The 2007-2008 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 financial markets crashed, wiping out much of their retirement funds. Many have recovered, but for others, the timing was disastrous.

Some individuals, for any number of reasons, reach retirement age without enough of a nest egg and now find themselves low on money. If you or a loved one does not have enough money to meet basic needs, you need to know about programs that can help. At the same time, when the most immediate needs have been filled, it also makes sense to stand back and think about the next steps.

Key Takeaways

  • Low-income seniors have a number of financial options available to help in retirement.
  • In addition to Medicare and Social Security, food stamps, Medicaid, and SSI are available to those who qualify.
  • Low-income seniors can sometimes find help with job training, housing, tax relief, and legal services.
  • Many of the programs available to seniors are at the state and local level.
  • Growing vegetables and cooking meals at home can help substantially lower grocery bills.

The Programs You Know

You're probably familiar with a number of programs that certainly help low-income retirees.

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.


You paid into Medicare during your working years, just as you did with Social Security. You should receive Part A benefits at zero cost. Premiums for Part B and C will vary. Part D, better known as the prescription coverage part, has a low-income subsidy called Extra Help.

Extra Help

Seniors receiving Medicare Part D coverage may receive assistance from the Extra Help plan worth about $5,000 annually. Married couples living together must have a combined worth of $29,160 or less, and singles must have $14,610 or less, to qualify for this plan.


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.

Food Stamps

Seniors are eligible for the food stamp program, also called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Details of the program are outlined on the SNAP website.

Supplemental Security Income

SSI is not Social Security. Instead, it’s a public assistance program that provides aid to the aged or disabled. You can learn more about eligibility and how to apply at the Social Security website.

Other Programs for Retirees is a website sponsored by the National Council on Aging that includes information on more than 2,500 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.

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 your income falls below certain levels.

Legal Services

Many attorneys and practices will provide legal services to seniors for free or at a discounted rate.

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.


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 (two to five years). Your local government office has all the details.


Many utility companies around the nation provide assistance programs to seniors who can’t afford to pay their utility bills. Contact your utility company and ask if it has an assistance program. If not, they might suggest other ways to lower your utility bills.

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. In short, it's worth polishing your cooking skills or learning some new ones because it can save you a lot of money on groceries.

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.

As a senior, you're surrounded by discounts for things like transportation and entertainment, including many deals you might not know about.

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 17,000 locations.

Controlling Your Finances

If you haven't done so already, take true control of your retirement finances. If you're married, make sure both spouses are involved because 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.

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.

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.