Social Security benefits are an important component of your retirement income, but not everyone realizes just how vital they really are.

Only 39% of Americans say they expect to rely on their monthly benefits to make ends meet in retirement, according to a survey from Provision Living. At first glance, that might sound like good news. After all, if the majority of workers don't think they'll need Social Security to get by, that must mean their savings are in good shape.

However, most workers aren't as prepared as they might think, and that can be dangerous in retirement.

Stacked Social Security cards.

Image source: Getty Images.

Most Americans aren't preparing enough

Even though less than half of Americans expect to rely on Social Security benefits in retirement, the average worker is woefully behind on their retirement savings.

The average baby boomer expects they'll have around $228,000 saved by the time they retire, the Provision Living survey found. That might sound like a lot of money, but the average adult age 65 and older spends approximately $46,000 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. At that rate, that $228,000 will only last around five years. Even if you can get by on a modest, say, $30,000 per year, you'll only be able to make it around a little over seven years before you run out of money.

If your savings end up falling short in retirement, you're not alone. A good number of retirees find themselves in the same boat, and they ultimately depend on their Social Security benefits for the majority of their income. In fact, 50% of married couples and 70% of unmarried beneficiaries rely on their monthly checks for at least half their retirement income, according to the Social Security Administration. Even more concerning is that 21% of couples and 45% of unmarried retirees depend on that money for at least 90% of their income in retirement.

Social Security benefits aren't designed to be your sole source of income in retirement, but they can help you afford a more comfortable lifestyle. The key is to figure out how much you can safely rely on your benefits without putting your retirement at risk.

Factoring Social Security into your retirement lifestyle

Your benefits are only designed to replace around 40% of your preretirement income, so you won't be able to rely on your checks to cover all your bills throughout your golden years. And considering the average beneficiary only receives $1,471 per month in benefits, it will be tough to survive on Social Security alone.

That being said, it's OK to depend on your benefits for a portion of your income in retirement. Just be sure you're saving enough on your own so that you have enough to cover all your expenses.

To figure out how much you can rely on Social Security benefits, first estimate how much you expect to spend each year in retirement. Next, create a mySocialSecurity account, if you haven't already, to check your statements and get an estimate of how much you can expect to receive in benefits based on your real earnings. That will give you an idea of how much you'll need to save on your own. For instance, if you think you'll be spending $50,000 per year in retirement and will be receiving $20,000 per year in Social Security benefits, that means the other $30,000 will need to come from your savings (assuming you don't have access to a pension or other source of income).

Also, it's a good idea to err on the side of caution when you're determining how much you can depend on your benefits. Social Security is on shaky ground right now, and although the program itself won't collapse, there is a chance that benefits might be reduced in the next few decades. If you're going to be depending on that money just to pay the bills, you might be in for a surprise if your checks are smaller than you expected.

To combat that problem, one option is to delay claiming Social Security benefits. You'll receive the full benefit amount you're entitled to if you claim at your full retirement age (FRA), which is either age 66, 67, or somewhere in between. But if you wait until after that age to claim (up until age 70), you'll receive extra money each month on top of your full amount -- for the rest of your life. So if you can swing it, delaying claiming might be a good way to permanently increase the size of your monthly benefits.

Social Security benefits are more important than you may think, especially if your savings aren't as strong as you'd hoped they'd be. Even if you don't think you'll be heavily relying on your benefits in retirement, it's a good idea to think about how far your personal savings will go and determine how much help you'll receive from Social Security. The more prepared you are going into retirement, the more comfortable your golden years will be.