No Pension. No 401(k): How to Get by on Social Security

Taking Social Security Too Early


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Taking Social Security Too Early

Getting by on Social Security

Most people heading into retirement aren't worried about what to do with all that free time — instead, they're wondering how they'll afford it. According to the Social Security Administration, about 21% of married couples and 43% of single seniors rely on Social Security for more than 90% of their income. Unfortunately, the benefits typically replace only about 40% of pre-retirement earnings. Cheapism asked finance experts across the country for tips to help make ends meet on Social Security alone.

Related: 18 Ways Retirees Waste Their Money

Delay Retirement

Delay Retirement

If Social Security is likely to be your sole source of income during retirement, then begin by making sure you're doing everything possible to maximize that benefit, said David Bakke of Money Crashers. "This might involve working longer than expected, especially if you're earning good money later on in life." Normal retirement age is 67. It's possible to take Social Security benefits at 62, but the amount you receive will be greatly reduced if you draw your benefits early. Bakke's recommendation: trying to work until the age of 70 before taking benefits, which will result in a boost in the amount you ultimately receive each month. 

Social Security Administration

Ask Key Questions

As your retirement date draws closer, call the Social Security Administration to obtain specific details regarding your expected monthly payment so that you're prepared. But perhaps more important, ask specific questions, said Dawn-Marie Joseph, founder of Estate Planning & Preservation. For instance, "you might not know that you may be able to collect your deceased or ex-spouse's monthly Social Security payment, which could ultimately be more than what your benefit would be," she said.

Reduce Expenses
katleho Seisa/istockphoto

Reduce Expenses

If your only source of income during retirement is Social Security, another important step is reviewing and minimizing expenses. "Start with the highest-impact expenses, such as home and car costs, then move down the list," said Dustyn Ferguson, creator of DimeWillTell. "By focusing on high-impact expenses first, you can see the real impact these expenses have on your retirement budget." 

Research Benefits

Research Benefits

There are more than 2,500 benefit programs nationwide designed to help lower-income seniors with expenses related to housing, medication, healthcare, and taxes, said Drew Kellerman of Phase 2 Wealth Advisors. The National Council on Aging has created a nonprofit website, BenefitsCheckUp, to help retirees find these programs.

Downsizing Isn't Exhausting


Seniors between age 65 and 74 spend about 32% of their household income on housing annually. Consider getting a roommate who can share the bills, or sell your house and move to a smaller place. "Not only will you see money back in your wallet by downsizing, but it also opens the choice of moving to a place that has lower costs of living," said Ferguson, of DimeWillTell.

Related: 30 Things Every Retiree Should Get Rid Of

Old town quiet residential street in Mobile, Alabama famous southern town city with cars parked


Moving to a place with a lower cost of living is one of the most comprehensive ways to stretch your dollar, said Kellerman, of Phase 2 Wealth Advisors. "According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual cost of living in Birmingham, Alabama, is $33,219, and the average price of a home in that city [in 2018] is $65,100, or about the same as a 10% down payment on the average single-family dwelling in parts of Seattle."

Sell Your Car

Sell Your Car

There are many expenses associated with owning a car, among them maintenance, gas, and car insurance. "Car insurance isn't worth the cost if the car isn't being used much," said Ferguson, of DimeWillTell. "Getting rid of the car entirely and using ride-sharing services can actually be a big money saver."

Financial Infidelity: Living In The Red

Eliminate Debt

If you're approaching retirement age with a mountain of credit card debt, make it a priority to eliminate those balances. "Get on a budget, reduce expenses, and send any financial surplus to your credit card balances," said Bakke, of Money Crashers.

Tap Your Equity

Tap Your Equity

Many retirees who own their homes outright are using the equity in their properties to get by, via reverse mortgages. "For the right person, this option can allow them to 'cash out' some of their home equity while staying in their home for the rest of their life," said Kellerman, of Phase 2 Wealth Advisors.

Utilize Community Programs

Utilize Community Programs

Food pantries and other donation centers can be a lifesaver when living on a fixed income. And don't overlook places like Salvation Army, Goodwill, and other secondhand stores.

Related: 10 Things You Should Never Buy Secondhand

Medicare Deductions

Sign Up for Medicare

As soon as you're eligible, be sure to sign up for Medicare, the federal health insurance program for people 65 and over. This will help reduce your out-of-pocket health insurance costs. There are various Medicare programs covering hospital stays, doctor visits, and prescriptions. 

