Here's how Social Security just lost $1 billion

Social Security provides critical benefits to countless seniors and disabled Americans, but despite the program's long-term standing, there has been talk in recent years of it running out of money. In fact, in a 2016 Transamerica survey, 77% of workers said they're worried about Social Security going bankrupt by the time they're set to retire.

But while the program isn't going broke (or going away), it does have its share of money problems -- not the least of which is the $1 billion it just lost to incorrect payments. A recent audit of the Social Security Administration confirmed that over the past decade, the agency paid $1 billion in benefits to recipients without valid Social Security numbers. Specifically, over 22,000 individuals received money they shouldn't have from the agency. Ouch.

Social Security card

IMAGE SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES.

But it gets worse. According to the Office of the Inspector General, which conducted the audit, unless the agency takes steps to improve its process for validating payments and vetting beneficiaries, it will likely lose $182.5 million every year to erroneous benefit payments. When it comes to Social Security, that's something you don't want to hear.

RELATED: The best ways to maximize your monthly Social Security checks:

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13 Ways to Maximize Your Social Security Checks
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13 Ways to Maximize Your Social Security Checks

1. Work more years 

You must work at least 10 years to collect Social Security. The size of your benefit checks is decided by a formula that is based on your 35 highest-earning years of work. If you didn’t work 35 years, the formula uses zeros for the missing years’ earnings. Years of zero earnings lower your benefits, so add as many more years of work as you can.

SocialSecurity.gov explains the details and shows how benefits are calculated

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2. Avoid claiming too early 

The age at which you start collecting Social Security makes a big difference in the size of your checks. (This chart shows how.) You can start claiming benefits as early as age 62, but your checks will be forever 25 to 30 percent less than you would have received if you waited until your full retirement age, which varies depending on when you were born. And if you die first, your spouse’s Social Security survivor benefits will be smaller than if you’d waited until full retirement age.

Some people have no choice. Many retirees stop work earlier than they planned because of illness or unemployment, or to be caregivers for a family member. If that is the case for you, try to use other sources of income if possible, so you can hold off claiming benefits until you’re older. 

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3. Aim for full retirement age 

Social Security calculates monthly checks based on your “full retirement age.” That’s when you are eligible for 100 percent of your Social Security benefit.

Full retirement age varies: It’s age 66 for people born from 1943 to 1954, and increases by an additional two months each birth year until reaching age 67 for those born in 1960 and after. To get all the benefits you can, use this Social Security calculator to find your full retirement age and plan your retirement around it.

The longer you wait, the larger your checks and cost-of-living adjustments, which are based on your monthly checks. Waiting until age 70 is even better than collecting at your full retirement age. But more on that later. 

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4. Raise your income 

Doing what you can do now to grow your income will fatten your Social Security checks in the future. Use the Social Security Retirement Estimator to see the effects of more income on your benefits. The estimator taps into your personal work history to give a reasonably accurate estimate of benefits.

Some ways to boost your income:

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5. Hold on until age 70 

Delaying Social Security as long as possible is not for everyone. If you have reason to believe you won’t live long, perhaps you should collect early. But the value of waiting beyond full retirement age and collecting at age 70 is obvious in this 2016 example from the SSA:

The maximum benefit depends on the age you retire. For example, if you retire at full retirement age in 2016, your maximum benefit would be $2,787.80. However, if you retire at age 62 in 2016, your maximumbenefit would be $2,102. If you retire at age 70 in 2016, your maximum benefit would be $3,576.

There’s no benefit, though, in waiting past age 70. Learn the facts of your case by calling Social Security at 800-772-1213. Or find an office near you and pay a visit. 

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6. Get professional help 

In many instances an informed decision about when to claim which Social Security benefits can boost benefits by tens of thousands of dollars over your lifetime, especially for couples.

Various companies will prepare a customized analysis revealing exactly when to claim Social Security benefits to receive the maximum lifetime payout.

Social Security Choices sells one such product for $39.99 and, in partnership with Money Talks News, offers a $10 reduction (use coupon code “moneytalks”).

Because the claiming strategies for couples can be complex, an inexpensive analysis showing the exact dates when each of you should claim could be well worth the cost. 

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7. Look into spousal benefits 

Married people have an advantage in the Social Security system. Even a spouse who never worked can claim benefits. Married people can receive half their spouse’s Social Security benefit, and that may be more than they’ll make on their own.

Divorced people (here are the rules) married 10 years or longer qualify, too. Here is the SSA explanation of same-sex couples’ benefits and rights.

To get spousal benefits you must be at least 62 and your spouse — the “primary worker earner” (government jargon for the one with the biggest benefit) — must be receiving Social Security checks or be eligible for them. 

