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Is Social Security in Trouble?

By Maurie Backman – May 11, 2019 at 8:18AM

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The quick answer: Yes, but all is not lost.

Things aren't looking particularly rosy for Social Security. According to the latest Trustees Report, the program's trust funds targeting retirement and survivor benefits are set to run dry in 2035. Once that happens, the program will only have enough money to pay 80% of scheduled benefits unless Congress intervenes with a fix.

For seniors who get the bulk of their income from Social Security, this clearly isn't good news. Furthermore, it's a problem for workers today without retirement savings -- and there are plenty of them. An estimated 42% of U.S. adults aren't setting money aside for retirement, which means that any sort of hit on the Social Security front could be disastrous.

Close-up of senior man with serious expression.

IMAGE SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES.

But while it's easy to start panicking over the fact that Social Security may be deep in the throes of an unsolvable financial crisis, the fact of the matter is that those benefits by themselves were never designed to sustain retirees in the first place. So while Social Security is in a bit of trouble, today's workers can ramp up their savings game to avoid getting hurt.

Save for your own future

Even if Social Security benefits aren't reduced in the future, they still won't suffice in buying you a comfortable retirement. Right now they're designed to replace about 40% of the average earner's pre-retirement income. Most seniors, however, need somewhere in the ballpark of 70% to 80% of their former earnings to live comfortably.

And when you think about the expenses you'll face in retirement, that makes sense. Most of your living costs won't go away once your career comes to an end. You'll still need somewhere to live, a means of transportation, healthcare, and clothing. You'll still have to pay for utilities, and you'll still need to eat. To live on 40% of what you're used to, therefore, would require you to make some serious changes -- and sacrifices -- that could render you miserable when you're older.

A better bet? Start saving independently for retirement so you're less reliant on Social Security. Currently, workers under 50 can contribute up to $19,000 a year to a 401(k) or $6,000 to an IRA. Those 50 and over, meanwhile, can set aside up to $25,000 in a 401(k) and $7,000 in an IRA.

Now, if you're not in the habit of saving for retirement, you clearly aren't about to start maxing out a 401(k). But if you're able to save $500 a month over the next 20 years, and invest your savings at an average annual 7% return (which is doable if you load up on stocks over a longer period of time), you'll have $246,000 for your golden years. That's actually not a ton of money in the grand scheme of what could be a 30-year retirement or longer, but it's certainly better than nothing, and it could be just enough to compensate for the hit on Social Security benefits that may eventually come to be.

Of course, that reduction in benefits is by no means set in stone. There are a lot of seniors today who can't afford that type of hit, and so it's in lawmakers' best interest to step in and prevent countless beneficiaries from plunging into poverty-level territory. But if you're not yet retired, it's best to face the reality that Social Security won't sustain you during your golden years on its own, regardless of whether benefits are cut. The sooner you start saving to plan for that, the less likely you'll be to struggle in retirement.

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