13 Essential Tips if You’re Planning To Live on Just Social Security

Navigate the challenges of living on Social Security with these indispensable survival tips.

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Updated June 6, 2024
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Whether through choice or circumstance, you might find yourself in a situation where living mainly on Social Security is your only option. 

But since Social Security typically replaces no more than 40% of your pre-retirement income, it can require a lot of lifestyle adjustments, from becoming a savvy shopper to downsizing to a different home.

Whether you're currently living on Social Security or contemplating a future in which it constitutes your primary income, we have 13 essential tips to make retiring on Social Security as doable as possible.

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Don’t apply for benefits until your full retirement age

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You can apply to start receiving Social Security benefits as early as age 62. However, if you plan on living on Social Security once you retire, it's wise to put off applying until you reach your full retirement age.

If you collect benefits before your full retirement age, determined by the year you were born, your benefits will be lower for as long as you're retired. Think carefully about whether claiming benefits early is really worth the cost.

You can use the benefits calculator on the Social Security website to see what your monthly income will be depending on the age you begin collecting.

Contact the SSA about delaying benefits until age 70

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If you started taking Social Security when you reached your full retirement age and realize you need more money, you can stop the benefits until age 70 to reap the highest benefit.

Contact the Social Security Administration (SSA) and request to have them suspend your benefits until age 70. That way, you'll receive the maximum benefit amount rather than the reduced benefit you get from taking it at your full retirement age.

Put off retirement as long as possible

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The longer you remain in the workforce, the longer you'll be able to live on your earned wages instead of relying solely on Social Security.

Working can come with other benefits, too, such as company-sponsored health insurance. Plus, working longer can give you the chance to save a little money to supplement your Social Security check once you retire.

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Downsize your living situation

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When you move from a large house to a smaller condo or apartment, you should start saving a lot of money on your monthly rent or mortgage payment alone.

Downsizing can also make your lifestyle more affordable by reducing your utility bill. With less space to heat or cool, you shouldn't have to spend as much on your gas and electricity bills.

A smaller home may also reduce your property taxes and general expenses.

Find a roommate

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Whether you downsize to a smaller home or stay in your current living situation, consider having a roommate. If you're not used to sharing your space with another person, it might be a bit of an adjustment.

On the financial front, having another person around to share rent, groceries, and utility costs will help your budget go a little further.

Sell anything you don’t need

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The process of downsizing gives you the perfect opportunity to get rid of any possessions you no longer need, or that won't be able to fit in your smaller home.

Consider hosting a yard sale to make some money off your extra items. Advertise your sale on neighborhood signs and social media posts, and clearly label each item with a price ahead of time so you don't have to worry about haggling with bargain hunters.

Pay down as much debt as possible before retiring

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Making monthly debt payments will probably become harder once your income is reduced by 60%. Plus, the longer it takes to pay down high-interest debt, like credit cards, the more money you'll pay over time.

If possible, prioritize paying down high-interest debt before retiring so you can put your monthly payment toward paying for essentials rather than the interest on purchases you made long ago.

Move to a cheaper area

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The cost of living in the U.S. varies — sometimes drastically — from state to state and city to city within the state itself.

If you're living in a region with a high cost of living, like California or New York City, downsizing to another home in the same place will save you a little money. But downsizing to a more affordable area in the South or Midwest will make a massive difference.

Make smart shopping decisions

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When you're living on Social Security, you really don't have room in your budget for impulse buys or frivolous purchases. Stick to a trict list when you're heading to the grocery store, or order online if you know you're prone to buying things you don't need.

Find the cheapest grocery and gas stores in your area and shop there instead of at the closest or most convenient stores.

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Claim any spousal benefits you’re entitled to

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If a spouse did not earn enough credits to qualify for Social Security on their own, they may be entitled to receive up to 50% of their spouse's benefits. This is known as the spousal benefit.

If a spouse is entitled to Social Security through their earnings, and their benefit is higher than their spouse's, Social Security will pay that benefit. If their earnings are lower, they will receive the spousal benefit.

You might also be entitled to Social Security benefits from an ex-spouse if you're currently divorced and were married for at least 10 consecutive years to qualify.

Don’t forget about survivors benefits

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If you're the widower, widow, or dependent of an individual who earned Social Security wages and was entitled to a monthly benefit, you can apply to receive survivors benefits. 

You won't automatically start receiving survivors benefits if your spouse passes away. Instead, you need to apply for it over the phone. You cannot apply for survivors benefits online.

Switch to public transit

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If you live in a city with a solid bus or train transit system, consider selling your car and traveling primarily via public transit. 

Living without a car means traveling on a schedule other than your own, which can be a hard adjustment if you're used to more independence.

Still, if you can get used to communal travel, your bottom line will benefit from the money you earn selling your car and the money you save on maintenance, registration, insurance, and gas.

Consider a part-time job

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If you’re short on cash, adding another job is the easiest, most straightforward way to earn extra money. You don’t have to commit to a full-time job to pad your wallet, although full-time work is definitely an option. 

Instead, a side hustle like driving for a ride-share service, selling crafts on Etsy, or tutoring students online can be a smart move for your wallet.

Bottom line

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Living entirely on Social Security is challenging at best, especially if you’re used to a more lavish lifestyle. 

But with the right mindset and financial know-how, you can live comfortably on a reduced retirement budget. And be sure to avoid wasting money in retirement.

Use these tips as your starting point to prepare for a budget-conscious life in retirement.

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Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith has spent a decade writing for and about small businesses. She specializes in all things finance and has written for publications like G2 and SmallBizDaily. When she's not writing for work at her desk, you can usually find her writing for pleasure near large bodies of water.