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3 Ways to Get Through Retirement on Social Security Alone

By Maurie Backman - Feb 19, 2021 at 5:04AM

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Retiring only on Social Security isn't easy -- but here's how it can be done.

In an ideal world, you'd kick off retirement with a healthy chunk of money in an IRA or 401(k) plan -- specifically, around 10 times your ending salary. But what if you've missed the boat on that?

If you're nearing the end of your career and haven't managed to save much for retirement, there's probably only so much catch-up you can do. And that means you'll probably need to fall back on Social Security to cover your expenses.

Here's the problem, though. If you're an average earner, Social Security will only replace about 40% of your former paycheck, and that's assuming benefits aren't cut down the line. Most seniors, however, need a higher level of income replacement to maintain a decent lifestyle.

Older man and woman at laptop with serious expressions

Image source: Getty Images.

While retiring on Social Security alone isn't the best scenario, it's also not the worst. In fact, a few smart moves on your part could make that situation a lot easier to manage financially. Here's what to do if those benefits will be your sole income source.

1. Grow your benefits

You'll often hear that it's smart to wait until full retirement age to claim Social Security because that way, you'll get the full monthly benefit you're entitled to based on your earnings history. But an even better bet is to delay your filing beyond full retirement age. For each year you do, up until you turn 70, your benefits increase by 8%. Waiting as long as possible to file for Social Security could boost your annual income by thousands of dollars.

2. Downsize your home or stay and monetize it

Seniors are often advised to downsize once they no longer need as much living space -- a product of being empty nesters. If you're not particularly attached to your home and it's costly to maintain and pay taxes on it, then downsizing is great way to slash your bills and help stretch your Social Security income.

But downsizing isn't your only option if money is tight. You may want to stay in a larger home if it's already paid off and its property tax bill is reasonable, because that way, you can turn it into an income source.

If you find a tenant to rent out a portion of your home -- say, a finished basement -- you'll boost your monthly income on an ongoing basis. You may also have the option to rent out a parking space in your driveway -- a viable option if you leave near a train station where parking is limited -- or even rent out closet space (yes, it's a thing people do these days).

3. Relocate

Moving someplace where the cost of living is cheaper is a good way to exist on Social Security alone. Just be aware, however, that there are 13 states that tax Social Security benefits to varying degrees:

  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Kansas
  • Minnesota
  • Missouri
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • New Mexico
  • North Dakota
  • Rhode Island
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • West Virginia

In most of these states, you'll get an exemption that helps you avoid paying taxes on your benefits if Social Security is your sole source of income. But four states on this list -- Minnesota, North Dakota, Vermont, and West Virginia -- don't offer an exemption at all.

In addition to state taxes on benefits, you'll want to research different aspects of relocating, paying particular attention to:

  • Housing costs, including property taxes
  • Transportation networks (moving someplace with public transportation could be a big money saver)
  • Food costs
  • Availability of Medicare Advantage plans, which you may want as an alternative to original Medicare

Another factor to consider with regard to relocating is proximity to family, as that itself could be a money saver. If you have a grown child nearby whose vehicle you can use as needed, you won't have to pay for your own car. Similarly, an adult child may be able to assist you with household maintenance once you're no longer capable of doing it yourself, thereby helping you spend less.

Retiring on Social Security alone is something you shouldn't strive to do -- so it's important to save money during your working years. But if it's too late for that, don't give up hope. You can still stretch your Social Security income pretty far and make the best of an otherwise challenging situation.

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