Social Security benefits are a major source of income for many retirees, but there are a few misconceptions about the program. Some soon-to-be retirees are worried that the program is going bankrupt and benefits will soon be a thing of the past, while other workers expect their monthly checks to cover all their expenses in retirement.
The truth is that Social Security isn't quite so black or white. Retirees can depend on their benefits during their senior years, but only to a degree. And while benefits won't be eliminated entirely, there is a chance they could be reduced.
So just how much can you rely on your monthly checks in retirement? It depends on a few factors.
The future of Social Security
Social Security is on shaky ground, but the situation isn't as dire as some people may think. The Social Security Administration (SSA) uses money from payroll taxes to pay out benefits. However, between baby boomers retiring in droves and retirees living longer, there's not enough money coming in from taxes to cover all the benefits that need to be paid out.
To fill this gap, the SSA has been tapping its trust funds so that retirees' benefits aren't cut. These trust funds are expected to run dry by 2035, however, so at that point, the only money available to pay out in benefits will be what comes in from payroll taxes. And according to the SSA Board of Trustees' latest estimates, those taxes will only be enough to cover around 75% of future benefits.
What exactly does this mean for future retirees? It means unless Congress finds a solution to the problem before 2035, there is a chance benefits could be reduced once the trust funds are depleted. But as long as workers continue paying their payroll taxes, there will always be some money to pay out in benefits. In other words, there's no need to be concerned about benefits being eliminated in the future, but be prepared for the chance that you may receive less than you'd hoped.
How much can you realistically rely on your benefits?
Cash shortage aside, Social Security was never designed to be retirees' sole source of income. In fact, for the average worker, benefits are only intended to replace around 40% of a person's pre-retirement income. Additionally, the average retiree receives just over $1,500 per month in benefits or around $18,000 per year. For many older adults, that's not nearly enough to make ends meet.
The age you begin claiming can also affect how much you receive in benefits. If you claim earlier than your full retirement age (FRA) -- which is age 66, 66 and a certain number of months, or 67, depending on the year you were born -- your benefits will be reduced. For example, if your FRA is 67 and you claim as early as possible at age 62, your monthly checks will be permanently reduced by 30%.
Claiming early could mean you'll be able to rely on your benefits even less in retirement -- especially if Social Security faces cuts in the next few decades. However, you can also delay benefits past your FRA to earn extra money each month. If your FRA is 67, for instance, and you claim at age 70, you'll receive your full benefit amount plus an additional 24% every month. Those bigger checks can go a long way, and they can also provide some extra cushion in case benefits are reduced in the future.
You may not be able to depend on your benefits to cover all your expenses in retirement, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't factor Social Security into your retirement plan. While there is a chance benefits will be reduced in the future, your monthly checks won't disappear completely. By going into retirement knowing how much you can expect to receive from Social Security, you'll be more prepared.