Is It Possible to Retire on Social Security Alone in 2024?

Inflation has stretched retirees’ budgets thinner than ever.

Are you hoping to retire in the near future but haven’t saved up anything for retirement? Never say never. Although Social Security isn’t intended to make up the entirety of anyone’s retirement income, most people will be eligible for some amount of benefits when the time comes.

The question is, in light of today’s cost of living, will Social Security alone be enough to fund even a modest lifestyle in retirement?

Probably not.

Eye-opening numbers

That’s not intended to be discouraging, but the average monthly Social Security check retirees are receiving this year is just a tad over $1,900, or about $22,800 per year. That’s a far cry from the $72,967 the U.S. Census Bureau says the average household spent in 2022 on basics like food, clothing, and shelter.

Keep both of these numbers in perspective, though. That typical monthly Social Security payment is only one average retiree’s benefit, but there may be two retirees living in a household. The average household’s spending also over-reflects the needs of families consisting of three or more people, which of course require more spending than a household of one or two retirees. You’re also more likely to outright own a home once you’re retired, whereas people in their working years are often making mortgage or rent payments.

Still, the likelihood of covering all of your expenses in retirement on a monthly income of only $1,900 is slim … even if you live modestly.

By the way, the Census Bureau reports that nearly half of all people living in the United States between the ages of 55 and 66 don’t have anything saved for retirement. The Federal Reserve confirms that finding. Clearly, a bunch of retirees are trying to make it work with just Social Security, or soon will be.

The good news is, even if you’ve not yet saved enough — or saved anything — for retirement on your own, there are a few things you can do to help better fund your future.

Playing catch-up

Don’t panic! The odds of making a wise decision when you’re panicked are poor. Rather, take some time to think things through before making your move to close the gap between what you have and what you need.

There are two main categories of people in this predicament: People who are already retired and collecting benefits and people who aren’t but soon will be.

If you’ve already begun collecting your Social Security retirement benefits, it is possible to suspend them and restart them again at a later date (allowing them to grow larger). There are limitations to this option, however. One of them is that you must have initiated your benefits just within the past 12 months. You’ll also need to repay any money you’ve already received.

This means you’ll not only need to come up with a sizable lump sum of money but will also need another source of income until you restart your benefits. If you’re worried about living on nothing but your Social Security payments, you probably don’t have this other income.

A more feasible option for most Social Security beneficiaries, therefore, is also the most obvious one: to continue working.

Stressed-looking person making phone call.

Image source: Getty Images.

This admittedly isn’t what any retirement-minded individual wants to do at this stage of their life. But if the alternative is going into debt or losing your home, earning work-based income clearly makes sense. This includes starting your own small business.

You can earn a fair amount of money without affecting your Social Security payments too. If you’ve not yet reached your full retirement age (or FRA) this year, you can earn up to $22,320 before the Social Security Administration begins reducing your benefit. And even then, the program only deducts $1 of your benefit for every $2 you earn above and beyond this limit. These earnings-limit rules become considerably more generous the year in which reach your FRA. You’re also given credit for any such deduction, so you’re not losing those benefits entirely by working.

If you’ve not yet retired and aren’t yet collecting Social Security benefits, your first best option is simply postponing the date when you finally quit working. Not only does this provide you with more time to save, it should also bolster your eventual Social Security payment. Though you’re eligible to claim as early as age 62, every year you wait adds 5% to 8% to your monthly benefit.

Whichever scenario applies to you, know that once you turn 70, there’s no additional upside to waiting to claim Social Security benefits, nor is there any sort of penalty for earning other forms of income after reaching FRA.

A scenario best left avoided by lots of early planning

The best way to never face such a difficult scenario, of course, is to never let yourself be put in this sort of situation in the first place.

But challenges like bankruptcy and health problems can chew up savings. Other times, circumstances just don’t allow for any extra money to be put into a retirement savings account. None of this is a judgment on anyone who’s due to receive only Social Security income in retirement.

To the extent it’s at all possible, though, doing anything you can now to generate eventual income above and beyond Social Security benefits later is worth the effort. Even just scraping together an extra $100 per month and investing it in a stock index fund could be worth over $200,000 after 30 years based on an average annual return of 10%.

Just understand that time does most of the heavy lifting for investors. That’s why it’s so important to start as early as you can, even if that start is small.

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