Social Security has to be fixed. But you still need your own savings.

4 min
May 08, 2024
With Congress in no hurry to act, Americans are concerned about the financial stability of Social Security.

Advice by Michelle Singletary

Social Security isn’t broke, but it’s badly broken.

There’s enough money currently coming into the retirement program to pay benefit recipients. However, without intervention, it will be like many struggling Americans, unable to pay everyone the full amount due each month.

Each year, the trustees of the Social Security and Medicare trust funds issue reports on the current and projected financial status of the two programs, which are critical for keeping so many seniors above the poverty line. This year’s report, released this week, repeated the long-standing concern about the program’s financial stability: More money will be going out than coming in.

Social Security is financed by payroll taxes. The total cost of the program in 2023 was $1.392 trillion, and total income was $1.351 trillion, according to the trustees’ report.

The Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) Trust Fund, which pays retirement and survivor benefits, will be able to pay 100 percent of benefits until 2033. After that, the income received is projected to cover only 79 percent of scheduled benefits.

That means Congress has less than a decade to fix the shortfall. Proposals include reducing benefits, raising the retirement age for younger workers or lifting the cap on how much of a person’s payroll is subject to the Social Security tax.

The trustees have continued to warn lawmakers that failing to address the funding issue won’t give workers and beneficiaries time to adjust to changes to the program. This is such an important point. The longer the wait, the more painful the adjustment will be.

But here’s what concerns me. While the politicians bicker over the right fix, Americans are losing confidence in a program that’s the financial safety net for not just seniors, but also for workers and families in which a spouse or parent dies.

Many young adults are convinced that Social Security won’t be around when they’re ready to collect, and seniors are concerned about a cut in their benefits.

Early findings from an upcoming West Health-Gallup Aging in America report show that 80 percent of adults ages 18 to 61 are worried or extremely worried that Social Security will not be available when they become eligible.

Yet when asked how important Social Security will be to them as they age, more than 83 percent said important or extremely important, according to the data, scheduled to be released in early June.

The perceived fears over the future of Social Security match the reality of the situation. This program is part of the fabric of growing older in America and must be protected for future generations.

Timothy Lash
President of West Health

We’ll have to wait to see how our dysfunctional political system will solve the problem. In the meantime, here are three moves that you can make to prepare for changes to Social Security.

Don’t just worry. Get a plan.

The old retirement plan relied on people having three income streams — often referred to as a three-legged stool. One leg represents their own savings and investments. One might be a traditional defined-benefit plan or pension — if they were fortunate to have one. The third leg is Social Security.

The three-legged stool is extremely wobbly.

We know Social Security is unstable. Fewer Americans have a pension through their employer, and now that leg is more likely to be a defined-contribution plan such as a 401(k).

The Federal Reserve Board’s 2022 Survey of Consumer Finances found that the median value of retirement accounts, including employer-sponsored accounts, was $86,900. However, only 54.3 percent of families held such accounts in 2022.

Young or old, you need to determine which income sources will cover your retirement. If you see a shortfall, now is the time to develop a strategy to bridge the gap.

If you had planned to collect Social Security early, you might have to reconsider and wait. If you claim early at 62 rather than waiting until your full retirement age (which falls between 66 and 67 depending on your birth year), your monthly benefit may be reduced by up to 30 percent. Every year you delay beyond your full retirement age up to 70, your benefit will increase by 8 percent.

Get your Social Security statement

I have worked with many individuals who haven’t looked at their Social Security statements in years, and some never have.

If you haven’t already, you can check online for what you might collect in estimated Social Security benefits under the current program. Yes, the numbers might change, but regularly reviewing your Social Security statement should be a key part of retirement planning.

Your annual statement also shows the estimated amount you would get if you became disabled, plus information about spousal and survivor benefits. Although you won’t find out the exact final amounts until you apply for benefits, you need to have an idea of how much you’ll get from Social Security.

To set up an account, go to and look for the sign-in link for “my Social Security.”

If you’ve placed a security freeze, fraud alert or both on your credit report, you won’t be able to open the account until you unlock your file. Social Security uses information in your report to verify your identity. Once you establish the account, you can freeze your file again.

Make retirement savings a budget priority

Last year, 59 percent of retirees said they rely on Social Security as a “major” source of income, according to a Gallup poll. This year, the figure is 60 percent, which is nearly twice the percentage who cite any other source as a major source. Pensions are second at 33 percent.

But consider this: If you have average earnings, your Social Security retirement benefits will replace only about 40 percent of your preretirement income, according to the Social Security Administration.

Budget as best you can to find money to save and invest for retirement. For instance, if your employer automatically enrolled you at a 3 percent rate for its workplace retirement plan, try to increase that percentage every year.

Given the political urgency, Congress will eventually have to come up with a solution to deal with Social Security’s shortfall. But the personal responsibility that its inaction forces on us means you can’t afford to wait to prioritize retirement.