For the American worker, history can be divided into the time before 1935 and the time after. That year, FDR signed the Social Security Act, which wrote the country’s social safety net into law. Nearly 70 million Americans rely on Social Security, which guarantees every worker who pays into the system at least a modest income after their earning years have passed. It also gives cash payments to their dependents, widows and widowers, as well as the disabled.
More than 85 years after the bill became law, it’s getting harder and harder to imagine that Social Security has another 85 years left. If you’re worried that you’ve been paying into a system that won’t exist when you’re old enough to reap its benefits, you should be.
People Worry, With Good Reason, That the Safety Net is Tearing
If people are worried about the long-term sustainability of Social Security, it might be because they read the very first sentence of a Social Security Administration (SSA) document titled “The Future Financial Status of the Social Security Program.” It reads: “As a result of changes to Social Security enacted in 1983, benefits are now expected to be payable in full on a timely basis until 2037, when the trust fund reserves are projected to become exhausted.”
When the trust fund reserves are exhausted, Social Security will depend solely on continuing taxes, which will be able to pay for only 76% of scheduled benefits from there on out.
That’s the future if nothing changes in 16 years when today’s 46-year-olds turn 62 and become eligible for early benefits. Here’s what you can do between then and now.
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Stay in Good Financial Health
Social Security was never meant to serve as your sole income in retirement, according to Forbes, and it was never meant to replace anything approaching what you earned while you were working.The point is that even if Social Security is still stable, you won’t retire comfortably if you’re not in otherwise strong financial shape. Do the things you know you’re supposed to do anyway so that your future doesn’t depend on a painfully dysfunctional government getting its act together at some point in the next 16 years. That includes:
- Avoiding toxic debt
- Saving and investing some portion of every check as if it were a bill
- Spending within your means
- Paying your bills on time and keeping your credit healthy
Have a Plan so That Social Security Doesn’t Sneak up on You
Create a “my Social Security” account at ssa.gov. You’ll be able to see how much money you’ve earned for each of your combined working years. You’ll also see how many Social Security credits you’ve accumulated — you need 40 to qualify for benefits. You’ll also be able to see how much your benefits would be right now if you filed for them at full retirement age, and how your payments would change if you claimed your benefits early or late. Don’t wing it. If you claim your benefits early, you’re accepting reduced payments for the rest of your life — and that’s not the only irrevocable action you can take. Have a plan before it’s time to need one.
Never Try to Avoid Paying In
The Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) is a mandatory payroll tax that funds Social Security and Medicare. If you feel that you are being unjustly taxed to pay for a program that won’t be around to benefit you, that’s more than understandable. Trying to avoid FICA taxes for yourself or your employees, however, is never the correct response. You’ll almost certainly get caught, you’ll get in a whole heap of trouble when you do, and it’s generally just unbecoming civic behavior.
What you should do, however, is get involved.
Make an Informed Decision on Where You Stand and Petition Your Government
Like every other policy debate — although this should be an easy one about math — the topic of Social Security is politically charged. Many credible people have presented different ideas on why Social Security is running out of money and what should be done about it. Before you just accept whichever position was adopted by your political side, consider the unfortunate options that endless deficit spending has left on the table.
According to the SSA, the United States can fully fund Social Security for 75 years in one of three ways:
- Immediately reduce benefits by 13%
- Immediately increase the combined payroll tax from 12.4% to 14.4%
- Some combination of the two
All options would require an act of Congress, so vote your conscience, not your team, call your congressional representative and senators, and urge like-minded friends and family members to do the same. Yelling on Facebook is easy. Affecting civic change is hard. Do what’s hard — your retirement just might depend on it.
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Last updated: Oct. 28, 2021