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The Social Security crisis: What you can do to safeguard your retirement

Alyssa Pry
Personal Finance Reporter

The growing strain on the Social Security system will reach crisis mode by 2034, says Ric Edelman, co-founder of Edelman Financial Services and host of The Truth About Money podcast.

“Right now, the Social Security system is paying out in benefits more than it’s collecting in tax revenue, and as a result they’re dipping into the Social Security trust fund to make up the difference,” Edelman says. If the Social Security system isn’t changed to accommodate the growing number of people dependent on it, retirees will see a 23% cut to their Social Security payments in 2034, he says.

The average retiree receives $1,300 a month in Social Security benefits —a 23% cut would drop that to around $1,000, which could be catastrophic for retirees who depend on that money to make mortgage payments and pay for medications, Edelman says.

Edelman says Congress will have to raise taxes to make up for any shortfall , meaning the effects will be felt across all generations.

“We now have so many retirees collecting so much money in benefits, and there aren’t enough workers paying taxes into the system to keep it afloat,” he says. “This is a train wreck everyone knows is coming.”

Edelman says people are too dependent on Social Security and aren’t saving enough for retirement in advance. Most employers no longer offer pensions, but rather put the contribution burden on employees with 401(k)s, but they’re not participating or saving enough.

“The vast majority of Americans are reaching retirement with far too little money in their 401(k)s, on average about $150,000 for their whole rest of their life—that’s clearly not enough,” Edelman says.

The Social Security Trust Fund is expected to run out by 2034, leaving retirees with a huge cut to benefits.

Saving as much as you can, as early as you can, will put you in a more financially secure spot, and you’ll be less dependent on Social Security.  

“The key is to start saving—we have to assume that we’re not going to get much help from our government, that we’re not going to get much help from our employers, and that our financial future is all up to us,” he says.

“Social Security was never meant to replace 100% of your pay in retirement,” Edelman says. “It was designed to prevent people from going into abject poverty like we experienced with the Depression, so you do need to save on your own as though Social Security isn’t there.”

Lawmakers know even threatening to cut benefits or raise taxes will turn most voters off, so this is an issue that doesn’t see much in the way of legislative action. The solution, Edelman says, is saving earlier and providing financial education so people understand how much they should be saving well before it’s time to retire.

“Why do we wait to save for retirement [until] our 40s and 50s—the younger we start, the less money it takes because of the power of compound growth: that’s the core of my solution,” he says. Along with the Bipartisan Policy Center , Edelman has created Funding Our Future , to help educate consumers about retirement savings while working with policy makers to find solutions.

Edelman doesn’t believe Social Security will go away completely: rather, it should be an additional benefit to the savings already accrued.  

“You should ignore Social Security, you should pretend it doesn’t exist,” he says. “It does, and you’ll always have a Social Security check, but it might not be as big a check as you want and you might have to wait until you’re a bit older before you get it.”

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