Millions of seniors today collect Social Security. For some, those benefits comprise just a portion of their income. For others, those benefits cover the bulk of their bills.
But Social Security is facing a serious financial crisis. In the coming years, the program will owe more money in benefits than it collects in payroll tax revenue as baby boomers exit the labor force and not enough workers come in to replace them. The coronavirus pandemic has also done a number on Social Security. High unemployment levels have deprived the program of much-needed payroll tax revenue. If lawmakers don't intervene, Social Security may need to implement universal benefit cuts in as little as 15 years.
It's not surprising, then, that 20% of U.S. adults aged 18 and over think it's unlikely that Social Security will be there when they're ready to claim it, according to Northwestern Mutual's 2020 Planning & Progress Study. If you feel the same way, here are a few important steps you can take to compensate.
1. Boost your savings rate
The more money you put into your IRA or 401(k) plan, the less you'll need to rely on Social Security when you retire. Currently, IRAs max out at $6,000 a year for younger workers and $7,000 for those 50 and over. Meanwhile, 401(k) annual contribution limits are $19,500 for younger workers and $26,000 for those 50 and older. This gives you a lot of opportunity to build wealth independently. If you're currently contributing less than you can afford to put into your retirement account, pledge to do better.
Say you're 30 years from retirement and have $20,000 in your retirement plan already. If you're able to sock away $300 a month for the next three decades, and your portfolio generates an average annual return of 7% (more on that in a minute), you'll wind up with a nest egg worth $492,300. That's a good way to make up for lower Social Security benefits.
2. Invest your nest egg aggressively
A robust IRA or 401(k) balance could help you retire comfortably even if Social Security doesn't come through. To get there, you'll need to invest your savings aggressively -- that is, in stocks. In the aforementioned example, we used a 7% return, which is a few percentage points below the stock market's average and a reasonable assumption for a stock-heavy portfolio. If we were to replace that with a more conservative 4% return, you'd be looking at an ending balance of $266,800 instead. That paints a less comforting picture.
3. Make smart lifestyle choices for retirement
Key decisions on your part could help stretch your retirement income so that if Social Security fails you, you're not totally out of luck. First, consider your home -- both its size and location. You may not need 2,000 square feet of space. A modest, less expensive condo may serve you well. Think about where you'll settle down in retirement, too. Moving to a state with a low income tax rate (or, better yet, no income tax at all) could help you manage your retirement plan withdrawals. The same holds true for a place with a generally low cost of living.
There's really no need to worry about Social Security disappearing completely and paying you nothing in retirement. That particular scenario isn't on the table right now. However, benefits might be cut in the not-so-distant future. If you've already written off the idea of relying on Social Security, use that line of thinking to dictate the way you save for retirement and spend your money during it.