Medicaid Improper Payments

Use Medicaid

Medicare doesn't pay for all medical expenses. If you're among those relying primarily on Social Security to get by, Medicaid may be able to help. It's aimed at low-income people, families and children, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with disabilities. It can pay for things that Medicare does not cover, even such critical expenses as long-term care.

Kohl's Price-Match Policy

Ask for Senior Discounts

Get into the habit of inquiring about senior discounts wherever you go. You may be surprised by how many places offer them. Joining AARP once you turn 50 provides access to discounts on rental cars, hotel rooms, and train and bus fares. Among the countless stores that offer discounts, Kohl's provides a 15% senior discount every Wednesday. Many airlines, including British Airways and United, also offer reduced prices for older travelers.

Consider a Group Home

Consider a Group Home

Yet another approach to trimming living expenses may be to find a group home, said Dock David Treece, a senior financial analyst with FitSmallBusiness. "By moving in with other adults, you can significantly lower your cost of living, which will help you survive on Social Security."

Increase Health Insurance Deductibles

Increase Your Deductibles

One approach to lowering your recurring monthly bills is to increase the deductible on your health insurance. Higher deductibles typically translate into lower monthly premiums. This approach may not be for those making frequent visits to the doctor or other health professionals, however.

AMC Theatres

Cut Entertainment Costs

Make the most of your entertainment budget by planning around discounts. AMC Theatres offer a senior discount ticket for those 60 and older. Cinemark theaters host Senior Days that include discounted tickets. Ticketmaster also offers exclusive discounts to AARP members, such as two-for-one tickets to concerts and more.

Programmable Thermostat

Reduce Utility Costs

In some cities and states, utility companies offer discount programs for senior citizens. In Georgia, seniors can receive a discount on gas and electric bills. The city of Seattle also offers eligible customers a 60% discount on their Seattle City Light bill and a 50% discount on their Seattle Public Utilities bill. The program is available for income-qualified residential households. Be sure to ask your utility provider about similar programs.

Switch Your Phone Service
Chainarong Prasertthai/istockphoto

Switch Your Phone Service

Some wireless phone providers also offer discounted plans for seniors. T-Mobile's Magenta program provides customers who are 55 and older with two lines for just $28 per line with AutoPay. Sprint offers a similar program. Consumer Cellular offers AARP members a 5% discount on monthly fees and usage charges and a 30% discount on select accessories.

Earn Extra Income
FG Trade/istockphoto

Earn Extra Income

If budget cuts aren't enough, find a source of additional income. There are many ways to do this, from a part-time job to a hobby that provides income. "It's the last thing many people in retirement want to do, but not all sources of income have to be labor-intensive or take a lot of time," said Ferguson, of DimeWillTell. "Passive income sources are a huge win for people in retirement, as they don't take up much time and can really make an impact in your income."

Don't Earn Too Much

Don't Earn Too Much

While bringing in some additional money can be helpful, do your research first. Working while claiming Social Security benefits can result in your benefits being reduced if you pass certain thresholds, Ferguson said. "You'll need to balance the math out just right to prevent working from costing you, rather than helping you."

Move In With Family

Move in With Family

One of the most popular choices for seniors who retire without a pension or other funds is to move in with their children, said Treece, of FitSmallBusiness. "This isn't an option for all retired seniors, but if you have adult children who live in your area and are willing to take you in, this is usually a cost-efficient option."

Paradise Found? Maybe
Morsa Images/istockphoto

Consider Retiring Abroad

For more adventurous retirees, relocating abroad is yet another option that can help stretch a budget. "Many retirees who would barely get by on their modest income here in the U.S.A. have found that they can live at least a middle-class lifestyle on Social Security alone depending on where they choose to live," said Kellerman, of Phase 2 Wealth Advisors, who suggested conducting thorough research and taking "test trips" before making the big move. 

Social Security - Investigate Spousal Benefits

Stop Benefits

If you began tapping Social Security benefits early and regret that decision, all may not be lost. It's possible to withdraw your application for up to 12 months after beginning benefits. While this option requires repaying all the money already received, it allows something of a reset. You can continue growing your benefits until you want to file again. 

Senior Couple with Serious Faces Looking at Laptop Together

Suspend Payments

Even after the 12-month mark has been eclipsed, there's still one last way to slightly increase your Social Security benefits: When you turn 66, it's possible to suspend the monthly payments, this time without having to pay the money back. For each year your payments are suspended up until age 70, you get retirement credit that increases your benefits by 8% each year.