How to live comfortably on Social Security

Adventure Sports WeeklyMarch 26, 2013 

It's called an "entitlement," but many seniors find out that they're not entitled to very much when they start receiving Social Security.

Years of economic woes have let the air out of investments, whether stocks or property. Some folks have had to chip away at their savings and other funds. The average Social Security check is $1,200 per month, not counting the $100 or more monthly payment for Medicare, or the 20-percent co-pay when Medicare is used.

Those who sign up for Social Security early in order to receive that monthly check often wind up in shock -- and in debt. Many don't even know how to live on such a modest sum. They overspend without realizing it, then frantically try extreme solutions, like re-financing their home or borrowing from predatory lenders.

But that only digs the hole deeper, forcing many seniors to severely lower their standard of living.

Others, who may feel insecure on Social Security, start living like paupers in order to save every possible penny in case it's needed "later."

The solution to the problem is to learn how to live on Social Security. All you really need to do is to compartmentalize your finances. It means starting with a pen and paper to put your finances into two categories: required money and choice money.

Begin by adding up your monthly income. Include pensions, benefits and Federal or personal payments; every single cent that you can definitely count on each month.

Next, list your "required" money. That includes mortgage or rent, car payments, the average monthly cost for utilities, medications, insurance -- in other words, every required sum that you MUST pay or face disaster. Add up the monthly total of this required money.

Now subtract that sum from the total of the money you have coming in. The amount that's left is your "choice" money. You can choose to purchase groceries with it or eat out at a restaurant. You can choose to buy a tankful of gas, or pay for transportation or stay home.

You can put aside a monthly installment to allow the eventual purchase of a big item like a new TV or a vacation trip. Or, you can put some of your "choice" money into a bank account or invest it. You have total choice over how -- or even whether -- to spend it.

Finally, here is the secret to learning to live on Social Security: a credit card.

Go to your bank and ask for a credit card limited to the amount of your choice money. Don't get a debit card, for several reasons.

For one, debit cards give access to your bank accounts, often including both checking and savings. You unwittingly can tap into your own accounts, thus going over your choice money without even knowing it.

And two, debit cards are subject to more dangerous types of fraud. Scammers can use them to clean out your accounts, and though banks will almost always replace money lost to fraud, it may take a LOT of time and trouble.

Fraudulent bank credit card charges will be canceled quickly. If you cancel a card because it's been lost or stolen, you're only on the hook for a small sum.

But here's why you should put all your choice money on a credit card: once the card reaches the limit, it will be declined. You'll know immediately that you've spent all your choice money. Your financial choices are at an end for that month, and you'll have to make an additional, very aware effort, if you feel like going beyond your choice money and into debt.

Here's the follow-up: When your check comes in each month, the first thing to do is pay off that card. If the card still has money on it, that means you didn't spend all your choice money during that month. So you now have extra cash to play with. Best of all, using this system, you'll live on your Social Security without ever going into debt.

Wina Sturgeon, an active boomer based in Salt Lake City, skates on both ice blades and wheels, lifts weights and skis to stay in shape.

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