For millions of retirees, Social Security benefits make the difference between enjoying a comfortable lifestyle and struggling to make ends meet. In fact, nearly one-quarter of married couples and close to half of unmarried beneficiaries depend on their monthly checks for at least 90% of their retirement income, according to the Social Security Administration.

However, Social Security may not be as reliable as it once was, and there's a chance benefits could be reduced or even eliminated entirely in the relatively near future. That could spell disaster for current and future retirees, but there are ways to create a more financially secure retirement regardless of what happens to Social Security.

Social Security card

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Benefit cuts could be looming

Social Security has been struggling for years, and benefit cuts aren't necessarily a new concept. What's worrisome, though, is that benefits could be reduced sooner than expected.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) relies primarily on payroll taxes to pay out benefits. But with older Americans retiring in droves and also living longer lifespans, there's currently more money being paid out in benefits than is being collected in payroll taxes. As a result, the SSA has been dipping into its trust funds to cover the deficit.

Those trust funds are quickly running out of cash, and earlier this year the SSA estimated that the funds would be depleted as soon as 2034. At that point, the money coming in from payroll taxes would only be enough to cover around 76% of projected benefits.

How COVID-19 has affected Social Security

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problem, however. With tens of millions of Americans out of work, that's a lot less cash coming in from payroll taxes. In addition, many older workers may have been laid off and forced into an early retirement, choosing to claim Social Security benefits sooner than expected to help pay the bills.

As a result of COVID-19, the SSA's trust funds are now expected to be depleted by 2031, according to a recent report from the Congressional Budget Office. 

Additionally, President Trump is proposing eliminating payroll taxes entirely. If that happens, the SSA will need to rely solely on its trust funds to continue paying out benefits, and those funds could be depleted by 2023, the SSA recently revealed. Then once those funds run out of money, with no payroll taxes to continue funding benefits, Social Security could disappear if Congress doesn't find another source of income to continue the program.

Protecting your retirement

One of the best ways to safeguard your retirement against potential benefit cuts is to build a stronger retirement fund so you're not as dependent on Social Security. That may be challenging if you're only a few short years from retirement, but if you still have plenty of time left to prepare, it's a good idea to supercharge your savings just in case benefits are reduced or eliminated.

There are also a couple of ways you can increase the size of your monthly checks, which can help if benefits are reduced in the next decade or so. One option is to delay claiming benefits. You can begin claiming Social Security as early as age 62, but if you wait beyond that age to file, you'll receive larger checks. By delaying benefits until age 70, you can receive your full benefit amount plus up to 32% extra each month.

Another way to boost your benefits is to work more than 35 years before you begin claiming. To calculate your benefits, the SSA takes an average of your income over the 35 highest-earning years of your career, then adjusts it for inflation. Chances are you're earning a higher salary now than you were 35 years ago, so by working a few more years, you can replace some of your lower-earning years from earlier in your career with more recent higher-earning years. That will result in a higher overall earnings average, which will also earn you bigger monthly checks.

Social Security benefits are a lifeline for millions of retirees, but they may not be as reliable as you think. By understanding what the future of Social Security looks like and taking steps to boost your monthly checks, you can protect your retirement as much as possible.