Financial blogger Joseph Hogue of PeerFinance101 knows the importance of saving for retirement. While as a Chartered Financial Analyst® (CFA), he regularly writes books and blog posts on financial freedom, this topic hits close to home.
Hogue’s mother is barely surviving on social security, her only source of retirement income. She receives $1,287 in monthly benefits, but her basic expenses come out to $900 a month. After paying for cable and eating out once a month, she has no money left to travel, see friends or do any of other activities many people envision in their retirement.
“I’ve seen what retiring on nothing is like, and it isn’t what you want for your golden years,” Hogue said.
Unfortunately, his mother’s situation is typical for American retirees. According to the Social Security Administration, more than 20% of married people and about half of single people receiving SSA benefits depend on those monthly checks for 90% – or more – of their income in retirement.
In 2016, the average social security check was $1,341 for all retired workers and $2,212 for retired couples. After rent, groceries, Medicare premiums, transportation and taxes, the amount left isn’t enough to prevent many seniors from living in poverty.
But what does living in poverty as a senior mean? For Hogue’s mother, it means living in Section 8 housing with noisy neighbors, taking the bus no matter how hot or cold the weather is, and only seeing family once a year when they can afford to fly her out.
In some ways, she’s lucky. Because she lives in Des Moines, Iowa – a city with a below average cost of living – her monthly checks go farther than if she lived in a pricey area like California or New York City.
One of the biggest worries for those with no retirement savings is that any emergency, big or small, could completely derail their budget.
“To live on just social security will mean that you could have constant pressure on your budget and expenses because of having such a limited income stream,” said Le’Chester Williams of Investing Dollars and Cents.
How to Beef Up Retirement Savings
If you’re worried about what retirement might look like for you, it may not be too late to do something about it. Here is a list of actions you can take to prevent spending your golden years in poverty.
- Delay social security until age 70. Seniors who take social security benefits early sacrifice up to 30% of their monthly benefit, compared to those who wait until the normal retirement age. Those who wait until age 70 will get an increase of 8% per year that they delay – or about 25% more benefits than if they didn’t wait. This may require working until age 70 or drawing from savings to pay for your living expenses.
- Downsize or move to a cheaper area. Seniors who own their home already have a huge asset at their disposal., especially if it is mortgage-free They can increase their retirement funds quickly by selling their current home and buying a less expensive one in their current city, or moving to an entirely different area. For example, seniors living in the San Francisco Bay Area can relocate to budget-friendly Florida and stash the cost difference from their home sale in a retirement fund.
- Take a part-time job. Many seniors not only struggle financially in retirement, but also socially. Filling up all the hours in a day can be even harder when you’re strapped for cash and can’t afford costly hobbies or activities. A part-time job can not only add to your bank account, but also provide a sense of purpose and stability.
- Find a roommate. Since housing costs often make up the biggest chunk of a budget, moving in with other people can ease the strain. This can be especially helpful for single, divorced or widowed seniors struggling to survive on one income. A roommate can also split the cost for utilities, internet – even a Netflix subscription. If you get along well, you could also consider sharing a car and the grocery bill.
- Take advantage of catch-up contributions. Those 50 and older are allowed to contribute an extra $1,000 to IRAs and an extra $6,000 to 401ks. That means an extra $14,000 per year for couples who both have IRA and 401k accounts.
- Make some money on the side. Just about everyone has a hobby they care about. For some people, that hobby has the potential to turn into a side gig with just a little extra effort. Even if you don’t have a potential money-maker as a hobby, there are likely ways you can make a little extra cash in your free time. If you’re already meeting your expenses with a daytime job, all that extra income can then be directed straight into a retirement account.