Most Americans worry that Social Security is going broke. Are they right?

Personal Finance Motley Fool

(KenTannenbaum)

Countless Americans depend on Social Security to stay afloat financially in retirement -- so much so that they neglect their own savings in the process. But new data shows that U.S. workers fear the program isn't all that reliable in the long run. In fact, 78% of adults over 50 are deeply concerned about Social Security's long-term viability.

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The same holds true for 63% of workers who retired over the past 10 years. That's the latest from a recent poll by the Nationwide Retirement Institute, which also found that almost two-thirds of current and future beneficiaries are worried about cuts to Social Security under the Trump administration.

Of course, it's no secret that Social Security is on somewhat shaky ground headed into the future. But just how dire is the situation?

What does the future hold for Social Security?

In the absence of a crystal ball, it's hard to say how things will pan out as far as Social Security is concerned. But here's what we do know today. At present, the program is facing a sizable shortfall that, if left unaddressed, will result in significant cuts to benefits as early as the year 2034. Based on projections from the latest Trustees Report, come 2034, the program will only collect enough tax revenue to cover 77% of scheduled benefits -- which means recipients will face a 23% cut.

But let's be clear: That number isn't set in stone. A lot can happen between now and 2034. Congress can intervene and come up with a way to fix the program's shortfall. Tax guidelines can change in a manner that pumps more money into the program. There are a host of scenarios that might play out that ultimately make Social Security's future less dire than it currently seems, so those who fear the program's demise need not worry to such a degree.

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That said, regardless of how things play out over the next 17 years, relying too heavily on Social Security benefits in retirement is never a good idea -- and that's without taking potential cuts into consideration. Rather, all working Americans need to take retirement into their own hands and look to Social Security as a means of supplemental income more than anything else.

You can't live off Social Security alone

These days, an estimated 25% of seniors count on Social Security as their only source of income. And that's just a mistake. In a best-case scenario, Social Security will provide enough income to replace about 40% of the typical worker's previous earnings.

Most people, however, need double that amount, or more, to cover their living costs in retirement -- keeping in mind that, while some expenses, like transportation, may go down, other costs, like healthcare, are almost guaranteed to go up. That's why relying on Social Security without independent savings is a dangerous idea. Throw in the fact that future benefits might get slashed and you'll really be playing with fire if you don't save.

How much money should you be setting aside? Ideally, as much as possible, but at the very least, aim to save 10% to 15% of your income consistently during your working years. This means that, if you start out earning $40,000 a year, plan to set aside at least $4,000 for retirement, and ramp up your contributions as your salary increases.

If you can't hit that 10% to 15% threshold, save what you can and for as long as you can. Putting away as little as $100 a month will leave you in reasonable shape for retirement if you do so from the start of your career. In fact, if you save $100 a month consistently over the course of 45 years, and your investments bring in an average annual 7% return -- which is more than doable with a stock-heavy portfolio -- by the time retirement rolls around, you'll have a $343,000 nest egg. Make it $200 a month, and you'll be sitting on $686,000 once you're ready to leave your career behind.

If you don't have another 45 working years ahead of you, you'll need to compensate by putting a larger sum away each month. But even then, you don't need to part with a quarter of your salary to salvage your retirement. If you sock away $600 a month for 20 years, you'll have $295,000 to work with, assuming that same 7% average annual return.

No matter how much you're ultimately able to save, the key is to take control of your retirement income and stop focusing on Social Security. We don't know what benefits will look like in the future. While it's safe to say that they won't disappear completely, they should serve as a form of backup income for your savings, and not the other way around.

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