Ask Stacy: How Am I Supposed to Live on Social Security Alone?


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A reader just retired and is worried that her retirement income won't be enough. She should be.

As members of my generation, the baby boomers, start retiring in droves, more and more of us may ask a question similar to this week’s reader question:

I just started collecting Social Security retirement. If I’m having so much trouble living on my allotted amount now, at age 65, what’s going to happen later when I have real medical expenses and prices keep skyrocketing? — Patricia

I feel you, Patricia. Here’s a news story I did about why so many future retirees will face a tougher retirement than their parents did. Check it out.

Now, let’s address Patricia’s question.

Social Security isn’t the problem

Social Security was never intended to be the American worker’s sole retirement plan. Rather, it was designed to keep Americans affected by disability, death of a breadwinner or old age from starving. Here’s how the father of Social Security, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, described it in a 1938 radio address:

The [Social Security] Act does not offer anyone, either individually or collectively, an easy life — nor was it ever intended so to do. None of the sums of money paid out to individuals in assistance or in insurance will spell anything approaching abundance. But they will furnish that minimum necessity to keep a foothold; and that is the kind of protection Americans want.

And Social Security still provides that. As I said in the video above, Social Security won’t be enough to keep me in my current house. I pay more in property taxes and insurance on my home today than I could possibly afford with Social Security alone. But if I sold my house and downsized, would Social Security keep me alive? Yes. It will keep Patricia, and you, alive as well. But depending on where and how you live, just barely.

Where did Patricia go wrong?

Retirement isn’t a thief in the night; it’s a marching band that gets louder every time you blow out your birthday candles. Yet some of us treat it like Christmas; a date we know is going to arrive, yet somehow are always unprepared for.

When you’re going to reach retirement age isn’t a mystery. Nor is the money you’re going to receive from Social Security when you get there. You can get a rough estimate or a detailed one with your personal information any time you’d like from SSA.gov.

So Patricia shouldn’t be wondering at age 65 how she’s going to make it on Social Security. She should have been thinking about this for years.

That’s the short answer. The longer answer is more complicated. Divorce, job loss, kids who need help, parents who need help, not making enough, not saving enough, illness, failure to plan, denial — just a few of the infinite reasons any of us could end up like Patricia.

In some ways I’m no different myself. I’m 61, and I still don’t know exactly what my retirement will look like. How can I? My income varies radically, and I don’t know how much longer I’ll work, so I can’t say how much more I can put away. Other than Social Security, I’ll be depending entirely on my savings for income. If interest rates are 10 percent when I retire, my savings will generate 10 times more income than if they’re 1 percent.

These and other factors make it nearly impossible to plan with any degree of certainty.

But this much is certain. If you live anything other than a very spartan lifestyle and plan on retiring with Social Security alone, expect to have inadequate income. And unless you have a fat pension in your future or have saved millions, you’ll likely reach your golden years and still wonder whether you’ll have enough gold.

What should Patricia do?

If you reach retirement age and find you’re not going to receive adequate income from Social Security and don’t have enough savings to make up the shortfall, you’ve only got two choices: You can live in poverty or not fully retire. What Patricia should have done, if possible, was to maximize her Social Security with tips like these, from “13 Ways to Get More Social Security“:

  • Work at least 35 years. Social Security benefits are calculated based on your 35 highest-earning working years. If you work fewer years, you’ll have years with zero income averaged in, which will lower your payout.
  • Ask for a raise. If you experience a jump in salary, you’ll likely boost your future earning potential and may see an increase in your Social Security payments when you retire.
  • Take a second job. The same logic applies: If you earn more each year, you’ll likely increase the amount you get in Social Security when you retire.
  • Wait until full retirement age to claim Social Security. You can begin collecting Social Security benefits as early as age 62, but you might not want to, since your benefit will be lower for life. To get your full payment, wait until you reach full retirement age, which, depending on when you were born, will be between ages 65 and 67. You can see the specifics here.
  • Better yet, wait until age 70. If you can afford to wait until age 70 to claim Social Security benefits, it’ll pay off. Thanks to what the Social Security Administration calls “delayed retirement credits,” benefits increase 8 percent each year you delay tapping into Social Security, until age 70. So waiting until you reach 70 means about a third more income for life. While this sounds like a no-brainer, waiting isn’t for everyone. See: Do I Really Need to Wait Until Age 70 to Collect Social Security?

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