Photo credit: Getty

8. Pump up your spouse’s survivor benefit 

When you die, your Social Security benefits end. But your widow or widower may earn survivor benefits, possibly as much as half of your full retirement amount. (Here is some SSA information about survivors.) The bigger your benefit, the more your spouse will receive when you’re gone. So do all you can now to increase your benefit checks. 

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9. Weigh the cost of working while claiming benefits

The government reduces your Social Security checks by $1 for every $2 you earn if you start your benefits before full retirement age and make more than a specific amount, which is $16,920 in 2017. (The penalty stops on earnings above $44,880.)

See the rules to weigh the pros and cons of working while collecting Social Security. You might decide it’s better to hold off collecting, given the penalty and the fact that your benefits will keep growing while untouched. And, remember: You’ll get all the money back in bigger checks after you hit full retirement age, the SSA says

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10. Watch out for taxes 

If your only income in retirement is from Social Security, you probably won’t have to worry about paying income tax. But if you have additional income from other sources — depending on the amount — you can be taxed on up to 85 percent of your benefits.

Taxes are based on your combined income: your adjusted gross income plus half of your Social Security benefit plus non-taxable interest. The SSA explains in detail.

If combined income is more than $34,000 ($44,000 for couples), as much as 85 percent of your benefits may be taxable. You can reduce your tax bill in retirement by cutting expenses so you need less income and choosing investments with an eye to reducing taxes.  

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11. Pay off debts

Certain debts — including federal taxes, child support or alimony and federal student loan balances — can be garnished from Social Security checks. Pay them off before retirement so you can keep your entire benefit check. 

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12. Check for errors 

Keep an eye out for your Social Security statement in the mail each year or find your statement online. Look it over to ensure your income is reported correctly. Get credit for every penny you’ve earned to boost your eventual benefit checks. 

Photo credit: Getty

13. Collect benefits for minor children 

Once you start collecting benefits, your unmarried dependent children 18 or younger can receive benefits too (see details here). Biological children, adopted children, stepchildren and grandchildren are eligible, as are full-time high-school students aged 18 to 19 and children disabled before age 22 (details here). 

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Just a drop in the bucket

While that $1 billion loss certainly hasn't helped matters, in reality, it's just a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of Social Security's long-term financial woes. Since there are now more people leaving the workforce than entering it, the agency is struggling to keep up with scheduled benefits.

Thankfully, the program has trust funds it can tap when tax revenues aren't enough to cover its outgoing payments, and starting in 2019, that's what it will have to do. But those trust funds only have so much money, and according to the latest projections, they're scheduled to run out in 2034, at which point Social Security could face a whopping $11 trillion shortfall. To hear that the agency just blew through $1 billion in erroneous payments only adds insult to injury for those who are already concerned that they won't get their benefits down the line.

Although all of this clearly paints a pretty dire picture, the future of Social Security isn't totally bleak. Even once the program's trust funds are depleted, it should still have enough incoming tax revenue to pay about 79% of scheduled benefits. Not only that, but based on current projections, the program can continue paying benefits at that level until 2090.

That said, a large percentage of the current workforce is alarmingly behind on savings, with one out of every three workers having absolutely no savings at all. A 21% benefits cut could therefore be downright catastrophic to those without an independent means of financial support.

Don't bank on Social Security alone

While a $1 billion loss won't necessarily spell the end of Social Security, it's hardly good news, as the program really can't afford to be losing money. But even if Congress steps in and fashions a solution that enables Social Security to continue paying 100% of scheduled benefits on a long-term basis, those who rely too heavily on those benefits are most likely headed for trouble.

Even in a best-case scenario, Social Security is only designed to replace about 40% of the average worker's pre-retirement income. Most people, however, need 70% to 80% of their previous income to cover their senior living costs, and many retirees require even more. Yet Transamerica reports that 34% of baby boomers expect Social Security to serve as their primary source of income once they retire.

If you've yet to start saving independently for retirement, it's time to change your ways while you still have an opportunity to do so. Anyone under 50 can contribute up to $5,500 a year to an IRA and $18,000 a year to a 401(k). If you're 50 or older, you're allowed to make catch-up contributions that raise these limits to $6,500 and $24,000, respectively.

Even if you're planning to retire within a decade, maxing out on either type of account could work wonders for your savings. Socking away $6,500 a year over eight years, for example, will leave you with an additional $62,000 of retirement income if your investments generate a relatively conservative 5% average annual return. Maxing out a 401(k) during that same timeframe, meanwhile, will leave you with a far more impressive $229,000.

No matter what steps you take to ramp up your savings, don't make the mistake of thinking that Social Security will be enough to cover your bills as a senior. Though the program is by no means set to disappear, it clearly has its share of financial troubles to grapple with, and given its somewhat uncertain future, it's essential that you have a backup plan.

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