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Attention, Seniors: Don't Get Too Comfortable With Your Social Security Raise

Maurie Backman, The Motley Fool

There was good news in mid-October on the Social Security front: Beneficiaries are getting a raise next year to the tune of a 2.8% cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA. And that boost is no doubt something millions of seniors will celebrate.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let's take a step back and recognize that while the latest COLA is the most generous one in years, it's hardly a life-changing sum. The average recipient at present collects about $1,400 a month in Social Security, which means that with the COLA, the typical senior is looking at a roughly $40 monthly boost.

Senior couple reaching for produce at a supermarket.

IMAGE SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES.

Now, when you're living on a fixed income, any extra cash you get is a boon. The reality, however, is that your modest raise probably won't make a huge difference in your day-to-day quality of life.

Furthermore, while this year's COLA does a reasonable job of keeping pace with inflation, most COLAs do not. Since 2000, in fact, Social Security beneficiaries have lost an estimated 34% of their buying power, or so reports the Senior Citizens League, and it's due to the fact that COLAs were overwhelmingly stingy during that period. Throw in the fact that Social Security isn't equipped to sustain retirees by itself in the first place, and it makes the case for a healthy dose of cynicism amid some otherwise encouraging news.

Take control of your finances

While there's nothing wrong with eagerly anticipating your $40-a-month raise, or however much your boost amounts to, there are certainly better things you can do to improve your financial outlook -- especially since 2019 might be the only year in which you receive an increase that substantial for the foreseeable future. For starters, cut back on spending if you're currently struggling to pay the bills. If you take a closer look at your expenses, you'll probably find that there are certain costs you can shrink, like the restaurant meals you tend to pay a premium for or the vehicle you own that goes unused most of the time. (Hint: If you rarely drive your car, it's far cheaper to pay for the occasional taxi.)

Another option? Look into getting a part-job time. You may be shaking your head, thinking that the whole point of retirement is to stop working and start enjoying your free time, but if you're having trouble keeping up with your expenses, a few hours of paid work each week might do the trick. Besides, you don't have to resign yourself to some boring old job to boost your income. You can always start your own business or monetize a hobby -- in other words, do something that'll bring you enjoyment on top of that additional cash.

Finally, be savvy when it comes to healthcare, because chances are, it's one of your biggest expenses (if not the biggest). There are numerous steps you can take to save money on medical care in retirement, from choosing the right Medicare plan to filling prescriptions more strategically (think buying generics and ordering medications in bulk).

A $40 monthly raise in retirement is better than no raise at all. At the same time, don't get too comfortable with that boost, because for all you know, you won't see another one like it for several years. Instead, take steps to lower your expenses and stretch your income so that you don't end up struggling financially if future COLAs wind up falling short.

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