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Tuesday, June 2, 2020

My Social Security Isn’t Enough. Am I Doomed to Work Forever?

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Dear A.,

Most of the advice you’ll find about how to increase your Social Security benefits is essentially: Go back in time, work longer and for more money. Or go back in time and earn more money so you can invest it, and you won’t need to rely on your Social Security benefits.

It’s not bad advice for people who still have decades left until retirement. But it’s not useful for people like you, who are facing the brutal reality that Social Security isn’t enough to live on.

Unfortunately, I bear bad news: Based on what you’ve told me, it doesn’t sound like there’s a way for you to up your Social Security benefits.

Social Security has two main options for people who start collecting benefits and then change their minds: Withdraw your application within 12 months and repay all the benefits you’ve received. Or ask Social Security to suspend your benefits if you’re at least full retirement age but under 70.

Either tactic results in higher monthly benefits once payments resume because the longer you delay Social Security, the higher your benefit. But obviously, neither is an option in your case. 

So let’s accept that the $1,000 a month you need to quit your retail job isn’t going to come from your Social Security retirement benefits.

That said, you may qualify for assistance beyond your retirement income. You may be eligible for Supplemental Security Income, food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or subsidized housing, to name a few possibilities.

The National Council on Aging maintains a database of more than 2,500 assistance programs at benefitscheckup.org. You can search for resources by providing a few details like your ZIP code, date of birth and income.

If you own a home, one option to consider is a reverse mortgage. Basically, you give up your home equity in exchange for monthly payments, a lump sum, a line of credit or a combination of these. Yeah, it’s risky and comes with high fees, but it makes sense for many seniors dealing with a retirement shortfall.

But if none of this proves viable, the question is: Just how much do you hate that retail job? Enough to move somewhere with a lower cost of living? Enough to cut what I’d imagine is already a bare-bones budget even further, say, by going carless and/or taking on a housemate?

Or is there a way you could earn money that’s not as lousy than your part-time retail job? I get it: You’re 70 and exhausted from working. But if that’s truly your only option, consider some alternatives for making money. For example, could driving for Uber or doing a work-from-home customer service job be a little less taxing?

There are no easy solutions here. You do have options, though none of them are perfect. But with persistence, I think you can find some that will make your retirement a lot less stressful.

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