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With a monthly benefit averaging just $1,369 (as of June 2017), the idea to retire on Social Security alone may sound next to impossible. Still, 23 percent of married retirees and 43 percent of single retirees count on their Social Security benefit for 90 percent or more of their monthly income.

Social security cards with money on top of them.

Never Meant to Be

Social Security was never designed to be a full pension. It was supposed to replace only about 40 percent of the average worker’s pre-retirement income. Since it takes 70–80 percent of pre-retirement income to live comfortably in retirement, the rest of the money is supposed to come from pensions, savings or investments. Unfortunately, for many Americans, the savings are not there.

Expected Benefits

If you and your spouse both work, on average, you will bring in a combined $2,738 per month in Social Security benefits at full retirement age. If only one of you works outside the home, the total will be $2,053.50. (A non-working spouse gets half the working spouse’s benefit.) The actual maximum individual benefit possible in 2017 is $2,687, or $3,538 if you delay retirement until 70. However, to get that amount, you would have to earn the maximum income that Social Security taxes ($127,200 for 2017) for 35 years.

Monthly Expenses

The first thing that comes out of your Social Security checks will be healthcare (in the form of Medicare premiums). Part A is free for most people but Part B costs $134 per person per month. The average Part D (prescription drug) premium is $43 and the average Medigap policy (to cover costs not covered by Medicare) is $183 per month. These costs, of course, do not consider copays or deductibles.

Once healthcare costs come out, the average combined monthly benefit for you and your spouse will now be $2,018. From this you will pay all other monthly expenses including a mortgage payment (unless your house is paid off), utilities, property taxes, insurance and home maintenance. If you rent, there’s rent payment, utilities and renter’s insurance. What’s left will go for food, clothing, transportation and, if the budget allows, entertainment.

Actions to Take Before It’s Too Late

If you are not yet retired you can shore up your financial situation with a few simple moves.

Save More

Start saving or save more by participating in your employer’s 401(k) plan, at least up to the matching amount, if there is one.

Eliminate Debt

Pay off credit card debt and loans as soon as possible, while you still have earnings.

Open an IRA

If a 401(k) plan isn’t available, open an Traditional IRA or Roth IRA. Set up automatic deposits to make regular saving easier, up to the yearly limit of $5,500 (or $6,500 if you’re 50 or older)

Delay Retirement

Consider delaying retirement if possible to increase the amount of your benefits. (If you wait until age 70 you get the maximum benefit.)

Maximize Survivor Benefits

If you and your spouse will both be on Social Security, one of you should delay signing up to maximize the benefit for the survivor.

Take a Social Security ‘Mulligan’

If you signed up at age 62 and wish you hadn’t, you have 12 months to withdraw your application, pay back all benefits received and sign up later for a higher benefit amount. You can also suspend monthly payments once you reach full retirement age, repay nothing and file again at age 70 for maximum benefits.

Trimming Expenses Once You Retire

Once you are on Social Security, look for ways to cut costs and stretch those monthly benefit dollars.

Downsize

Sell your current house and buy something smaller, or rent. Consider moving to an area where the overall cost of living is less expensive. For instance, living in Denver costs 30 percent less than living in New York City. You may even want to research retiring abroad. The cost of living in Quito, Ecuador is 62 percent cheaper than New York City.

Cut Taxes

If you’re moving, consider looking for a location where taxes are lower. Most states don’t tax Social Security but high real estate and sales taxes could create a real problem.

Take in a Boarder

Single retirees can team up to save money. A married couple can take in a boarder. Bonus: Having people to socialize with is good for your health and well-being.

Get Free Stuff

Taxpayer-supported public libraries, parks, universities and museums offer a wealth of high-quality, free programs, entertainment, classes and lectures often geared toward older adults.

Seek Government Help

You may qualify for food stamps or subsidized housing. Find out about food stamps through the USDA Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has information about low-cost housing. Depending on your age, income and disability status, you may qualify for Medicaid, which can work with Medicare and even include long-term care. The Extra Help program helps those on Medicare pay for prescription drugs. For more go to BenefitsCheckUp.

Be a Smart Consumer

Renegotiate your utility and phone bills for slimmer plans. Do you really need both a landline and a cell? Learn to use free services like FaceTime to talk with your grandchildren. Sell your car and use public transportation, car-sharing services like Zipcar for weekend drives and car rentals for longer road trips. Reduce or eliminate cable TV channels in favor of an antenna or streaming over the Internet. Use coupons, buy vegetables at their peak at the farmer’s market (when they’re cheaper) and take advantage of senior discount days at grocery stores (typically Wednesday or Thursday).

Final Thoughts

Social Security was never intended to be a full pension. If you’re nearing retirement and haven’t saved much, there are steps you can take while you’re still working to make your retirement years a little more comfortable. And once you’re retired, you can focus on strategies that make the most of the money you have.

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