Most Americans count on Social Security to serve as a major source of retirement income. But while retirement benefits from the Social Security Administration will likely help you cover costs as a retiree, you can't rely on them too much, or you could find yourself facing a lot of financial pain. 

There's one simple reason you can't count on your monthly checks from the SSA to be enough to support you. For most people, the amount of money they provide is simply too low to maintain a reasonable standard of living.  

Sad older man sitting alone at table, eating.

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The average Social Security benefit will provide just $1,543 per month

To understand the big problem with relying solely on Social Security to support you in retirement, just take a look at the average benefit in 2021. It's expected to come in at just $1,543 per month, which would provide just $18,516 per year in annual retirement income. 

Obviously, living on $18,516 as a retiree wouldn't give you very much money to cover the essentials, especially as healthcare costs tend to rise in your later years, with some estimates suggesting you could end up spending as much as 20% of your Social Security benefits on prescription drug expenses alone. In fact, average spending among younger retirees actually topped $50,000 in 2017, while those later in retirement spent a little less on average but still around $40,000 per year. 

You may be looking at these numbers and wondering why Social Security benefits are so low that they can't cover basic spending needs. The fact is that this isn't a glitch.

Social Security retirement benefits weren't intended to be your sole source of income for your later years, and they're designed only to replace about 40% of your pre-retirement income when you'll need much more than that to maintain a comfortable standard of living.  They should work in conjunction with your retirement savings and a pension to provide you with enough to live on and, in fact, these three separate sources of income were once described as part of a "three-legged" stool intended to support retirees. 

How to make sure you don't end up relying on Social Security alone

To make sure you don't get stuck struggling to live on $18,516 annually, you'll want to build a hefty retirement nest egg to supplement Social Security. If you don't have a pension from your employer that provides guaranteed income, your retirement savings may be the only additional funds you get besides your benefit checks. 

Aiming to save around 15% of your income should ensure you'll have the money you need, as long as you make reasonably sound investments. But you can also figure out exactly how large your retirement nest egg will be by using any one of several different methods such as multiplying your final salary by 10 or estimating you'll need to replace about 80% to 90% of pre-retirement income. 

When you've set a savings goal, automate contributions to your retirement investment account to make sure you stay on track. 

What if you're already retired (or close to it)?

If you're already retired and are left living on the average Social Security benefit, there are a few steps you can take to make your money stretch further.

You'll want to make sure you choose an area with a low cost of living, and consider downsizing your home and getting rid of a vehicle if you can do so. Taking these steps could free up cash or perhaps even enable you to build a small retirement nest egg from the proceeds from the sale of the home or car. You should also live on a strict budget and watch your spending carefully to avoid debt.

If you aren't retired yet but are close, supercharging your retirement savings could give you more money to supplement Social Security. Working a little longer may also be a good idea, both to have more time to save in your retirement accounts and to delay claiming Social Security so you can potentially boost your benefit above the average. 

The bottom line is, it will likely be a struggle to live only or primarily on Social Security -- especially with an average benefit of just $18,516 in 2021. If you can avoid that, try to do so -- but if you can't, be proactive in managing your money smartly so the income you receive from the SSA stretches as far as possible to give you a comfortable life in your later years.