Living Almost Entirely on Social Security: Here’s How Millions of Retirees with Few Other Resources Plan to Cope
“What does Social Security mean to you?” Ask the average senior that question and you’ll get a range of answers. For some, those monthly deposits fall in the “nice to have” category, a little extra to make retirement a bit easier. But for millions of others, Social Security is an absolute necessity, and the only reliable source of income they have. For whatever reason, there are plenty of beneficiaries out there living on Social Security alone, or nearly so. The question is, how do they do it?
Because the challenge of learning how to live with no income (or very little) besides Social Security seems so daunting, we were drawn to this article from NextAvenue in which freelance writer Rosie Wolf Williams explores this topic. She spoke with retirees around the U.S. who are finding ways to cope – and in some cases to thrive – with Social Security as virtually their only source of steady, reliable income. The lesson: making it work on Social Security alone requires creativity, simplicity, and a willingness to seek outside assistance wherever you can.
Never Planned to Retire
For her article, Williams spoke with a California man named Allen Smith who says that he never planned to retire. “Holding degrees in exercise physiology, he spent a decade in the wellness industry and worked as a ski instructor in Colorado,” she writes. “As he moved into retirement age, he planned to shift into a second career as an author and columnist.
“Years ago, I vowed never to be in the situation I’m in,” Smith told Williams. “My goal was to work until the day I dropped out. What I wasn’t prepared for was reality. I lost my home, went through my 401(k), and nearly all my savings in 2008 during the economic crash.” Once the COVID pandemic hit, Smith recalled, he couldn’t find the type of work he enjoys. “I live a modest life primarily on Social Security benefits,” he says, “but not necessarily out of choice.”
51 Million Senior Americans Receive Benefits
NextAvenue reports that approximately 51 million Americans aged 65 or older are receiving monthly Social Security benefits. A percentage of those beneficiaries – about one in eight – depend on Social Security for 90 percent or more of their income, according to the Social Security Administration. For 37 percent of men and 42 percent of women, Social Security accounts for 50 percent or more of their income.
“Social Security benefits are dispensed according to each recipient’s birthdate,” Williams explains: “those born in the first 10 days of a month receive their benefit on the second Wednesday of each month; those born in the second 10 days receive benefits on the third Wednesday of each month; the remaining beneficiaries are paid on the fourth Wednesday.”
Timing of Payments Causes a Cash Flow Mismatch
Studies show that many retirees who rely heavily on Social Security have to delay paying certain bills, depending on when their payment arrives. “Retirees who receive their benefits on or about the time the rent or mortgage payment is due are likely to use that money to pay for housing,” says NextAvenue. “If their benefit comes earlier in the month, they are likely to use the money for utilities, food or other bills, and may run short when rent or mortgage payments come due.”
Another person interviewed by Williams, a 63-year-old woman, says she plans to live on Social Security benefits in a few years. In order to cover costs in the meantime, she recently transferred her 401(k) balance into a regular savings account as an emergency fund. “She had to pay income tax on the transferred savings, but her peace of mind was worth it,” Williams recounts.
“It removed the anxiety about what would happen if I went without freelance work. Fortunately, that has never happened,” the woman told NextAvenue. “I also knew that if I made only the regular payments, my house would be paid off by the time I’m 66 years and 10 months old, my full retirement age.”
She lives in a modest, 900-square-foot home in Kansas City, Missouri, and calls herself “naturally frugal.” As she told Williams, “Her retirement plan includes reducing her expenses by paying off her car loan, enrolling in Medicare and remaining free of credit card debt.” She estimates her future Social Security benefit as $2,400 per month, and she’s trying to grow her emergency savings after experiencing some unplanned bills.
Strategies to Augmenting Social Security
The NextAvenue article offers a few familiar ways to enhance or augment those monthly payments. One expert interviewed for the article explained that, because Social Security benefits are based on the top 35 years of a beneficiary’s earnings, working longer at a higher-paying job can result in a benefit boost. But the surest way to earn a bigger benefit is to delay filing. For every year of delay past full retirement age, benefits increase by about 8 percent until age 70. While there are exceptions, for most beneficiaries, this makes delay the preferred strategy.
Part-time work is also an ideal, flexible way to augment monthly payments. “After Social Security benefits begin to arrive, recipients can work part-time,” Williams writes, “but there may be earned-income limits depending on the recipient’s age or the amount of additional income.” (Most of these limits will only apply for those drawing benefits before full retirement age.)
Explore a Wide Range of Community Resources
For seniors on modest income, covering expenses can be a constant struggle. Fortunately, most communities offer a range of services, benefits, and discounts specifically for seniors living with a tight budget. These programs not only save money, but they also can offer opportunities to socialize and volunteer.
“The National Council on Aging offers an online tool, BenefitsCheckUp, to help older adults learn about benefits they may qualify to receive, including food, utilities and transportation,” Williams writes. You can search a wide range of programs and benefits simply by entering your zip code. Senior centers and senior service agencies like Homage here in western Washington State are also good places to investigate.
But certainly, one key is to embrace a simpler lifestyle. “I’ve always lived within my means, so I don’t have to have every possible luxury when I retire,” one retiree told NextAvenue. “I have a cute house in a nice neighborhood and I have good friends. That’s what’s important to me.”
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(originally reported at www.nextavenue.org)