Most people rely on Social Security income to pay for their retirement expenses. Almost all retirees (84 percent) qualify for Social Security payments, and the majority of retirees (61 percent) receive at least half their income from Social Security, according to the Social Security Administration. For a third of retirees, Social Security is their only major source of income in retirement.
It isn't easy to live on just a Social Security check. The average monthly Social Security payment was $1,341 in January 2016. A married couple where each member received an average Social Security check would have a retirement income of $32,184, which would be adjusted for inflation each year. "To be just depending on Social Security is really a very difficult situation to be in," says Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. But where you live plays a big role in how comfortable you will be. "The cost of living varies dramatically across the country," Munnell says. "If you are in a low-cost area, you can make that benefit stretch much further than if you are trying to do it in Boston or Washington, D.C."
Social Security checks produce enough income to cover basic expenses in some parts of the country, but that's not the case everywhere. A U.S. News analysis of 104 major metropolitan areas using U.S. Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics data found that a married couple receiving two average Social Security payments would have enough money to cover the costs for housing, food, transportation, health care and utilities in two-thirds of major cities.
But in other metro areas Social Security alone does not provide enough to cover even these five basic expenses. In several major cities -- including Bridgeport, Connecticut; Oxnard, California; San Francisco; Honolulu; New York; San Jose, California; and the District of Columbia -- the typical Social Security income doesn't even come close to covering basic expenses, largely due to high housing costs.
To further identify places where you could pay your bills and enjoy a high quality of life when your primary source of income is Social Security, U.S. News factored in crime rates, access to health care and recreation opportunities. However, it's important to note that this analysis did not include many other costs retirees could incur, including clothing, consumer goods, hobbies, recreation, travel or emergency expenses. Even in places where Social Security will cover basic expenses, retirees would be more comfortable with a second source of retirement income from a pension, part-time job, investment earnings or personal savings.
It's particularly important for retirees who are relying on Social Security to take steps to maximize their benefit. Social Security payments are reduced if you claim them before your full retirement age, which is 66 for most baby boomers. Monthly benefit payments increase if you delay starting your benefit between ages 66 and 70. "If you are able to delay retirement until you can maximize your Social Security benefit at age 70, that would be the best possible single thing you could do," says John Palmer, a Syracuse University professor and former public trustee for the Medicare and Social Security programs. "You will have continued earnings for longer, maybe be able to save a little bit more money and your Social Security benefit will be about a third higher than if you retired at the normal age of retirement, and much higher than if you had chosen an early retirement."
Paying off your home also makes it much easier to live well on little more than a Social Security check. In all the places analyzed, retiree homeowners who were living without a mortgage paid significantly lower housing costs than those making mortgage payments or renting, which allows them to use Social Security payments for other essential bills.
Here are 10 places where retired couples could cover basic costs on little more than a Social Security income.
Idaho's state capital has plenty of affordable housing, costing retirees with a paid-off home a median of just $351 per month. For that low housing cost, retirees have access to a variety of amenities and entertainment. Idaho residents age 60 or older can register for classes at Boise State University for the bargain rate of $5 per credit hour (plus a $20 registration fee per semester). Or you could relax and stroll through a museum or enjoy the outdoor scenery. Seniors also get discounts to the Boise Art Museum, Zoo Boise, Bogus Basin ski area and on some Boise State sporting events. Best of all, a walk or bike ride on the 25-mile greenbelt along the Boise River, which runs through the center of the city, is free for everyone.
Cape Coral, Florida
Waterfront property is a way of life in Cape Coral, which has over 400 miles of canals as well as access to the Gulf of Mexico and the Caloosahatchee River. You could easily spend your days boating, fishing or walking along the beach. But a house on or near the water won't cost you a fortune. Median homeownership costs for people age 65 and older are $1,251 with a mortgage and $558 without one. The median rent is $983 per month. Many snowbird retirees reside in Cape Coral seasonally due to the pleasant winter weather. An added bonus: There's no state income tax in Florida.
Colorado Springs, Colorado
The natural wonders will draw you into this Rocky Mountain city. Retirees can linger among the scenic beauty at Pikes Peak, Seven Falls and Garden of the Gods, or find a volunteer position or part-time job sharing these mountain views with tourists. Athletes from across the country come to Colorado Springs to train at the U.S. Olympic Complex, and seniors can visit the facility at a discounted rate. Retirees who have paid off their mortgages get to live in this high-elevation mountain town for the bargain price of $393 per month. Older homeowners with a mortgage ($1,221) and renters ($827) pay more.
