Social Security is the most important resource for most people’s retirement financial plans. It provides guaranteed income that can be a cornerstone for retirement cash flows, but is Social Security enough on its own? The answer is different for every household, but there are important factors to consider so you can answer the question for yourself.
Meeting your basic needs
The poverty threshold is an official metric that’s tracked by the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2024, the Bureau indicates that the average single-person household needs at least $15,060 of income to live above the poverty line. The threshold is $20,440 for two-person households.
For comparison, the average Social Security check in 2024 is around $1,760 per month, which translates to $21,120 annually. The maximum monthly benefit is $4,873, or $58,476 annually.
Some Americans can meet their basic needs in retirement with Social Security benefits alone. However, the reality for many households is more complicated, and Social Security income alone isn’t going to be sufficient for most people.
The numbers above show that the average monthly retirement benefit is nearly equal to the threshold for economic insecurity. This means that a significant number of households fall dangerously near or below the poverty line in retirement. Numerous studies indicate that Social Security is the most important program for alleviating poverty among seniors. It’s estimated that more than 10% of retired people still fall below the threshold, and that number would be much higher without Social Security in place.
Social Security can be enough income for your golden years, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be enough. It might sound obvious, but you need to understand how your benefits will stack up relative to cash needs. Moreover, not everyone has the same financial requirements and expectations for retirement. Other factors need to be considered.
Issues with averages
The poverty threshold is a useful statistic, but it allows important data to fall through the cracks. For example, cost of living varies drastically among households. Certain parts of the U.S. are much more expensive than others. The costs of rent, property taxes, groceries, healthcare, and basic goods vary significantly. Different criteria for Medicaid among states also factor into this equation. Some states tax Social Security income, while others don’t. That can materially change the amount of cash that you have for spending.
These differences are meaningful, whether they’re among states or among cities, suburbs, and more remote areas within states. Realistically, the poverty threshold isn’t uniform, and the distinctions can be huge.
Personal financial circumstances also play an important role. Someone renting their home might have totally different cash flow needs relative to someone paying a mortgage or someone who owns their home outright. Many retirees have significant out-of-pocket medical expenses that need to be factored into the baseline budget.
Needs vs. goals
You can’t gloss over the fact that retirement plans often strive to deliver a lifestyle that far exceeds merely meeting basic needs. You might dream of traveling, dining out, embracing hobbies, spending quality time with family, enjoying a vacation home, or simply living without financial stress. Social Security is unlikely to deliver all of that by itself for most people.
That’s why it’s important to design and execute a retirement plan to achieve financial independence. You should save at least 15% of your income during working years, invest that for responsible growth when you’re young, slowly rotate your asset allocation toward bonds to lock in gains, and reduce volatility as you approach retirement. If you are fortunate enough to have a defined benefit pension plan, then this is being managed for you already. Everyone else needs to use a combination of employer-sponsored retirement accounts, IRAs, and other investment accounts to build liquid wealth.
Social Security can provide a powerful base for your retirement lifestyle. Supplementing that income with your own investment accounts can get you closer to more ambitious financial goals for your golden years.