It's no secret that the country's Social Security program is running out of money. In fact, the combined reserves of the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance and Disability Insurance Trust Funds are expected to be depleted by 2035, according to the 2019 Social Security Board of Trustees report to Congress.
That may seem dire, but it's actually an improvement from last year's report, which indicated that the trust funds were expected to run out by 2034. In fact, the asset reserves for Social Security actually increased $3 billion in 2018.
"It changes every year," says Chad Parks, founder and CEO of the 401(k) provider Ubiquity Retirement + Savings. The difference between the 2018 and 2019 predictions can be partly attributed to lower disability claims and increased recent mortality, according to a May 2019 analysis from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. Even if the trust funds do run out in 2035, Social Security is expected to receive enough money from payroll taxes to pay out 80% of its claims.
Still, the prospect of the trust funds being exhausted by 2035 is unsettling. Use these saving and investing strategies to prepare for a future without Social Security:
Maximize your employer's 401(k) match.
Focus on retirement plans with tax incentives.
Use the right investment strategy.
Consider an annuity.
Consider claiming Social Security early.
Maximize Your Employer's 401(k) Match
For many workers, the first line of defense against a future with no Social Security can be found in the workplace. "If the safety net is no longer Social Security, it could be a 401(k)," says Jeff Winn, a managing partner at the investment firm International Assets Advisory in Orlando, Florida.
A 401(k) plan is an employer-sponsored retirement plan that allows workers to save money through payroll deductions. In 2019, the IRS allows those up to age 50 to contribute $19,000 to a 401(k) plan or a similarly structured 403(b) or 457 plan. Workers older than age 50 can contribute up to $25,000 in 2019.
Most workplaces offer employees the choice of using a traditional plan, which offers an immediate tax deduction or a Roth account, which eliminates a deduction on contributions in exchange for tax-free withdrawals in retirement. "If you have the ability to save through a 401(k) at work, you should definitely do it," Parks says.
One of the biggest perks of 401(k) plans is that many employers will match a portion of their workers' contributions. This may be set up in various ways, such as a dollar-for-dollar match or a percentage match of contributions up to a certain amount. It's an easy way to boost retirement savings with minimal effort.
Utilize Retirement Plans With Tax Incentives
With an uncertain outlook for the future of Social Security, workers should plan to fund their own retirements. "I tell people that we need to create our own pensions," says Susan Conrad, chief client experience officer and director of retirement plan advisors at financial planning firm Plancorp in St. Louis, Missouri. "Start saving (from) day one at the highest percentage you can."
However, you don't want your savings to be eaten up by taxes. You can minimize what you owe the government by using 401(k) accounts, IRAs and health savings accounts . Like 401(k) accounts, IRAs offer both traditional and Roth options, so people can choose to receive tax savings now or in the future. However, the contribution limits for IRAs are significantly lower than they are for 401(k) plans – $6,000 for workers up to age 50 and $7,000 for those age 50 and older in 2019. What's more, there may be income limits for some tax benefits .
A health savings account is only available to those with a qualified high-deductible health insurance plan. Those who have an eligible plan with single coverage can contribute $3,500 to an HSA in 2019, while those with family coverage can contribute up to $7,000. Money contributed to these accounts is tax deductible, grows tax-free and can be used tax-free for qualified medical expenses. At age 65, withdrawals can be made from an HSA for any reason and only regular income taxes will apply, the same way withdrawals from traditional 401(k) plans and IRAs are treated in retirement.
Use the Right Investment Strategy
It isn't enough to simply save money for retirement. It must also be invested properly. "Don't just throw it in an S&P 500 fund and hope for the best," Parks says. Index funds like these that track market benchmarks are popular, but they shouldn't represent your entire investment strategy.
Instead, your money should be diversified and placed in several investment funds that are in line with your financial goals . For instance, millennial workers may want to put their retirement savings in aggressive growth funds to maximize their money. Meanwhile, those who are a few years from retirement need their investments to outpace inflation, but avoid significant losses in the event of a market downturn. "You don't want to carry too high of a risk," Conrad says.
Since selecting the right investment strategy can be complex and depends upon personal factors, it may be best to consult with a financial professional for assistance.
Consider an Annuity
Social Security provides guaranteed monthly income, regardless of how the market performs. An annuity can do the same, and Winn predicts a surge in their usage as worries about Social Security mount.
Variable annuities are offered by insurance companies, invest money into mutual funds and make regular payments to owners. They can provide peace of mind, but they may not be right for everyone. Annuity payments are fixed and in many cases, if the owner dies prematurely, any extra principal is pocketed by the insurer. There may not be any death benefit.
As with other investments, it's wise to consult with an unbiased, trusted financial advisor before buying an annuity. And if you're older, don't buy an annuity simply because you think Social Security may become insolvent. "People in their 50s and up should feel comfortable using Social Security," Winn says.
Consider Claiming Social Security Early
While the current full retirement age is 66, workers can begin claiming benefits as young as 62. Doing so locks in a permanent 30% reduction in the benefit amount, however. With the future of Social Security hazy, it may be tempting to claim early to ensure you get as much as possible before the program is unable to pay out claims fully.
"I'm an optimist by nature, but I'm also a realist," Parks says. "I would say take the money and run."
Still, it is possible that Congress will enact reforms for Social Security in the coming years that will eliminate the possibility of a shortfall in 2035. In that case, waiting to claim benefits could be the more lucrative choice. Married couples may be able to hedge their bets by claiming one spouse's Social Security benefits early and letting the other spouse wait. "For couples, it makes sense to look strategically at both," Conrad says.
While no one knows exactly what the future will hold for Social Security, it's wise not to leave your retirement to chance. Use these strategies and talk to a financial advisor to ensure you're ready if this safety net disappears before you retire.