Social Security is something that is easy to take for granted. Most of us have never known a time when it didn’t exist. Because employers and employees pay into the system, we think that it will always be there and available when needed.
Social Security Trustees report announced recently that the funds would be used up by 2034. The cost of living allowance, or COLA, increased earlier this year so that recipients would receive a higher amount each month. Even though workers are paying higher taxes into the system, the increased cost of living allowance could mean that the funds are used up even before the 2034 target date.
What does this mean for you? How do you plan for retirement without knowing whether you can depend on the Social Security program? How did we even get here?
Let’s take a brief look at what Social Security is, what it provides, and what could potentially happen. Then, we will talk about what your next steps could look like.
Social Security or So-So Security?
There has always been some form of economic relief for the citizens of the United States. Even before we gained our independence from England, colonists in the New World had Poor Laws to support the destitute. After America became a new nation, there were old age benefits paid to those over 50 years old to help keep them out of hardship.
An early precursor to our current Social Security system was the Civil War Pension Program. Civil War veterans and widowed spouses received benefits, as well as those who were disabled and aged. Although these benefits were not available to the population at large, the program was an early model of what was to come.
The Great Depression of the early 20th century proved to be devastating, especially for those over 60. Over half of the elderly population was considered to be destitute and unable to support themselves financially during those years.
In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law. This act provided a type of social insurance for the entire population as they aged. The program would pay workers over the age of 65 a monthly stipend upon retirement.
Over the next few decades, several amendments were made to the act including a provision for cost of living increases to keep up with inflation. Today, over 67 million people receive Social Security benefits in the form of monthly stipends. These include benefits for:
● survivor dependents (spouses and children)
While Social Security was meant only as a partial help for retirement income, many have come to completely rely solely upon it for their well-being. So, the news that after 2034 these benefits may only be 80% funded at best means people will need to look closer at how to fund their sunset years.
Planning for Retirement Regardless of Social Security
Whatever you do, don’t panic. Some folks have made the mistake of thinking that Social Security is going belly-up. It’s not.
The working population continues to pay into the system in order to fund it for those who are approaching retirement. Yes, there is a large generation that is now collecting Social Security benefits and depleting these funds, but the system is still in place and will continue.
The best advice for retirement? Have a plan. Consider Social Security benefits as gravy, not the meat and potatoes of your retirement meal.
Our top tips for retirement planning include the following:
● Wait to collect benefits: Many folks chose to start collecting their Social Security benefits as early as they can. Don’t opt-in early out of fear. Waiting until 70, the full retirement age increases the size of your monthly check and is still the best way to maximize your Social Security benefits.
● Max out 401(k)s and IRAs: Contribution limits increase every year. The closer you get to retirement, you have more opportunities to make additional contributions above the normal limit as a “catch-up.” Contributing regularly and consistently to these retirement accounts is a major factor in financial stability later on. Plus, you can take advantage of an employer match for that extra boost.
● Work on eliminating credit card debt: Debt is never an easy burden to bear, but it is especially heavy once you near retirement. With less income, less energy, and higher medical costs, your retirement years are not a good time to continue to carry a big debt load, especially high-interest credit card debt. Tackle one card at a time and have a plan to stick to your payment schedule to be rid of it for good. Plus, this will help improve your credit score.
● Diversify your financial portfolio: Putting all your eggs in one basket is never a good idea. You want to spread the risk and gain across a variety of financial products. Having a mix of bonds, mutual funds, real estate, stocks, and other investments that have been curated by a financial planner is important to ensure that your portfolio is balanced.
● Enroll in Medicare at the right time: Know what your enrollment window is and stay on top of the paperwork and deadlines that come with it. You have three months before and three months after the day you turn 65 to enroll in Medicare for the best premiums. Miss this window and not only do you pay a one-time late fee, but you also pay higher premiums for the rest of your life.
If the reduced potential income, or “if-come,” of Social Security benefits has you worried, don’t let it get to you. With some forward thinking and smart planning, you can approach your retirement years with confidence, regardless of what the future of Social Security looks like.