Social Security can make or break your retirement, particularly if your personal savings aren't quite where you'd like them to be. In fact, a good portion of retirees rely on their Social Security benefits just to make ends meet.
Nearly half (48%) of married couples and more than two-thirds (69%) of unmarried beneficiaries depend on their monthly checks for at least 50% of their income, according to the Social Security Administration. What's more shocking, though, is that 21% of married couples and 44% of unmarried retirees rely on Social Security for at least 90% of their retirement income.
Now, the average Social Security check comes out to roughly $1,300 per month. Those who don't have any other source of income may need every last penny they can get from Social Security. So it should come as no surprise that many Americans share a similar concern surrounding the future of the Social Security program.
Approximately 44% of Americans are worried that there will be a reduction in benefits sometime in the future, or that the program will be eliminated entirely, according to a survey from the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. While Social Security as a whole won't be going away anytime soon (as long as workers continue to pay their taxes to fund the system), there's a real possibility that your monthly checks may not be as big as you'd like.
Baby boomers are retiring en masse, which is putting strain on Social Security as more money is being paid out in benefits than is coming in from younger workers' taxes. As a result, the Social Security Administration estimates that the program may have to cut benefits by up to 20% by 2035 (assuming Congress doesn't come up with a solution before then).
So what does that mean for retirees? It means you could be in for a rude awakening if you're depending on your benefits to pay your bills. If you're already stretching your checks as far as possible, a 20% reduction could wreak havoc on your retirement plans.
While, again, Congress may come up with a solution before 2035, it may not be the wisest idea to leave your retirement in the hands of the government. In that case, you have two options: Increase your checks, or save more on your own so you're not so reliant on Social Security.
Fattening your monthly Social Security checks
How much you receive each month will depend largely on when you claim your benefits. If you want to receive 100% of the benefits you're theoretically entitled to, you'll need to wait until you reach your full retirement age (FRA), which is between age 66 and 67 for most people depending on the year you were born.
The most popular age to claim benefits is 62 (which is also the earliest you can claim), but by claiming that early, you'll face a reduction in benefits of up to 30% -- for life. If you wait until beyond your FRA to claim, though (up until age 70), you'll receive bonus money each month on top of your full amount to make up for the time you weren't receiving any benefits.
In theory, you should be receiving the same amount in benefits over a lifetime regardless of what age you claim; you'll either receive more smaller checks or fewer bigger checks. The math doesn't always work out perfectly, though, and if you know you'll be depending on Social Security for a decent chunk of your income, it may make sense to hold out for those bigger checks.
For example, say your FRA is 67, and if you claim at that age, you'll receive $1,300 per month. If you claim at 62, your benefits will be reduced by 30%, leaving you with $910 per month. Then, if your benefits are reduced by another 20% as a result of the Social Security deficit, you're left with just $728 each month.
On the other hand, say you waited to claim until age 70. You'd receive an additional 24% on top of your full benefit, so you'd see monthly checks of around $1,612. And if you're faced with cuts of 20%, you're still left with around $1,290. In other words, while reductions in benefits can still take a chunk out of your income, the impact won't hurt quite so much if you're receiving fatter checks to begin with.
An additional benefit of claiming later rather than earlier is that it gives you more time to sock money away in your retirement fund -- which is a good idea if your savings are sparse.
Taking retirement into your own hands
Social Security is designed to cushion your retirement savings, not be your sole source of income. Even if you can't save much on your own, building at least a small nest egg by the time you retire can lighten the load so you're not scraping by every month.
It's also easier than you may think to save for the future, but the key is to save early and often so that your money has more time to grow. Thanks to compound interest, you'll see a snowball effect with your savings -- the longer your money sits untouched in your retirement account, the more it grows. And if you start early enough, you won't need to contribute much each month to see significant gains over time.
For example, say you're 40 years old and want to retire at 70. You don't have anything saved yet, but you're just starting to put $100 per month in your retirement account earning a 7% annual rate of return. At that rate, you'll have roughly $113,000 stashed away by age 70. (Also, if your employer offers matching 401(k) contributions, you could potentially double that number with no extra effort on your part!)
On its own, that $113,000 probably won't go far in retirement. But combined with Social Security benefits, it can give you a little more financial wiggle room. If we use the 4% rule here (which says you can withdraw 4% of your savings the first year of retirement, then tweak those withdrawals each year after for inflation), you'll be able to withdraw around $4,500 the first year -- or $375 per month.
Again, that money alone won't be enough to live on. But in addition to your Social Security benefits, it can make it a little easier to pay your bills and still have a little left over to enjoy.
When you're planning for retirement, it's always a good idea to avoid putting all your eggs in one basket. Regardless of what Social Security looks like by the time you're ready to retire, you'll rest easier knowing that your retirement plans are as safe as possible no matter what life throws at you.