The average Social Security benefit for retired workers is $1,417.22 per month, as of September 2018. This adds up to a total of just over $17,000 per year. How far that will get you depends on the cost of your living expenses. The Social Security Administration claims that the program is meant to replace about 40% of pre-retirement income for average earners, but it may cover more or less than that for you, depending on your pre-retirement earnings.

If you'd been hoping for a little more help from the government in retirement, there's good news. There are things you can do to boost your Social Security checks and lessen the burden on your own retirement savings. I'll discuss these below, along with why you shouldn't rely too heavily on Social Security.

Senior woman thinking

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How Social Security benefits are calculated

Your Social Security benefit is based on your average monthly earnings during the 35 highest-earning years of your life. If you haven't worked for 35 years, then zeros will be factored into your score, which will bring down the average considerably. So one of the easiest ways to boost your benefits is to make sure you're working at least 35 years. More is even better, because then your lower-earning years will be replaced by higher-earning years, helping to raise your average.

You can begin claiming Social Security at 62, but you won't get your full benefit amount if you start this early. You don't become eligible for your full scheduled benefit until you reach your full retirement age. This is 66 or 67, depending on when you were born. If you start at 62 and have a full retirement age of 66, you will only get 75% of your benefit amount per check. Those with a full retirement age of 67 will only get 70% per check.

If you want the maximum benefit amount per check, consider delaying Social Security past your full retirement age. If you wait until age 70 to start claiming, you will be entitled to 124% of your scheduled benefit amount if your full retirement age is 67 or 132% if your full retirement age is 66.

The uncertain future of Social Security

You may have heard rumors that Social Security is going bankrupt. This is not true, but it is true that the trust funds for the program are slated to run out of reserves in 2034 unless changes are made. No one knows for sure what these changes will look like, but possible suggestions include reducing benefits, raising the full retirement age, and reducing the program's cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs), which help its value keep up with inflation. If any of these ideas are carried out, Social Security could lose some of its value and retirees will have to rely even more upon their own retirement savings to cover their expenses.

It's crucial that you understand how much you need for retirement and make regular contributions to your retirement accounts in order to keep yourself on track. Once you've estimated your retirement expenses, you can subtract what you expect to get from Social Security to figure out how much you need to save on your own. You can use the above average as an estimate or create a my Social Security account for an accurate idea of how much your Social Security benefit will be based on your work record.

If you want to be on the safe side, you should aim to save a little more than you think you need in case the value of Social Security does decrease. But the program is not going to go away. If you take the steps I mentioned above to boost your benefits and you're saving on your own, you may not have any trouble covering your expenses in retirement.