The median amount that U.S. workers have saved for retirement is just $50,000, according to a recent report from the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. Even among baby boomers -- the generation that is currently in the midst of retiring -- the median worker only has about $144,000 socked away. For many, that amount of money likely will be depleted after just a few years in retirement.

Fortunately, Social Security benefits will provide retirees with a steady income stream to supplement whatever they have saved. Unfortunately, many people underestimate just how much they'll wind up depending on those monthly checks in retirement.

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Social Security's role in retirement

Half of America's pre-retirees expect Social Security benefits to be a major source of income for them in retirement, a 2019 survey by the Society of Actuaries found. However, among those who actually are retired, 64% say Social Security provides a major share of their income. In other words, a significant fraction of them overestimated the amount that other sources would contribute to their budgets. If you're not smart about planning for retirement, there's a fair chance that you too may end up depending on your benefits more than you expect to.

There are two main problems with relying too heavily on Social Security, however. First, the program is only designed to replace around 40% of your pre-retirement income -- it's not meant to cover the lion's share of your budget in retirement. Additionally, there's a chance that benefits could be reduced for everyone in the not-so-distant future.

The program will soon begin distributing more money than it takes in, at which point it will start rapidly drawing down on the Social Security Trust Fund. Based on current forecasts from the SSA Board of Trustees, that fund could run dry as early as 2034, at which point benefits would have to be cut by nearly 25%. That's assuming that Congress doesn't agree on a solution to the program's cash shortage problem before then.

If Social Security winds up being your top source of income in retirement, these potential cuts could significantly affect your lifestyle. But regardless of what happens with Social Security down the road, it's a good idea to be prepared for anything.

Preparing for retirement without Social Security

Even if there are cuts to Social Security, you'll still be able to depend on your benefits to some degree. However, it's smart to plan for retirement with the goal of having Social Security benefits make up a relatively small portion of your income.

The obvious way to reduce your dependence on the government's pension program is to save and invest more in your retirement savings accounts. That's not always easy, but the sooner you start, the longer you'll have to take advantage of the power of compound growth. So start early, and make a habit of combing through your budget to see if there are areas where you can cut back, enabling you to route more cash into your investments. You may need to make some sacrifices, but those can set you up for a more financially secure retirement.

In addition, you may consider waiting a few years longer before filing for Social Security. Americans can claim their benefits as early as age 62, but you'll receive less money each month if you do so. The longer you wait to file for benefits (up to age 70), the bigger your checks will be. Not everyone will be able to wait that long to begin claiming, but if you can swing it, delaying benefits can be a smart option to boost your annual retirement income.

Social Security is an important factor to consider when preparing for retirement, but it's equally important to make sure you're being realistic about how much you can rely on your benefits to provide. By beefing up your savings and maximizing your monthly checks, you can ensure you're as prepared as possible for retirement.