Americans of all ages are worried about Social Security -- specifically, that it won't be around by the time they're ready to start collecting benefits. This especially holds true for pre-retirees aged 50 to 64, according to data compiled by Gallup last year. And while the program isn't in danger of completely going away, workers have plenty of good reasons to be concerned about it.
Will Social Security cut benefits?
The latest Social Security Trustees Report, which was released in April 2019, painted a pretty bleak picture of the program's future. Specifically, it warned that Social Security's trust funds, which are needed to bridge an impending gap between what the program can afford to pay in benefits and its actual expenses, will likely be depleted by 2035. At that point, an across-the-board reduction in benefits can't be ruled out.
As of now, it's looking like seniors might face a 20% cut in their retirement benefits. That's better than not getting any benefits at all, but it's far from ideal, especially given the number of recipients today who use Social Security as their sole or primary source of income. But that 20% is only an estimate, and as those trust funds start to run out, that percentage could increase. And while lawmakers are working to avoid such a scenario, it's too soon to tell whether they'll be successful.
Don't bank on those benefits
Regardless of whether Social Security is reduced in the future, one important aspect of the program that gets lost on so many people in that those benefits are really just a means of poverty protection; they're not designed to provide enough income for a comfortable retirement. If benefits aren't cut in the future, the average worker today can expect Social Security to replace about 40% of his or her pre-retirement income. If benefits are cut, it'll replace an even smaller percentage.
Most seniors, however, need around 70% to 80% of their former earnings to live a comfortable lifestyle -- meaning, to have enough money to pay for essentials like housing, food, transportation, and healthcare, but to also have a little extra income for modest luxuries like cable and leisure. Even if Social Security doesn't undergo cuts, those benefits still won't provide that level of replacement income.
That's why it's imperative that today's workers, including near-retirees, save independently for their golden years rather than rely too heavily on Social Security. The good news? Those with enough time between now and retirement can amass some pretty substantial wealth without having to make too many sacrifices at present. Case in point: Setting aside $250 a month over a 40-year period will result in about a $600,000 savings balance for someone whose investments generate an average annual 7% return during that time (and that's more than doable with a stock-heavy portfolio).
Those who are closer to retirement will clearly need to do better if their goal is to build a decent chunk of wealth before bringing their careers to a close. But in that case, saving $2,000 a month for 15 years will also produce about a $600,000 nest egg, assuming that same 7% return. And socking away $2,000 a month is possible for older workers with a 401(k), since those 50 and over can contribute up to $25,000 a year and reap some tax savings in the process.
The fact that Americans are worried about Social Security is understandable. Those losing sleep over a potential drop in benefits, however, would be best served taking savings matters into their own hands. That way, if benefits are reduced, they won't end up struggling to nearly the same degree, if at all.