Social Security is often in the news these days. Congress regularly threatens to change and possibly reduce benefits. The program's financial soundness is the source of constant speculation and concern. And the economic downturn shone a light on the fact that more than half of all retirees depend on Social Security benefits for more than 90 percent of their income—an alarmingly high percentage for a program designed to provide modest retirement support.
With all this attention, you'd think older Americans would be sharpening their plans to use this important benefit program. Yet according to a new poll of more than 800 consumers ages 50 to 65, fewer than 1 in 5 older Americans have even begun serious planning for how to use Social Security.
"In our survey last month, we found that only 18 percent of baby boomers are making decisions now about how they'll claim Social Security," says Michelle Hall, market research manager for Securian Financial Group, an insurance company based in St. Paul, Minn., that sponsored the survey.
At the same time, only 11 percent of those surveyed said they expect to rely on Social Security for 90 percent or more of their retirement income. And a sixth of respondents said they weren't counting on Social Security for any of their retirement income. "The number of boomers who expect to receive no Social Security benefits or aren't sure how much they'll receive reflects the group's insecurity about financial security in retirement," Hall adds.
Here are 13 Social Security planning and claiming questions put to consumers in the poll, and their answers. How do these attitudes compare with your own plans?
1. Which of the following best describes your experience in planning for your Social Security retirement benefits?
Beginning to explore options; 38 percent
Have not started to explore options; 44 percent
Explored options and am developing a plan; 8 percent
Have a plan in place; 10 percent
2. At what age did you begin planning for claiming your Social Security?
Under 40; 4 percent
40-49; 3 percent
50-59; 40 percent (includes 50, 10 percent; 55, 10 percent)
60-65; 46 percent (includes 60, 12 percent; 62, 20 percent)
66 and older; 6 percent
3. How easy or difficult was it to find information about your Social Security benefit options?
Very difficult; 2 percent
Somewhat difficult; 14 percent
Neither easy nor difficult; 17 percent
Somewhat easy; 35 percent
Very easy; 32 percent
4. What prompted you to begin planning for claiming your Social Security benefits? Select all that apply.
Concern about whether retirement savings will provide enough income; 44 percent
Need to decide on retirement age; 42 percent
My health; 31 percent
Assessing specific cash flow needs in retirement; 30 percent
Uncertainty about future of Social Security; 30 percent
Advice from already retired friends or family; 18 percent
Health of spouse; 11 percent
Advice from financial adviser/professional; 10 percent
5. Have you adjusted your plan for how or when you will claim Social Security benefits?
Yes; 50 percent
No; 50 percent
6. How recently did you make adjustments to your plan?
Within the past six months; 33 percent
Within the past year; 43 percent
Within the past two years; 16 percent
Within the past three years; 7 percent
Three or more years ago; 1 percent
7. What changes have you made to your plan? Select all that apply.
Changed age at which I'll retire; 59 percent
Changed age at which I'll begin collecting Social Security benefits; 48 percent
Changed how much I spend; 41 percent
Will work part-time in retirement; 40 percent
Changed how I should invest my savings; 22 percent
Changed age at which my spouse will retire; 14 percent
Changed age at which my spouse will begin collecting Social Security benefits; 14 percent
Coordinated dates at which spouse and I will begin collecting Social Security benefits; 12 percent
8. What source(s) did you seek advice from in developing your plan for claiming Social Security benefits? Select all that apply.
Social Security website; 60 percent
Online tool/calculator; 25 percent
Already retired friends or family; 25 percent
Financial adviser; 22 percent
Local Social Security office; 22 percent
Articles in newspapers/publications; 18 percent
Retirement plan provider/employer; 16 percent
None. I did not seek advice; 11 percent
Accountant/CPA; 7 percent
[Read: Understanding Your Retirement Fees.]
9. What percentage of your retirement income is currently, or do you expect to be, attributed to Social Security?
None; 4 percent
Don't know; 37 percent
Less than 20 percent; 8 percent
20 to 39 percent; 15 percent
40 to 60 percent; 18 percent
70 89 percent; 9 percent
90 percent or higher; 9 percent
10. Based on your plan, do you think you will maximize your Social Security benefits?
Yes; 44 percent
No; 18 percent
Not sure; 37 percent
11. At what age do you expect to begin exploring your options for claiming Social Security benefits?
50 to 59; 26 percent
60 to 65; 64 percent
66 to 69; 7 percent
70 to 75; 3 percent
12. Which of the following sources do you plan to seek advice from when developing a plan for claiming Social Security benefits? Select all that apply.
Social Security website; 66 percent
Local Social Security office; 39 percent
Already retired friends or family; 36 percent
Online tool/calculator; 33 percent
Financial adviser; 27 percent
Retirement plan provider/employer; 22 percent
Articles in newspapers/publications; 15 percent
Accountant/CPA; 14 percent
None; 7 percent
13. What percentage of your retirement income do you expect to come from Social Security?
Zero percent. I am not relying on any income from Social Security; 17 percent
Less than 20 percent; 7 percent
20 to 39 percent; 24 percent
40 to 59 percent; 27 percent
60 to 69 percent; 4 percent
70 to 89 percent; 11 percent
90 percent or higher; 11 percent