Fixed Income Strategies

Your Social Security check could be less than you expect. Here's how to prevent that

Key Points
  • Individuals who are approaching retirement expect to receive 30 percent more in monthly Social Security benefits than current retirees are collecting.
  • That discrepancy is a big deal for individuals who are living on a fixed income and face increasingly high health-care costs.
  • By planning ahead and having the right conversations now, aspiring retirees can boost the benefits they will receive in their golden years.
Donald Higgs | Getty Images

You may be disappointed with the size of your Social Security check in retirement.

To that point, 27 percent of retirees said their payments are less than they expected, according to the latest Social Security survey conducted by Nationwide Retirement Institute.

At the same time, aspiring retirees said they expect to receive $1,628 per month on average. But current retirees are receiving an average of $1,257 per month.

That 30 percent difference can be a really big deal for retirees who do not anticipate that shortfall, according to Tina Ambrozy, president of sales and distribution at Nationwide.

"There's a huge disconnect between what those folks who are approaching retirement believe their retirement will cover and what it will cover," Ambrozy said. "The gap is pretty significant."

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That comes as income from Social Security benefits is expected to be a large chunk — if not the main source — of funds for many retirees. More than half of the individuals surveyed — 55 percent — said Social Security benefits will be their main source of income in retirement.

Those survey results come from 1,013 individuals ages 50 and up.

Before you retire, there are several things you can do to bridge your Social Security confidence — and income — gap.

Have a clear understanding of your benefits

The longer you wait to claim Social Security up until age 70, the larger your benefits will be.

Age 62 is when you are first eligible to claim your Social Security retirement benefits, but you will receive less for claiming early.

Full retirement age — which is currently 66 or 67, depending on the year in which you were born — is when you are eligible to receive 100 percent of the benefits you earned.

For each year you delay Social Security benefits from your full retirement age until 70, you get an 8 percent boost to your benefits.

While many of Nationwide's survey respondents said they planned to wait until 66, most actually claim their benefits at 62.

"There's four years between when they thought they were going to start collecting and when they actually are collecting," Ambrozy said. "That has a huge impact on their income that they're drawing for the rest of their life."

Believing these Social Security myths could make you poorer in retirement

Understand where your money will really go

The survey results also show a discrepancy between where individuals anticipate their Social Security checks will go and how they actually use them.

That goes particularly for health-care costs, which many retirees do not anticipate. Forty-one percent of older individuals surveyed said they do not plan to use their Social Security income for health costs.

At the same time, 58 percent of those who had retired within the last 10 years said they are using their Social Security income to pay for health care.

Get professional help

The best Social Security claiming strategy for you depends on a variety of factors, including your age, health, marital status, employment status and other retirement savings.

Because there are so many variables, many individuals and financial advisors are now using Social Security optimization software to run the numbers for specific situations.

Changing the numbers just a little can change your retirement picture dramatically.

Consulting a financial advisor who uses a Social Security tool can help you evaluate your options.

And that relationship can also boost your benefit checks, according to Nationwide's survey.

Individuals who worked with an advisor saw a boost of more than 20 percent to their benefits, according to the survey. That can be the difference between $1,500 per month and $1,234 per month.

But just 13 percent of older adults said they are working with an advisor who has discussed their Social Security benefits with them.

"The conversation is not happening enough around this," Ambrozy said. "They're not planning and preparing, and then they end up in a situation that is irreversible.

"It's really sad, and it's preventable."