When it comes to Social Security, expectations rarely line up with reality. Younger workers often assume they won't get any money from the program because it will have disappeared by the time they're of claiming age. While this is a stressful thought, it's not particularly dangerous.
Older adults, on the other hand, tend to be a little too optimistic when it comes to Social Security. The average working adult 50 and older expects they'll get about $1,572 per month from Social Security, according to a recent Nationwide survey, but the reality for retirees 50 and older currently claiming Social Security is only $1,380 per month on average. A $192 difference may not seem like that big of a deal, but it can create a real problem over the course of a retirement. Here's why.
The dangers of being too optimistic about Social Security
People factor what they expect to get from Social Security into their retirement plans, so if their Social Security estimate is off, it could derail everything else. Underestimating Social Security isn't a big issue, but overestimating can cause you to save far less money on your own than you actually need to cover your retirement expenses.
In the above example, older workers guessed they'd get $192 more per month than actual retirees claiming Social Security are receiving. Over a year, that difference adds up to over $2,300, and over 20 years, that adds up to over $46,000 less. Retirees who expected to receive a larger sum will have to find a way to trim back their expenses or bring in some additional income in retirement or they won't be able to afford all of their bills.
Then, there's Social Security's uncertain future to consider. It's been in trouble for a while, with the latest Social Security Trustees' Report predicting the trust funds would be depleted by 2035, and the pandemic could move that date up to as soon as 2029, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center.
That doesn't mean Social Security will disappear at this point. But benefit cuts are possible if the government doesn't come up with another way to increase funding to the program. That means future Social Security checks could be worth even less than they are today, placing a larger burden on your personal retirement savings than there already is.
How to get an accurate idea of your future Social Security benefits
Social Security benefits are different for everyone based on how much they earned during their working years. The best way to know how much you can expect from the program is to create a my Social Security account. This is where the Social Security Administration tracks how much you've earned each year and generates projections on your monthly Social Security benefits at various starting ages.
This is a good jumping-off point when determining how much money you'll get from Social Security, but there are a few caveats to keep in mind. First, the estimates in your account often assume that you'll keep earning the same amount annually every year from now until your retirement. If your income increases or decreases significantly, that will have an effect on your monthly benefit checks, but you won't know how much of an effect it will have until it actually happens.
Also, the estimates are based on the current Social Security benefit formula and they don't take into account future benefit cuts. So if you want to be on the safe side, you may want to assume you'll get a little less from Social Security than what your account says. The latest Social Security Trustees' Report predicted that the program could continue paying out 76% of benefits after the trust funds were depleted, so if that worst-case scenario happens, the government could cut benefits up to 24%.
The best thing you can do is to save as much as you can on your own and check in with yourself at least once per year. Review your estimated Social Security benefits and make small adjustments to your monthly savings amount if you're worried about running short. We can't predict what the future will look like next month, let alone in 20 or 30 years, so regularly reviewing your plan is the surest way to keep yourself on track.