When selecting a retirement spot, it's important to make sure that doctors and hospitals will be there if you need them. Dayton's largest employers are health care providers, and the city has several hospitals U.S. News has rated as high performing for specific procedures and conditions, including Miami Valley Hospital, Kettering Medical Center and Good Samaritan Hospital. But living near a variety of health care options doesn't have to cost a lot, ranging from a median of $469 for retirees with a paid off house to $659 for renters and $1,080 monthly for seniors with a mortgage. Aviation buffs and air force retirees will enjoy the National Aviation Hall of Fame and the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park. The famous Wright brothers were Dayton natives.
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Grand Rapids is known for its impressive arts scene, which includes Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, the Grand Rapids Art Museum and the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts . The hometown of U.S. President Gerald Ford also has many outdoor recreation opportunities, including the Grand River and nearby Lake Michigan. The area has a booming health care industry, and Spectrum Health is a major employer and service provider. Housing costs are relatively low, with older homeowners paying a median of $1,113 with a mortgage and $434 without one. Retiree renters pay a median of $726 per month to live in the Grand Rapids area. "If you want to have a peaceful, more quiet life and also more reasonable housing, consider the middle west," says Charles Zhang, a certified financial planner for Zhang Financial in Grand Rapids, Michigan. "The cost of living in the middle west is very reasonable."
A sports fans paradise, locals can root for the Steelers, Pirates and Penguins. The area is home to several major colleges, including Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. UPMC Shadyside is ranked the 12th best hospital in the nation by U.S. News. But these big-city amenities are coupled with relatively low housing prices. Costs for older homeowners range from $1,069 with a mortgage to $468 without one. The median rent for retirees is $617 per month. Seniors age 65 or over can also ride the bus, T or Monongahela Incline for free.
While northern Virginia has very high housing costs that aren't likely to be covered by Social Security alone, costs drop significantly a little farther south in Richmond. "We've got a lot of folk in Richmond that retire from the D.C. area, and they are able to sell their house in the northern Virginia and D.C. area and maintain a really nice home when they come to Richmond," says PJ Wallin, a certified financial planner and founder of Atlas Financial in Richmond. "They can buy a really nice home that might be half the cost." The median retiree homeowner pays $1,282 per month with a mortgage, which drops to $465 among older residents who have paid off their homes. The median rent for senior citizens is $905 monthly. Virginia's capital city is divided in two by the James River, which has whitewater rapids running through town. The area also has several well-regarded hospitals including the Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center.
Rochester, New York
While the winters on the southern shore of Lake Ontario can be cold and produce a prolific amount of lake-effect snow, the low housing costs might keep you in town. Older residents pay a median of $1,179 per month with a mortgage and $555 with a paid-off house. Seniors who rent are charged a median of $778 per month. Once the snow thaws, the flowers will bloom again, and Rochester has a large Lilac Festival to celebrate. The city boasts several major colleges, including the University of Rochester and the Rochester Institute of Technology, and the highly rated Strong Memorial Hospital.
History buffs will delight in this old city that was colonized by the Spanish in the early 1700s. The San Antonio Missions were designated a World Heritage site in 2015. San Antonio is located on the southern edge of the scenic terrain and vineyards of Texas hill country. Health care is provided by the high-performing University Hospital. But these amenities don't cost a fortune in San Antonio. Renters pay a median of $816 per month, while homeowners face costs ranging from a median of $1,146 monthly with a mortgage to $430 per month without one. The state of Texas also doesn't have an income tax.
Spokane might be best suited to active retirees who love the outdoors. The Spokane River runs through town, and those who walk and bike along it are treated to views of several waterfalls, especially in the spring. Dams along the river are used to generate hydroelectric power. Several nearby ski resorts provide opportunities for winter fun. High-performing hospitals include Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center and Children's Hospital and Deaconess Hospital. Housing costs a median of $1,130 for retirees with a mortgage, but that drops to $425 per month among retirees who have paid off their home. Renters pay a median of $662 monthly.
Emily Brandon is the author of "Pensionless: The 10-Step Solution for a Stress-Free Retirement."
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