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What It's Like Living on Social Security

Barbara Woodruff shares her story, and it may surprise you

By Daisy Chan and

(This article appeared previously on

No doubt you’ve heard politicians and pundits debating the state of Social Security, and throwing out all kinds of numbers. But the bottom line for retirees has always been simple: Will I get enough to live on? Barbara Woodruff, of St. Louis, can answer yes to that question — but just barely. “It’s very difficult living on Social Security,” says the 65-year old, who retired when she turned 62.

Having lost her job as a cashier as well as her apartment and car in the recession, and being unable to find another job, the single retiree felt she had little choice but to retire in order to have an income. Her total Social Security benefit : $633 a month.

According to the Social Security Administration, Woodruff is far from alone. Nine out of 10 Americans 65 and older receive Social Security benefits, and it’s often their primary source of income. Social Security was at least 50 percent of income for 52 percent of beneficiary couples and 74 percent of single beneficiaries, and at least 90 percent of income for 22 percent of couples and 45 percent of singles.

Living on a Social Security Benefit

The average Social Security benefit is $1,294 a month, almost twice as much as Woodruff’s. Her low benefit reflects years of not working due to health problems — Social Security benefits are based on your earnings during your working years. Yet Woodruff has figured out how to live on $633 a month.

Qualifying for subsidized housing is a significant help. “I pay $189 for a really nice one-bedroom apartment,” Woodruff says — and $33 a month in food stamps helps defray her grocery bills. Besides that, Woodruff pays $45 a month for cell phone service (she feels safer having a cell phone with her), $45 on a senior-discounted bus pass, and $35 on Internet service. The rest of her income goes mainly to medication for thyroid and cholesterol issues, food (she tries to stay healthy by eating fresh fruit and vegetables) and an emergency fund. “I’m very frugal,” says Woodruff.

Woodruff’s $633 monthly benefit is tight, but even someone who receives the average monthly benefit of $1,294 would need some type of financial assistance to get by. According to the advocacy group Wider Opportunities For Women, the monthly expenses for Americans 65 or older in 2013 totaled $1,645 for a single person living in their own house without a mortgage, $1,966 for a renter, and $2,481 for a single person with a mortgage. This includes housing, food, transportation, healthcare and miscellaneous expenses. For couples, it was $2,542, $2,863 and $3,378, respectively.

When Cutting Back Hurts

Clearly, those living solely on Social Security would need to cut way back on expenses or work to get by. Woodruff’s biggest sacrifice has been not being able to visit her little brother, who lives in a home for the developmentally challenged that’s a two-hour drive away. It’s one reason she’s diligent about saving as much as she can.

“If there’s an emergency situation and I have to go see my brother, I can rent a car,” Woodruff says.


Not having a car makes it harder to get around town, and makes even grocery shopping difficult because it’s hard for her to carry so many bags and the long bus ride means frozen or cold items could spoil. In addition, she’s also had to curtail outings with friends significantly.

“My social life is virtually nonexistent,” she says. “I can do dinner at a friend’s house or occasionally I might go out if it’s someplace cheap, but going out for a drink or dinner, I just can’t do that anymore.”

And yet, Woodruff’s limited means hasn’t stopped her from doing things she enjoys and staying active.

“I’m working on my bucket list,” she says. Current items: an upcoming photography class at a local community college and learning to play the African drum. “I’ve wanted to play since I was in my 30s,” she says. In addition, she’s teaching a computer class to the elderly residents in her building, and hoping to find permanent work to supplement her benefits. “My advice to anyone living on Social Security is don’t be so frugal,” Woodruff advises. “You can enjoy going to a movie or going out to eat — you have to enjoy life. And all kinds of things are free; enjoy it, get out, quit sitting at home.”

Fixed Income Must-Do

Health issues and medical expenses are the top worry for retirees, according to a recent Merrill Lynch survey. And for good reason: medical Medical costs rank among the top three retiree expenses, after housing and transportation, according to the Social Security Administration. And as we all know, it can be unpredictable.

That’s why Paul Merritt, principal at NTrust Wealth Management in Virginia Beach, Va., recommends really spending the time to shop for the best prescription drug plan and supplemental Medicare coverage for you.

If it's all too confusing, contact your state’s Senior Health Insurance Program, or SHIP, says Merritt. Set up an appointment and they will help go over all your options.

Daisy Chan Read More
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