Millions of seniors depend on Social Security to pay the bills in retirement -- but many do so to an unhealthy degree. An estimated 21% of older married couples and 44% of older singles count on their benefits to provide 90% or more of their income. And if you're planning to follow a similar pattern, let this be a warning: Relying too heavily on Social Security could mean sentencing yourself to a life of poverty -- or near-poverty -- in retirement. And frankly, you deserve better.
You can't live on Social Security alone
Many working adults assume that once they retire, Social Security will do a solid job of footing their bills. Not so. Those benefits are only designed to replace about 40% of the average worker's pre-retirement income, but most seniors need close to double that amount to live comfortably once their careers come to a close.
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The reason? Many of your current expenses are likely to stay the same in retirement, if not go up. In fact, 46% of households wind up spending more money, not less, during their first two years of retirement, according to data released a few years ago from the Employee Benefit Research Institute. Meanwhile, 33% of households wind up spending more money during their first six years post-career. As such, Social Security clearly can't provide enough income to buy most seniors the respectable lifestyle they seek once they stop working.
Here's why that's especially problematic: A whopping 42% of today's workers aren't saving for retirement, which means they risk turning to Social Security as their sole income source when they're older. If you're one of them, consider this a wake-up call to start contributing to an IRA or 401(k). Otherwise, you could end up miserable in retirement, not to mention broke.
Save now, stress less later
If you're not convinced that Social Security will fall short in covering your retirement expenses, consider this: The average recipient today gets $17,532 in annual income. If that sounds like enough money to live on, then you're free to stop reading. Otherwise, begin setting some money aside each month, even if it's just $25 or $50 to start with. As your income increases, you can allocate your raises to long-term savings and ramp up that way.
At the same time, look at your monthly expenses and find ways to cut back. That could mean downsizing your living space, getting rid of your car if the bus is much cheaper (which it probably is), and stop eating out as frequently as you do. Another option? Look at a side hustle to drum up extra cash for retirement savings. Socking away even a few hundred dollars a month over a long investment window will go a long way toward helping you build a solid nest.
The following table further illustrates this point:
TABLE AND CALCULATIONS BY AUTHOR.
As you can see, saving a modest amount (in this case, $300 a month) on a regular basis can work wonders for your retirement over time, especially if you invest your savings wisely. The 7% average annual return in our example above is based on a stock-heavy portfolio, and it's actually a few percentage points below the stock market's historical average.
Even if you're willing to downgrade your lifestyle in retirement, Social Security most likely won't pay all of your bills. The best way to avoid struggling down the line is to save for your golden years on your own, even if that means making some sacrifices along the way.
At the same time, aim to get the most out of Social Security that you possibly can. That could mean delaying benefits past full retirement age to boost them in the process, or even taking simple steps like reviewing your earnings statements to ensure that they're accurately reporting your income.
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