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Beyond Social Security: The case for diversified retirement planning

by Alliance America
March 12, 2024


For decades, Social Security has been a fundamental component of retirement planning in the United States. Established as a safety net for older Americans, it provides a steady stream of income to retirees who have spent years contributing to this government-managed program through payroll taxes. However, the evolving dynamics of modern retirement present new challenges, casting a spotlight on the risks associated with relying solely on Social Security for post-retirement income.

Social Security was never designed to be the only source of income for retirees. Originally intended to supplement pension income and personal savings, it typically replaces about 40% of an average wage earner's pre-retirement income, although this percentage can be lower for higher earners. Despite this, many Americans approach retirement with little to no personal savings, expecting Social Security to cover all their financial needs. This reliance becomes more pronounced against the backdrop of declining pension coverage in the private sector and the increasing prevalence of defined contribution plans, which shift the responsibility of saving for retirement to individuals.

The perils of depending exclusively on Social Security are multifaceted. For starters, the benefits are modest, with the average monthly payout often falling short of the actual cost of living for most retirees. This gap poses a risk of financial strain, especially when unexpected expenses such as medical emergencies or inflationary pressures arise. Additionally, the future of Social Security itself is a matter of concern. With demographic shifts leading to a larger retiree population and a relatively smaller workforce contributing to the fund, the sustainability of the system is under scrutiny. Potential reforms, such as benefit reductions or eligibility age increases, could further impact the reliability of Social Security as a sole income source.

Understanding these risks is crucial for retirees to ensure financial stability and security in their later years. It calls for a shift in retirement planning, emphasizing the need for diversified income streams beyond Social Security. This approach not only mitigates the risks associated with the potential inadequacy of Social Security benefits but also empowers retirees to maintain a comfortable lifestyle and manage unforeseen expenses.

Limited income from Social Security

The structure of Social Security benefits is a critical aspect for retirees to understand, particularly when evaluating their potential income in retirement. These benefits are calculated based on a retiree's lifetime earnings, with the amount of the benefit increasing with higher earnings and later retirement. The core of this calculation lies in averaging a person's income during their highest 35 years of earnings.

However, this averaging process often results in a benefit amount that is significantly lower than a retiree’s actual income during their working years.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) uses a formula that indexes an individual's annual earnings to account for changes in average wages since the year the earnings were received. Then, the 35 highest-earning years are averaged and divided by the number of months in those years to obtain the average indexed monthly earnings (AIME). The benefit amount is then determined by applying a formula to this AIME, which is designed to provide a higher replacement rate for lower earners.

,oney and a social security card

The age at which one chooses to start receiving Social Security benefits also significantly impacts the benefit amount. Although individuals can start receiving benefits as early as age 62, doing so results in a reduced benefit. Full retirement age (FRA) – the age at which a person is eligible to receive full benefits – varies from 65 to 67, depending on the year of birth. Delaying benefits beyond the FRA, up to age 70, can increase the monthly benefit amount due to delayed retirement credits.

As of 2023, the average monthly Social Security retirement benefit was about $1,800. The stark reality is that this amount is often insufficient for retirees to maintain their standard of living without additional sources of income. The gap between pre-retirement income and the income provided by Social Security can be substantial. For many retirees, this gap means that maintaining their pre-retirement lifestyle is challenging, if not impossible, without tapping into personal savings, pensions or other income sources. The cost of living in retirement often includes not just basic necessities, but also health care expenses, leisure activities, travel and unforeseen financial needs, all of which might exceed what Social Security can provide.

This inherent limitation of Social Security underscores the critical need for diversified retirement planning. Relying solely on Social Security for retirement income is a strategy that can lead to financial strain. It highlights the importance of other retirement savings vehicles, such as 401(k)s, IRAs, personal savings, annuities, investments and, if available, pension plans.

Rising cost of living and inflation

Inflation, the gradual increase in prices and the corresponding decline in purchasing power, is a formidable challenge for retirees, particularly for those relying heavily on fixed incomes like Social Security benefits. While Social Security does provide annual cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs), these increases often lag behind the actual rise in living expenses, leaving retirees vulnerable to the eroding effects of inflation.

Health care is a prime area where inflation significantly impacts retirees. Medical expenses, including prescription drugs, medical treatments and long-term care, typically increase at a rate faster than general inflation. As people age, they are more likely to need health care services, and these costs can consume a substantial portion of their budget. Since Social Security benefits do not adequately account for these escalating costs, retirees often find themselves spending a larger share of their income on health-related expenses.

Apart from health care, other living expenses such as housing, utilities, food and transportation also tend to increase over time. For retirees on a fixed income, these rising costs can pose significant financial challenges. Expenses that were once manageable on a retiree’s income can become burdensome, forcing them to cut back on essentials or forego leisure activities that they had planned for their retirement years.

The impact of inflation can be more pronounced depending on where a retiree lives. In areas with higher costs of living, such as major metropolitan areas, retirees may find their Social Security benefits stretching even less. This regional variation means that retirees in some parts of the country face additional challenges in maintaining their standard of living.

