What will the average retiree get from Social Security in 2017?

As of January 2017, the average retiree receives $1,360 per month from Social Security, and the average retired couple gets $2,260 each month. That works out to an average annual benefit payment of $16,320 for an individual or $27,120 for a couple.

That means Social Security provides enough to keep a typical person or a couple above the federal poverty level. Even with that, benefit levels are well below the overall average household income for families of that -- or any -- size, which means that the lifestyle Social Security offers is a fairly basic one.

Risks in the Social Security lifestyle

While Social Security's benefit payments are guaranteed (at least until the Trust Funds empty or Congress changes the law), individual benefit levels only increase in line with inflation. That means that if you're relying on Social Security to cover your costs of living, your lifestyle will at best remain constant. As you age, you may find you need to spend more of your income on medical care and on taking care of things you used to be able to do for yourself -- leaving you with less to cover everything else.

25 Social Security facts & figures you need to see
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25 Social Security facts & figures you need to see

1. 60.66 million

As of the September 2016 snapshot from the Social Security Administration (SSA), 60.66 million people were receiving monthly benefits, two-thirds of whom are retired workers. A little more than 6 million survivors of deceased workers and 10.6 million disabled persons were also receiving monthly benefits.

(Caroline Purser via Getty Images)

2. 5.44 million

Social Security's beneficiary base is increasing rapidly due to the ongoing retirement of baby boomers, which is expected to last until about 2030. As such, 5.44 million people were newly awarded Social Security benefits in 2015. 

(ImagesBazaar via Getty Images)

3. $1,300

It's important to understand that Social Security isn't an entitlement, though the requirements for a guaranteed benefit are not too high. You need 40 lifetime work credits to qualify for Social Security benefits, and a maximum of four credits can be earned annually. In 2017, one work credit is equal to $1,300 in wages. Simply earn $5,200 in 2017 and you'll have maxed out your work credits for the year. Do that 10 times and you'll be guaranteed benefits when you retire.

4. 96%

Based on statistics from the SSA, nearly all working Americans (96%) are covered by survivors insurance protection. Though Social Security is primarily designed to provide financial protection for retired workers, it does provide benefits for the spouses, children, and in rarer cases parents of deceased workers.

5. 90%

To add to the above statistic, the SSA also points out that 90% of the American workforce is covered in case of long-term disability. Since nearly 70% of all private sector workers have no long-term disability insurance, it's good knowing that Social Security has their back.

6. 55%

An interesting figure from the SSA is that 55% of beneficiaries are women. Social Security income is of particular importance to women since 1) they tend to live about five years longer than men, on average, and 2) they're often the caregivers that take care of the kids or sick family members, thus their lifetime earnings are often lower than their male counterparts'. Social Security income can be critical to ensuring a healthy financial foundation for women come retirement.

7. 32%

According to an analysis conducted by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), Social Security income has reduced what would be a 40.5% poverty rate for seniors without this added income to just 8.5%. While the CBPP's analysis can't factor in external variables such as how much extra seniors would have saved prior to retiring if Social Security wasn't available, it's clear as day that Social Security is critical to keeping seniors on solid financial footing. 

8. 81%

Based on data from the SSA, 81% of all benefits paid out by the Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance Trust (OASDI) are heading to seniors ages 62 and up. Just 5% go to children under the age of 18, and another 14% to adults between the ages of 18 and 61.

9. 61%

Statistics from the SSA in 2016 show that 61% of seniors rely on Social Security to provide at least half of their monthly income. For elderly couples this figure was 48%, while 71% of unmarried elderly persons lean heavily on the program for at least half of their monthly income.

10. $920.2 billion

The SSA's data showed that $920.2 billion was collected from three revenue channels in 2015. A majority of this revenue came from payroll taxes (86.4%), while interest earned on the OASDI's spare cash (10.1%) and the taxation of benefits (3.4%) comprised the remainder.

11. 12.4%

Payroll taxes comprise the lion's share of revenue collection for Social Security. This tax totals 12.4% of wages (up to a certain point, which is discussed below) and it's typically split down the middle between you and your employer, with each paying 6.2%. If you happen to be self-employed, you're on the line for the entire 12.4% tax.

12. $127,200

There is, however, a cap on how much a person can be taxed by the SSA via the payroll tax. All earned income in 2017 between $1 and $127,200 is subject to the 12.4% payroll tax. Any wages beyond that point are free and clear of being taxed by the SSA.

13. $1,351.70

The September 2016 snapshot shows that the average retired worker is bringing home $1,351.70 per month, or $16,220 over the course of a year. Annual benefit increases are tied to the inflation rate as measured by the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clericals Workers, or the CPI-W. 

14. 0.3%

Speaking of inflation, Social Security beneficiaries are getting a 0.3% cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) in 2017, the smallest increase on record. Social Security's COLA has been dragged down in recent years by weaker energy and food costs, which are sizable components of the CPI-W.

15. 33 out of 35 years

One of the more saddening facts and figures about Social Security is that its COLA has been lower than medical cost inflation in 33 of the past 35 years. The CPI-W factors in a number of varied expenses, but medical costs are a much smaller portion of workers' average expenditures. Seniors spend double what urban wage earners and clerical workers do on medical costs as a percentage of their annual expenditures.

16. $2,687

Social Security benefits are capped at $2,687 per month, which makes sense given that payroll taxes have an annual cap as well. The monthly benefit cap is usually adjusted year-to-year based on inflation. Only a small fraction of Americans have a shot at reaching this maximum payout, as you'll see in the next figure.

