For millions of retirees, Social Security benefits are indispensable income. The average beneficiary receives $1,503 per month, and close to a quarter of married couples and half of unmarried beneficiaries rely on their checks for at least 90% of their retirement income, according to the Social Security Administration (SSA).
But changes to the program could be imminent, and some of them may affect how much future retirees receive in benefits. Some changes are more likely than others, so make sure you watch out for these three potential adjustments.
1. Full retirement age may increase
Your full retirement age (FRA) is the age when you'll collect your full benefit amount if you wait until then to begin claiming, and it depends on the year you were born. The earliest you can begin claiming is age 62, but if you claim any earlier than your FRA, your benefits will be reduced.
If you're turning 62 in 2020, your FRA is 66 years and 8 months. Those turning 62 in 2021 will have an FRA of 66 years and 10 months, and if you turn 62 in 2022 or later, your FRA is 67.
There is a chance, though, that the FRA may continue to increase as a way for the Social Security program to save money. One option is to continue gradually raising the FRA past age 67 for those turning 62 in 2023 or later, according to a proposal from the Congressional Budget Office. That could mean that if you were born in 1978 or later, you may have to wait until age 70 to reach your FRA, and by claiming before that age, your benefits could be reduced.
These are still proposals at the moment, so for right now, your FRA is either 66, 67, or somewhere in between. But keep in mind that you may need to wait longer than you think to reach your FRA in the future.
2. There could be benefit cuts by 2034
There's a lot of buzz surrounding the Social Security program right now, especially regarding its cash shortage. It's true that the program is running out of money. It's not going away, so you'll still receive some money in benefits. But you may not receive as much as you'd expected.
The SSA uses money from payroll taxes to fund benefits. But with older workers retiring in droves and retirees living longer, there's currently more money flowing out of the system in benefits than coming in from taxes. In addition, with tens of millions of people being laid off due to the coronavirus pandemic, that has exacerbated the problem because there's even less money coming in from payroll taxes.
To ensure it's still able to pay out recipients' promised benefit amounts, the SSA has dipped into its trust funds to cover the gap. But those funds are expected to run dry by 2034, according to the SSA Board of Trustees' latest projections. When that happens, the SSA will have to depend on payroll taxes to pay benefits, and those taxes will only be enough to cover around 76% of projected benefits. In other words, if Congress doesn't step in and make changes, you could see your benefits reduced by roughly 25% by 2034.
3. Means-testing may affect your future benefits
To solve the SSA's cash shortage, one option is to raise taxes so there's more money coming in to fund benefits. Another option, though, is to employ means-testing.
Means-testing is the idea of paying out benefits based on who needs them the most. The SSA could implement income limits for beneficiaries, and if your annual income exceeds a certain limit, your benefit may be reduced or even eliminated. That would reserve more cash to go toward lower-income beneficiaries who rely on their monthly checks to survive in retirement.
While politicians have thrown around the idea of means-testing for years, implementing this concept would be a monumental task for Congress. It's anybody's guess whether this idea will ever come to fruition, but if means-testing does become law, the wealthiest retirees may see their benefits reduced or eliminated altogether.
Social Security has faced its fair share of turbulence, but there could still be more changes on the way. By understanding these potential adjustments and preparing for retirement accordingly, you can ensure you're not caught off guard if they become a reality.