for Social Security, if you don't want to worry about how the program is faring financially, take charge of your retirement income rather than sitting back and relying on those benefits. At this point, it's too soon to know whether benefits will be reduced and just how much of a hit retirees will take. What we do know, however, is that there's ample opportunity to save independently, and the sooner you start, the more money of your own you stand to accumulate.