17. 60%

Based on data from 2013, as assembled by the Centers for Retirement Research at Boston College, 60% of retirees sign up for benefits before reaching their full retirement age (FRA). A person's FRA is when they become eligible to receive 100% of their FRA benefit. By signing up early, retirees are taking a cut in benefits from their FRA benefit of up to 25% to 30%.

19. 2.8-to-1

As of 2015, the worker-to-beneficiary ratio stood at 2.8 workers for every one beneficiary. In about two decades, this ratio is forecast to drop to 2.1-to-1. In simpler terms, baby boomers are retiring in increasing numbers, and there simply aren't enough new workers to take their place and maintain the worker-to-beneficiary ratio at its current level. This leads to the next point...

20. The year 2020

Based on the latest report from the Social Security Board of Trustees, by 2020 the cash inflow into the OASDI is slated to turn into a cash outflow. In other words, what's expected to be close to $2.9 trillion in spare cash will begin dwindling in 2020.

21. The year 2034

Perhaps the scariest finding of the Trustees' report is that Social Security's spare cash is expected to be exhausted by the year 2034. Assuming Congress passes no new laws affecting Social Security, the Trustees predict that an across-the-board benefits cut of up to 21% may be needed to sustain payouts through the year 2090.

22. 2.66%

Findings from the Board of Trustees report also showed that the actuarial deficit in 2016 was 2.66% for the program. In easier-to-understand terms, a 2.66% increase to the payroll tax would be expected to alleviate all funding concerns through the year 2090. This would mean an increase to 7.53% if you're employed by someone else, or 15.06% if you're self-employed.

23. 56%

It's a fact that gets overlooked by many seniors, but Social Security income may be taxable. Individuals earning more than $25,000 annually and joint filers with income over $32,000 could have a percentage of their Social Security benefits taxed. Not to mention 13 states also tax Social Security benefits.

24. 51%

According to Gallup, 51% of polled Americans in 2015 believed Social Security won't be there for them when they retire. Luckily, this is blatantly false. Social Security is essentially incapable of going bankrupt because it'll always be collecting payroll tax revenue from the workforce. Benefits may indeed need to be cut, but the program will be there for many generations to come.

25. 28%

Finally, a survey conducted by MassMutual Financial Group in 2015 found that just 28% of the more than 1,500 respondents who took its quiz received a passing grade and correctly answered at least 7 out of 10 multiple choice or true/false questions. Only 1 respondent out of more than 1,500 got all 10 questions correct. It's a stark reminder of just how little Americans know about Social Security.


In addition, once one member of a retired couple passes, so does a significant portion of that household's Social Security benefit. A surviving spouse generally receives the higher of his or her own benefit or that of his or her deceased spouse but not both payments. So when one spouse passes, a household's Social Security income can instantly drop by somewhere in the neighborhood of 40%.

As if that weren't enough to worry about, Social Security's Trust Funds are on track to run out of money in 2034 -- just 17 short years from now. If nothing is done to shore up the program in the interim, benefits will need to be immediately slashed by around 21%, with the cuts increasing to 26% over time. That's soon enough that even many current Social Security recipients are at risk of seeing their benefits cut. The chart below shows the details:


Image source: Social Security.

What you can do about it

Social Security may provide the foundation for the retirement plans of millions of Americans, but like any foundation, it needs a strong structure around it for it to really do its job well. Social Security was never intended to be a retiree's sole source of income, but it was instead designed to be part of a package that also includes retirement savings and pensions. Pensions may be fading away, but you can still save for your own retirement -- and your boss might even be willing to kick in a bit to help, too.

If you're under age 50 and working (or married to someone who is and file your taxes jointly), you can contribute up to $5,500 to an IRA. Once you reach 50, your limit increases to $6,500. If your employer offers a 401(k) or similar plan, you can contribute up to $18,000 if you're under age 50 or up to $24,000 at age 50 or up. And, of course, there are no limits to what you can save or invest in a standard brokerage account that you simply label as being part of your retirement plan.

If you're planning on a retirement that lasts around 30 years, a reasonable target is to have saved up around 25 times the annual expenses you need your portfolio to cover by the time you retire. So if you expect to need $40,000 per year to cover your retirement costs and that Social Security will cover $15,000 of that amount, your portfolio would need to cover $25,000 per year. Twenty-five times that amount is $625,000, which becomes your retirement nest egg target.

The reason you'll want to target 25 times the spending you need your portfolio to cover is something known in retirement planning circles as the 4% rule. By that rule, if you:

  • Start with a diversified portfolio
  • Withdraw 4% of your nest egg in the first year of your retirement
  • Increase your withdrawals annually by the rate of inflation, and
  • Keep your portfolio diversified throughout your retirement

... then your money is very likely to last throughout a 30-year retirement.

Get started now

No matter where you are along your career, the sooner you get started building your nest egg, the easier and cheaper it is for you to reach your target for a comfortable retirement. Whether you're worried about the future of Social Security or you simply want more out of retirement than that program can offer by itself, your future self will appreciate the efforts you start today.

Even if you don't quite reach your overall goal, every dime you've got saved when you do call it quits is money that you can spend to give yourself a more comfortable retirement. So get started now, and put yourself on the path to a more comfortable future than you could get from Social Security alone.

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Chuck Saletta has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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