When you reach retirement, chances are good Social Security will be one of your most important sources of income. But while you don't have to worry about this popular entitlement program meeting its demise, you also can't overestimate the amount it will provide. 

Unfortunately, many pre-retirees think their benefit checks will do much more to ensure their financial security than will actually be so. If you're one of them, finding out the average Social Security benefit for 2021 could come as a big surprise. 

Old woman sitting on couch with laptop and financial papers.

Image source: Getty Images.

The average benefit retirees will get next year

According to the Social Security Administration, these are the average benefits in 2021: 

  • $1,543 per month for retired workers.
  • $801 per month for spouses of retired workers.
  • $1,455 for older widows or widowers receiving survivors benefits.

Quick math shows why these numbers are so shocking. If you're a retired worker and receive $1,543 per month, you'll have to live on $18,516 per year unless you have income from other sources. That's far from a comfortable amount. And while this average seems surprisingly low, it shouldn't be if you understand the purpose of Social Security. 

It was supposed to be part of a "three-legged stool" that supported retirees, not your sole (or even primary) income source. Your benefits were meant to replace about 40% of pre-retirement money, while the rest of the income you need would come from a pension or your retirement investments. 

The problem now is, many Americans don't end up with much income from these other two sources. Pensions have become uncommon (especially in the private sector), and saving a hefty retirement nest egg can be really hard. Many people simply don't realize just how low Social Security's average benefit is or how dire their situation will be if they have to depend on it. 

But you don't have to leave yourself reliant on Social Security alone and spend your later years struggling to get by. Instead, you should set your retirement savings goal with a realistic expectation of what these benefits will do for you. You can sign into your online Social Security account to check your projected benefit amount and compare that to the income you think you'll need as a retiree. That way, you'll know the shortfall you must cover with savings. 

You can also try to increase your benefit above average. Earning more money during your career helps, as your monthly Social Security check is based on average inflation-adjusted wages in the 35 years your earnings were the highest. Waiting to claim your benefits until 70 also allows you to avoid early filing penalties and earn delayed retirement credits so you can get the largest benefit available to you.

The bottom line: Even if your benefits are above average, they simply aren't meant to support you without additional income. So don't leave yourself without those extra funds -- start saving for retirement if you aren't already.