The financial crisis, now called the Great Recession, is fading from the minds of Americans, but many households are still feeling its effects. People reaching retirement age thought they were set until the investment market crashed, wiping out much of their retirement fund. Many have recovered, but for some the timing was disastrous.
Others, for any number of reasons, reached retirement age without enough of a nest egg and now find themselves low on money. None of this was helped by the decision to not have a COLA (Cost of Living Adjustment) raising Social Security payments, three years ago.
If you or a loved one does not have enough money to meet basic needs, you need to know about programs that can help. When the most immediate needs have been filled, it also makes sense to stand back and think about next steps.
The Programs You Know
Let’s start with the programs you may already know.
Social Security. Throughout your working years you paid into Social Security. The average retiree receives about $1,404 in benefits as of 2018. If your spouse passed away or you’re disabled, you may qualify for benefits, too. For many, Social Security is the cornerstone of their income, but it’s not meant to be the primary income source.
Medicare. You paid into Medicare during your working years, just as you did with Social Security. You should be receiving Part A benefits at zero cost (see Medicare 101: Do You Need All 4 Parts? ). Part D, better known as the prescription coverage has a low income subsidy called Extra Help (see below).
Extra Help. Seniors receiving Part D coverage may receive assistance from the Extra Help plan worth about $4,000 annually. Married couples living together must have a combined worth of $28,150 or less, and singles must have $14,100 or less, may qualify for this plan. I
Medicaid. Medicaid, not Medicare, is where you go if you need assistance with medical costs. The program provides coverage if you’re “aged, blind, and disabled,” providing you are under certain income limits. You can receive Medicare and Medicaid benefits at the same time. See Medicaid Vs. Medicare.
Food Stamps. Seniors are eligible for the food stamp program, also call the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP.) Go to the SNAP website to learn more.
Supplemental Security Income. SSI is not Social Security. Instead, it’s a public assistance program that provides aid to the aged and/or disabled. You can learn more about eligibility and how to apply at the Social Security website.
Other Programs for Retirees
The first place to go is Benefitscheckup.org. This is a website sponsored by the National Council on Aging that includes information on more than 1,700 public and private assistance programs for adults over 55, including nutrition, legal, housing and education. Simply complete the short form and the site will list any programs that may apply to you.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services sponsors eldercare, a website similar to the above. Enter your city or zip code and the site returns local assistance programs available to you.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture administers The Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP). Similar to food stamps, this program is available to seniors at least 60 years old and is administered at the state level. More information is here.
Tax Relief. Seniors may be eligible for tax relief—often property or real estate taxes, vehicle license fees, and solid waste fees. Certain income caps may apply and each state has varying laws and eligibility requirements.
You may also apply for a federal tax credit if you fall below certain income limits. See IRS publication 524 for more information.
Legal Services. Many attorneys and practices will provide legal services to seniors for free or at a discounted rate. Look at the AARP attorney search tool to find people in your area.
Job Training. The United States Department of Labor administers The Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP), a program that provides training and part-time job placement for seniors under certain income limits. Jobs pay minimum wage but serve as a way to provide training that may lead to a better job in the future. Learn more about this program here. Also see The Best Jobs For Retirees and Impact Of Continuing To Work In Retirement.
Housing Vouchers. The Housing Choice Voucher Program (HCVP) offers assistance for anybody living in certain properties run by local public housing agencies. Vouchers are income based and often have a long waiting list (2 to 5 years). For more information contact your local government office.
Help with Utilities. Many utilities companies around the nation provide assistance programs to senior who can’t afford to pay their utility bills. Contact your utility company and ask if it has an assistance program.
Take on a Low-Cost Lifestyle
Spending less isn't just about government or private programs, and you can build in a lot of fun. You now have time to smell the roses and even grow some – in your own garden or a community garden, if your town has one. Along with vegetables, of course. You can get four meals for the price of one chicken, or one chicken dinner out, if you cook it yourself. It's worth polishing your cooking skills or learning some new ones.
If you live near a university, you have time to go to the free concerts every music student has to give in order to graduate. That's a lot of music. Some volunteer programs include lunch for the volunteers – and they're a good way to meet new people in your community, even if you didn't move after you retired.
The best exercise, if you can manage it, is walking, and all you need are adequate shoes. Speaking of which, look into the Silver Sneakers fitness programs, sponsored through many Medicare health plans in more than 11,000 locations.
As a senior, you're surrounded by discounts, including many you probably don't know about. See No COLA Raise? Discounts to Help Seniors Budget.
Take the Next Steps for Controlling Your Finances
And if you haven't done so already, take true control of your retirement finances. If you're married, make sure both spouses are involved; one of you will probably have to take the primary role at some point. It's important to discuss everything thoroughly, especially when money is tight and you don't have much room to recover from mistakes. See 5 Ways To Stretch Your Retirement Budget.
This is also the time to discuss whether you plan to stay where you are or relocate to a smaller home or less expensive community. The factors to consider are too numerous to list, but try to discuss them as fully and early in your retirement as possible. And read Avoid the Downsides of Downsizing In Retirement.
The Bottom Line
With a little bit of digging, retirees can find a host of programs designed to assist with living expenses. Many of these programs are administered by your state or local government. Contact the appropriate government offices for more information or go to their websites. And remember, if your computer's not working well, many public libraries have extensive computer facilities and staff trained to help you learn about new equipment.