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Most Americans Think They Won't Need Social Security And They're Wrong

The Motley Fool logo The Motley Fool 1/21/2019 Katie Brockman

a close up of text on a white background: Social Security cards with a hundred dollar bill. © Getty Images Social Security cards with a hundred dollar bill. When you picture retirement, you probably don't envision living off monthly Social Security checks. In fact, only 39% of Americans say they'll need Social Security to make ends meet during retirement, according to a recent survey from Provision Living.

However, many soon-to-be retirees are woefully misguided about how heavily they'll depend on Social Security during their golden years. According to that same study, the average amount baby boomers say they'll realistically have saved for retirement is $228,000. While that may sound like a good chunk of change, the average American age 65 and older spends nearly $46,000 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. At that rate, that $228,000 would last just five years. Social Security will help, but if you're receiving, say, $15,000 per year in benefits, that's still around $30,000 per year coming straight from your savings -- meaning your $228,000 retirement fund will last around seven years before running dry. 

Furthermore, nearly half of married couples will depend on Social Security benefits for at least 50% of their income during retirement, according to the Social Security Administration (SSA). Additionally, 21% of married couples and 44% of unmarried beneficiaries will derive at least 90% of their income from Social Security.

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Here's how to better understand the integral role Social Security will play in your retirement, and how to plan accordingly.

How does Social Security factor into retirement?

Social Security plays an important role in retirement, so it's cruical to factor into your retirement plans. Treat it as supplemental income, rather than your primary source of income.

The average beneficiary receives around $1,300 per month from Social Security, which, for most people, isn't enough to make ends meet without cutting back. So if you're hoping to travel the world and live the luxurious life you've always dreamed of once you retire, you probably won't be able to unless you have a healthy nest egg on top of your incoming Social Security benefits.

Furthermore, Social Security isn't necessarily a guarantee. While the program certainly won't collapse as long as people keep paying taxes, benefits could be cut by up to 21% by 2034 if the program isn't reformed, according to the SSA.

One reason for this is the aging generation of baby boomers who are now retiring in droves. There's more money flowing out of the system than coming in -- which means the SSA may need to take a chunk of everyone's checks to ensure there's enough money to go around. Congress could enact a solution before 2034, but don't hang your retirement dreams on the governement's ability to implement an effective fix.

Making the most of your benefits

It can be tough to save for retirement on your own, and if you're like most Americans, your personal retirement savings probably aren't where you'd hoped they would be. In fact, 1 in 3 baby boomers has $25,000 or less stashed away for retirement, according to Northwestern Mutual.

If you're falling short, one option is to delay claiming benefits for a few years if you can swing it. You're eligible to claim benefits as early as 62, but you won't receive the full amount you're entitled to unless you wait until you reach your your full retirement age (FRA), between 66 and 67 depending on the year you were born. For every month you wait after your full retirement age (up until age 70), you'll receive bigger checks to make up for the time you weren't receiving benefits.

These reductions or boosts in benefits will last for the rest of your life. If you claim at 62, you'll be stuck with those smaller checks forever. Likewise, if you delay claiming by a few years, you'll receive those additional benefits every month for your lifetime.

In theory, the total amount you receive over a lifetime is the same, regardless of when you claim; if you claim early, you'll get more smaller checks, but waiting to claim means you'll receive fewer, bigger checks. In the real world, the math doesn't work out perfectly. If you're already pinching pennies for retirement, it may be a good idea to opt for those bigger checks. (And as a bonus, if you also delay retirement by a few years, you'll have more time to save as well as enjoying more compound interest in your personal accounts.)

No matter when you start claiming your Social Security benefits, you may need to make sacrifices during retirement to make ends meet. Preparing as much as you can will help you avoid the shock of finding out Social Security won't cut it after you've already retired.

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