- Negative headlines about the future of Social Security may influence the retirement benefit decisions people make.
- If you're planning to claim, here's what experts say you should focus on instead.
The subject of Social Security was largely left untouched in the first Republican presidential debate.
But worries about the future of the program loom large in Americans' minds, a recent survey from the Nationwide Retirement Institute shows.
To that point, 75% of individuals age 50 and up worry Social Security will run out of funding in their lifetimes, according to the survey of 1,806 individuals taken between May and June.
That is up from 66% of adults who said the same in 2014.
Those concerns have increased as the depletion dates for the program's funds come closer. The program's combined funds are due to run out in 2034, at which point 80% of benefits will be payable, Social Security's trustees have said.
Meanwhile, the fund the program relies on to pay retirement benefits is projected to last until 2033 — just a decade away — with 77% of benefits payable at that time.
"You've got people on this stage that won't even talk about Social Security and Medicare," former Vice President Mike Pence said during Wednesday's Republican primary debate.
In a February interview with CNBC, Pence said it was necessary to "get everybody at the table" to discuss the future of the programs.
"There's lots of good ideas to solve this that are common sense that don't impact people at the point of the need, that don't affect anybody that is going to retire in the next 25 years," Pence said, pointing to legislation passed 50 years ago that raised the retirement age and ushered in long-time solvency.
While the other candidates didn't take Pence's bait to debate the future of the programs Wednesday, they have addressed them in separate interviews.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis told Fox News in July that he would "protect people's Social Security," though he is open to reform.
"Talking about making changes for people in their 30s or 40s so that the program's viable, you know, that's a much different thing, and that's something that I think that there's going to need to be discussions on," he said.
Uncertainty about the future of Social Security comes as more Americans rely on the program for their sole source of income, with 21% doing so according to Nationwide's latest retirement survey, versus 13% in 2014.
Meanwhile, just 31% said they currently have income from pensions, versus 48% who said the same 10 years ago.
While the fate of Social Security remains uncertain, experts say there are a couple of things people can do to position themselves for the most benefits available to them.
"This is one of the largest decisions you'll make in your life" and one people are least informed about when going into it, said Tina Ambrozy, senior vice president of strategic customer solutions at Nationwide.
Uncertainty around the future of Social Security is the No. 1 reason many retirees are claiming before age 70 — the maximum age it pays to wait to before getting benefits — and full retirement age, when they stand to receive 100% of the benefits they earned, a Schroders survey recently found. Find out your full retirement age by using this calculator.
But experts say it's still best to base your retirement claiming strategy on your personal situation, rather than fears about the program's outlook.
Even if lawmakers fail to enact changes to Social Security before the depletion dates, the average retiree will still receive about 77 cents on the dollar, Joe Elsasser, a certified financial planner and founder and president of Covisum, a Social Security claiming software company, recently told CNBC.com.
Targeting the claiming strategy that will get you the most benefits will put you in a strong position, even if there are changes down the road.
Waiting to claim is not the best strategy for everyone, and the decision shouldn't be based exclusively on age, Ambrozy said.
Social Security comes with many complex rules, and almost half of adults — 49% — said they know how to maximize their benefits, Nationwide's survey found.
Yet just 13% of adults can correctly guess their full retirement age, which is when they are eligible for 100% of the benefits they earned.
Notably, almost half of respondents — 49% — erroneously believe their benefits will go up at full retirement age even if they claim early.
"Once you elect to start receiving benefits, it locks in," Ambrozy said. "You're not just going to just step up based on age."
To avoid costly mistakes, experts say it's best to study up on the program's rules, including information provided by the Social Security Administration.
To gauge how much money you may be eligible for in retirement, it helps to set up an online Social Security account, where you can also make sure your earnings history and other crucial information is correct.
But prospective beneficiaries should avoid asking workers in their Social Security office for advice, Ambrozy said, as they may not be experts in claiming strategies.
Instead, consulting a financial advisor who is well versed in Social Security can help you identify the most optimal claiming strategy for your personal situation.
"We just are big believers that you should ask for help and don't wait until it's too late," Ambrozy said. "Don't wait until you've already filed and you're starting to collect and then suddenly you realize you've made an incorrect choice."