An estimated 45 million Americans receive Social Security retirement benefits each month, according to the Social Security Administration (SSA). The average monthly benefit is $1,543, and for some, it represents their primary source of retirement income.
If you're banking on Social Security to supplement what you've saved in a 401(k), IRA, or another qualified retirement plan, you may be in for a shock once your first payment arrives. If you recently started receiving Social Security benefits, there are three common reasons why you may be getting less than you expected—an offset due to outstanding debts, taking benefits early, and a high income.
- Your Social Security check will decrease if you owe certain debts like back taxes or student loans.
- Taking your Social Security benefits early can reduce your payments by up to 30%.
- Triggered by higher income, a higher Medicare premium can diminish your monthly Social Security check.
1. An Offset Shrank Your Social Security Check
One potential scenario that may result in lower Social Security benefits is an offset. That's when someone to whom you owe money makes a claim against your benefits. Examples of debts that could result in an offset include:
- Defaulted student loans
- Unpaid alimony or child support obligations
- Back taxes
SSA regulations protect the first $750 in the benefits you receive. However, if it's determined that the debt does indeed belong to you, the Social Security Administration will reduce your benefits each month by a certain amount until what you owe is repaid. Once an offset for debt is satisfied—or you reach your normal retirement age if the decrease is due to early benefits—you'll receive your full benefit amount. Meanwhile, you have to deal with the temporary shortfall.
You may also be subject to an offset if you receive Social Security benefits before you reach full retirement age and you continue to work.
2. Early Benefits Shrank Your Social Security Check
For most people retiring now, the full retirement age for Social Security purposes is either 66 or 67, depending on the year they were born. But it is possible to begin taking your Social Security retirement benefits as early as age 62. While that can give you some financial relief if you're strapped for cash, there is a trade-off. The size of your benefits automatically—and permanently—goes down.
A 2019 survey of 1,315 U.S. adults aged 50 or older by the Nationwide Retirement Institute (NRI), a subsidiary of the Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company, found that 25% of future retirees say they plan to apply for benefits early. The survey also found that 89% of recent retirees and 97% of older retirees who retired a decade or more ago started receiving benefits at age 62. In that same study, 24% of current retirees said their Social Security check was smaller than they anticipated.
How much can taking benefits early really cost you? Let's say your normal retirement age is 67, but you decide to apply for Social Security when you turn 62. Because you're taking benefits for an extra 60 months, your Social Security check would be reduced by 30%.
If you're entitled to $1,000 a month, you'd only get $700. That's a pretty significant chunk of money to give up, and that check will be lower for life. If you're thinking of getting benefits early, it pays to crunch the numbers to see how much you stand to lose by doing so.
If you wait until you're 70 to start claiming benefits, you'll get an extra 8% per year, but claiming after that age doesn't increase your benefits further, so there's no reason to wait any longer.
3. Medicare Premiums Shrank Your Social Security Check
Seniors are eligible to enroll in Medicare the year they turn 65. If you sign up for Medicare Part B, your premiums are deducted from your Social Security benefits. For 2021, the standard monthly premium is set at $148.50. However, it's entirely possible that you could end up paying more if you fall into a higher tax bracket.
If you file an individual return and your income is higher than $88,000, but less than $111,000, you will pay $207.90 in 2021. If your income falls between $111,000 and $138,000, you pay $297. And if it's more than $500,000, you will pay $504.90. The full breakdown of rates is available on the Medicare website.
"If your income has recently dropped, you may appeal to the SSA for a lower premium. The IRS may be providing the SSA with older data that needs to be updated," says James B. Twining, CFP, founder, and CEO of Financial Plan Inc.
For certain high-income earners, Medicare premiums are equivalent to 30%, 50%, 65%, or even 80% of the total cost of coverage.
Other Factors Affecting Your Social Security Check
If you expect your income to go up instead of down in retirement for any reason—you sell off a high-value asset, you start a profitable business, or you earn a lot as a consultant or freelancer—that could substantially impact what you get from Social Security.
Your benefits could dwindle even further if you have Medicare Parts A and B (also known as Original Medicare), and you're also paying a separate premium for a supplemental policy, called a Medigap plan.
Earnings above certain thresholds can also temporarily reduce social security checks until full retirement age.
The number of retirees polled by the Nationwide Retirement Institute who think they are eligible for benefits sooner than they actually are.
A Word About Reserves
Even though the Social Security pot is replenished each month with payroll taxes from all income earners, the fund's resources aren't infinite. This means they will dry up at some point.
According to a 2020 report by the SSA, retirement benefits will be fully paid on schedule until 2034. The trust fund's reserves are expected to be exhausted after that point, with taxes expected to cover only 76% of scheduled benefits after that point. Congress will need to make more changes to how the fund is replenished so retirees can continue to get full coverage.
The SSA points out that the numbers in the 2020 report don't take into account the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. This means that, if anything, they are likely to get worse.
The Bottom Line
Relying on Social Security to see you through retirement can put you on thin ice financially. It becomes even trickier when you're getting less money than you budgeted to receive. Taking the time to clear up any outstanding debts, weighing the cost of taking benefits early, and looking at how your income stands to affect your benefits can help you avoid any surprises once your Social Security checks start rolling in.