Social Security: 7 common myths busted

Whether it will be around when you retire or not, Social Security is a difficult thing to understand. Here are seven common questions about the program, explained. 

Department of Treasury/AP/File
A check from the US Treasury is shown in this 2005 file photo. A common misconception is that it's easy to live off Social Security alone, but that's rarely the case.

Will Social Security be around when I retire?

That’s a question lots of Americans are probably asking themselves, though it’s certainly not the only thing we might be wondering when it comes to Social Security. Given our national retirement program’s handbook of 2,728 rules and countless interpretations, few participants are likely to thoroughly understand it.

To help shed light on Social Security, we recently set out to separate fact from fiction. Below are some of the most common Social Security myths, along with explanations:

Myth: Social Security funds are running dry, so I should collect as soon as possible

The most recent government-issued report projects that Social Security will run out of funding by 2033. This is earlier than previously expected, but doesn’t necessarily mean Social Security will be gone in 20 years. It means system revenues won’t be capable of paying 100 percent of promised benefits under the law. The Social Security Administration estimates that benefits could be reduced by 22 percent at that point and may continue to decline if Congress doesn’t intervene.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of Americans are taking Social Security at the minimum age of 62, according to SmartMoney. But experts insist that it pays to wait. For each year you hold off on collecting Social Security after reaching full retirement age – which is typically age 66 for baby boomers – you’ll get an 8 percent increase in benefits. So waiting till 70 means about a third more income.

Myth: I’ll be able to live comfortably on Social Security alone

If you’re counting solely on Social Security to support you after retirement, you might find yourself in a difficult financial situation: The average Social Security payment to a retired worker is around $1,234 per month – slightly more than the Federal minimum for a month’s wages.

So unless you’re prepared to supplement Social Security with savings or a pension, be prepared for a challenge. Consider cost-cutting measures, like minimizing housing expenses, as well as earning extra income. You can work and claim Social Security benefits at the same time.

Myth: The more money I make now, the more I’ll get back later

Social Security’s progressive benefits formula favors low-income workers; they tend to get back a greater percentage of what they put in compared to higher-income workers. But for many retirees today, the amount they’ve paid in over the years will likely exceed what they’ll take out, according to an analysis by The Associated Press.

This has also changed drastically with the times. According to The Associated Press, those who retired in 1960 could expect to receive seven times more in benefits than they paid in taxes. Last year, data showed a retired married couple who paid $598,000 in Social Security taxes throughout their careers could expect to collect only $556,000 in benefits – and that’s if the man lives to 82 and the woman to 85, according to an Urban Institute study.

Myth: Social Security is only for the retired

The program provides benefits for disabled workers of all ages – though qualifying for benefits can be challenging. It also provides survivor benefits to dependents of workers who pass away.

Myth: Qualifying for disability will be easy

With more than 8 million Americans receiving Social Security Disability Insurance, you’d think anyone unable to work due to a long-term physical or mental disability would be covered. But that’s not necessarily the case. Applications are up nearly 50 percent over a decade ago, and some applicants have to wait two years or longer for a resolution. For tips on qualifying for disability benefits, take a look at SSA.gov.

Myth: If I’m divorced, I can’t collect benefits from my ex-spouse

You can collect retirement benefits on your ex-spouse’s record if you were married for at least 10 years. However, you can’t collect benefits if you remarry – unless your second marriage also ends.

Myth: If I’m collecting Social Security, I’m an obvious target for identity theft and scams

You should always keep a eye out for scammers. Recently, CNNMoney reported that identity thieves are targeting seniors by fraudulently rerouting Social Security benefits to their own accounts. But that doesn’t mean only those at retirement age are at risk – anyone with a Social Security number is.

Surprisingly, children are even more at risk for getting their Social Security number stolen, according to a Carnegie Mellon University CyLab study. An astounding 10 percent of children surveyed had someone else using their Social Security number. For ways to avoid identity theft targeting children, check out our story Your Child Might Be an Identity Theft Victim.

Myth: I’ll be eligible for Medicare as soon as I can collect Social Security

Americans can’t earn Medicare benefits until age 65, but can collect Social Security as early as 62. Exception: If you collect Social Security Disability, you’ll get Medicare coverage automatically after two years.

Renee Morad is a writer for Money Talks News, a consumer/personal finance TV news feature that airs in about 80 cities and around the Web. This column first appeared in Money Talks News.

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