Over the long term, the cumulative effect of inflation can be substantial. A retiree who begins receiving Social Security benefits at age 65 may live another 20 years or more, during which time the cost of living could significantly increase. This long-term perspective underscores the need for retirees to have other sources of income that can either grow over time, such as investments, or provide additional funds to cover the gap between Social Security benefits and actual living expenses.

Uncertain future of Social Security funding

The financial stability of the Social Security Trust Fund is an issue of significant concern, especially for future retirees. This fund, which is the primary source for paying out Social Security benefits, is facing potential shortfalls that threaten its ability to meet future obligations. Understanding the dynamics of this situation is crucial for anyone planning for retirement.

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The Trust Fund is financed through payroll taxes collected from current workers and their employers. However, demographic shifts, such as the aging of the baby boomer generation and declining birth rates, have resulted in fewer workers supporting an increasing number of retirees. This imbalance is slowly depleting the Trust Fund. According to the Social Security Administration's own projections, the fund reserves are expected to be exhausted by the mid-2030s. Once these reserves are depleted, incoming payroll taxes will only be able to cover a portion of the scheduled benefits.

If the Social Security’s reserves are depleted and no legislative changes are made, retirees could face a reduction in benefits. Current projections estimate that retirees might only receive about 76% of their scheduled benefits. This reduction would affect not only future retirees but also current beneficiaries. Such a cut in benefits could significantly impact the financial well-being of millions of Americans who rely on Social Security for a substantial part of their retirement income.

Given these uncertainties, proactive financial planning becomes even more essential. Individuals may need to save more in their retirement accounts, such as 401(k)s and IRAs, to prepare for a potential decrease in Social Security benefits. Diversifying income sources in retirement, such as through investments, annuities or part-time work, can also help mitigate the risk of reduced Social Security benefits.

Increased longevity and health care needs

The phenomenon of increased longevity is reshaping the landscape of retirement planning. Today's retirees can expect to live significantly longer than previous generations, thanks to advancements in health care and improved living standards. While this is a positive development, it also brings forth new financial challenges, particularly in the realm of health care and long-term care expenses.

The extension of the average lifespan means that retirement funds need to last longer, often stretching 20 to 30 years, or even more. As people age, they are more likely to require frequent medical attention, and the cost of health care typically rises faster than the rate of inflation. While Medicare provides some coverage, it does not cover all medical expenses. There are deductibles, copayments and exclusions, leaving gaps that retirees must fund themselves.

Meanwhile, long-term care represents a substantial financial risk for retirees. The costs associated with long-term care can be exorbitant and are not typically covered by Medicare or standard health insurance policies. Given the high probability of needing long-term care as one ages, this expense can quickly deplete retirement savings.

Desire for a comfortable and secure retirement

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The vision of a comfortable and secure retirement often extends beyond just meeting basic needs. For many, retirement is a time to enjoy the fruits of years of hard work, which includes engaging in hobbies, traveling, spending time with family and friends and pursuing other leisure activities. However, the reality is that Social Security, while a crucial safety net, typically provides only enough to cover basic living expenses. Achieving a more enriching and enjoyable retirement lifestyle requires careful planning and additional financial resources.

Social Security benefits were never intended to fund a retiree's entire lifestyle. As a result, retirees who wish to travel, indulge in hobbies or partake in cultural and recreational activities often find that Social Security benefits do not suffice to support these aspirations.

Achieving a comfortable retirement requires not just accumulating savings but also effective budgeting and financial planning. This includes creating a retirement budget that accounts for regular expenses as well as discretionary spending for travel, hobbies and leisure activities. It’s also important to plan for potential increases in costs due to inflation and to have a strategy for withdrawing retirement savings in a tax-efficient manner.


While Social Security remains a crucial foundation for retirement, it is clear that it was never intended to be the sole source of income for retirees. The modest benefits, designed to replace only a portion of pre-retirement earnings, often fall short in covering the actual costs of living, especially considering the rising inflation and health care expenses that disproportionately affect retirees.

The uncertain future of the Social Security Trust Fund, with projections indicating potential shortfalls, adds another layer of risk for those depending solely on this source. Furthermore, as life expectancies increase, retirees are facing longer retirement periods than ever before, escalating the need for substantial funds to cover health care and long-term care costs.

The dream of a comfortable and secure retirement encompasses more than just meeting basic needs; it includes the pursuit of hobbies, travel and leisure activities that bring joy and fulfillment. Achieving this dream requires a diversified approach to retirement planning. This involves not only relying on Social Security but also building personal savings, investing wisely and exploring other income sources like annuities or part-time work.

Effective retirement planning must account for various factors, including inflation, health care costs and lifestyle aspirations. It's also essential to consider regional cost variations and plan for a long retirement period. Proactive planning, budgeting and seeking advice from financial professionals can help ensure a stable and enjoyable retirement. Also, by adopting a holistic approach to retirement planning, individuals can better prepare for the uncertainties of the future, ensuring they can enjoy their retirement years with financial security and peace of mind.

Alliance America can help

Alliance America is an insurance and financial services company dedicated to the art of personal financial planning. Our financial professionals can assist you in maximizing your retirement resources and achieving your future goals. We have access to an array of products and services, all focused on helping you enjoy the retirement lifestyle you want and deserve. You can request a no-cost, no-obligation consultation by calling (833) 219-6884 today.

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