6 Scary Facts About Social Security to Know Now

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Here’s another scary–err we mean enlightening–post from our friends at InvestingAnswers. Check it out:

Updated: August 31, 2012

More than 76 years ago, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal was signed into law. As the linchpin of the New Deal, the Social Security program was implemented in order to limit the hazards of old age, poverty, unemployment and disability.

Now, about 157 million Americans pay Social Security taxes and more than 56 million Americans receive Social Security benefits, according to the National Academy For Social Science. But with 80 million baby boomers soon becoming eligible for benefits, the number receiving benefits is expected to grow significantly. With this increase in beneficiaries, lawmakers are faced with a funding crisis. More people living longer lives have pushed Social Security to the brink ofinsolvency.

How much do you actually know about Social Security? We’ve put together six shocking facts that everyone should know.

1. Social Security Can’t Fund A Comfortable Retirement

If you plan to rely on Social Security alone to fund your retirement, you might want to think again.

A 2012 study by the Employee Benefit Research Institute said that 47% of American workers have less than $10,000 saved up for retirement. Social Security can supplement your income, but it should not be your only source of income.

2. Years With Low Or No Wages Can Considerably Drag Down Social Security Benefits

Social Security retirement benefits are based on your highest 35 years of income. If you retire early, or if you have several long periods of unemployment, those years of zeros will be averaged into your calculations and will drag down your benefits.

3. Your Social Security Number Is Pretty Easy To Guess (Though It’s Getting Harder)

The Social Security number has become Americans’ main method of identification. There have been more than 465 million nine-digit Social Security numbers issued since the program was started, and numbers aren’t reused after death.

Unfortunately, the formula used to come up with your particular number was getting increasingly easy for criminals to figure out — especially now that many people’s social media pages include their birthplace and date of birth.

However, the government recognized the problem, and as of June 25, 2011, changed how numbers are assigned.

Here is how Social Security used to determine your number:

  1. The first set of three digits of your Social Security number is called the “Area Number” and is assigned by the geographical area where you were born — the lowest numbers starting in the northeast and increasing as you move west.
  2. The middle set of two digits is called the “Group Number” and is assigned a number between 01-99, but is not in consecutive order.
  3. The final set of four digits is called the “Serial Number” and runs consecutively from 0001 through 9999. The serial number is used everywhere — people are always being asked to verify things with their last four digits. And with automated tools, these sequential numbers can be cracked by identity thieves.

That’s not how it’s done anymore, though. The first three digits no longer indicate your area, and the other six digits are randomized as well. It’s all done in the hopes of combatting fraud and ID theft.

Still, it will likely be some time before this change’s impact is felt. Those who received their number before June 25, 2011, will not get new Social Security numbers, which means that the vast majority of Americans’ numbers will still be as predictable as ever.

4. Social Security Is Already Working At A Deficit

In 2010, due to the recession and decreased payroll taxes, Social Security began paying out more benefits than it received. Experts weren’t prepared for this particular predicament until 2016. And the deficits only appear to be getting worse.

While in the short-term, an economic turnaround could help fund Social Security via payroll taxes, the program needs serious long-term solutions to continue paying seniors according to the current program.

5. It Is A Huge System

It probably is no surprise that Social Security is a large, costly system, but the sheer size of it is staggering. The Social Security system is 4.9% of our 2012 GDP, according to the National Academy of Social Insurance. That’s bigger than the economies of most other countries in the world including Switzerland, Saudi Arabia and Argentina.

6. There Isn’t A Post-2035 Plan… Yet

With a fund predicted to be exhausted in coming decades, changes will have to be made — such as increasing the eligibility age. Some of the potential plans to keep Social Security solvent after 2035 include higher taxes, higher retirement ages and lower payouts.

Some politicians even propose that Social Security should be privatized or eliminated altogether.

The Investing Answer: With Social Security’s future uncertain, you most likely will not be able to rely on the checks alone to fully fund your retirement. Social Security may be able to supplement your income, but most likely, it won’t be your only source of income during retirement. As a safe alternative, look into saving and investing your own money in an IRA or 401(k) plan so that you have additional income sources to Social Security. This will help make your golden years truly golden.

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  • Trish

    I am 62 and wonder if funding an IRA is appropriate. I work part time, have savings and am not sure which step to take first.

    • laurashin

      Hi Trish,

      It depends on when you need the money. If you open a Roth, there is a rule prohibiting you from accessing the money for five years after you set it up. So if you need the money, then that probably won’t work well.

      If you don’t need the money, then you might want to fund a Roth IRA because you never has to take withdrawals from that account and you could pass it onto any children you might have without them ever having to pay tax on it.  

      If you open a traditional IRA, however, at age 70 1/2 you’re required to start taking money out from it, so you wouldn’t be able to do that for your children.

      If you have more questions, I recommend our Retiring in Style Bootcamp, which is pretty comprehensive in helping readers come up with a retirement plan: http://www.learnvest.com/how-lv-works/bootcamps/retiring-in-style/ 

      Also, I recommend a free assessment from one of our financial experts, which you can access here: https://www.learnvest.com/talk-to-an-expert/

      Let us know if you have any other questions!
      Laura