Key Takeaways

  • From groceries to gas, living costs in the U.S. are skyrocketing. This is a troubling reality for many older adults living on a fixed income.

  • What does it mean to be on a fixed income? Seniors on a fixed income depend on largely on limited funds from Social Security, pensions, and/or savings to live.

  • Inflation and fixed incomes don’t make a great combination. But there are steps you can take to create more room in your limited budget each month.  

From groceries to gasoline, living costs in the United States are skyrocketing. In fact, inflation has reached a four-decade high at 8.5%.1 This is not welcome news for the nation’s 56 million older adults age 65+, many of whom are already living on a low fixed income.2 A 2021 report from the Congressional Research Service found that 8.9% of seniors had income below the poverty thresholds in 2019.3

What happens when inflation and fixed incomes collide? It can spell trouble for many older adults already struggling to cover basic expenses like food, fuel, utilities, and housing.

What does living on a fixed income mean, exactly?

Living on a fixed income generally applies to older adults who are no longer working and collecting a regular paycheck. Instead, they depend mostly or entirely on fixed payments from sources such as Social Security, pensions, and/or retirement savings. There is very little flexibility in the amount of income they receive each month. Approximately 40% of older Americans rely solely on their Social Security income to get by,4 which averages about $1,657 monthly.5

In times of economic instability—such as soaring inflation—living on a fixed income becomes especially challenging. As expenses rise, their ability to pay for them stays the same. For older adults on a tight budget, an unexpected medical emergency or household repair can tip the scales and lead to financial disaster that’s hard to recover from.

What can seniors on a fixed income do to combat rising prices?

If you or an older adult you care for is burdened with bills and facing economic insecurity, there are steps you can take to stretch your budget.

  1. Eliminate debt: Older Americans are carrying more unpaid financial obligations than ever before. Median total debt for older-adult households with debt was $31,300 in 2016—more than 2.5 times what it was in 2001.6 If you’re a senior on a fixed income, it can be overwhelming trying to keep up with snowballing credit card payments. That’s why credit counseling may be a solution worth exploring. Working one-on-one with a trained counselor can help you get your debt under control and create a manageable repayment plan. Securing a lower monthly payment, and ultimately getting rid of your credit card debt altogether, can free up extra funds to apply toward other expenses.
  2. Create a budget calendar: Tracking your finances is important at any age and income bracket. But when you live on a fixed or limited income, it’s essential to know exactly where your money is going. A budget calendar is a visual tool that allows you to see what your income is each month, when it will arrive, and what your expenses are. This helps you gain a clearer picture of your financial activity—so you’re less inclined to spend money you simply don’t have. A budget calendar also gives you a greater sense of control over your finances, which can help you feel less worried about money. Making your own budget calendar is easy and something you can do on your own (a simple wall calendar will do just fine). Learn how to create a budget calendar here.
  3. See if you qualify for food assistance: In 2019, more than 5 million older Americans did not have reliable access to nutritious food.7 And as grocery store prices rise, the issue of food insecurity among seniors will only get worse. SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, offers a financial safety net to older adults who might not otherwise get enough to eat. This need-based program serves many seniors living on a low fixed income. Adults who qualify receive monthly financial benefits loaded onto an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card. This card can be used just like a credit or debit card at Walmart, other grocery retailers, and even farmers markets to purchase eligible food items.

For people like Cathy, age 69, SNAP can bring much-needed peace of mind. After learning she was eligible for the maximum monthly SNAP benefit, she told her benefits counselor:

I couldn't believe it; I'm overjoyed and grateful! [SNAP] will help me make the most of my limited resources," Cathy said.

Learn more about SNAP and other money-saving benefit programs

Millions of older adults on a fixed income are likely eligible for, but not enrolled in, programs that can help them save money on everything from healthcare and prescriptions to food and utilities. While these supplemental benefits may not close the financial gap completely, they can provide some breathing room for those who are barely scraping by month to month. Some assistance programs can potentially add hundreds or even thousands of dollars to your budget every year.

Researching money-saving programs for seniors may feel like an overwhelming task. But NCOA has made it simple for you with BenefitsCheckUp. This easy-to-use digital tool can help you browse benefits in your area, such as SNAP and other nutrition programs as well as tax relief, transportation, and education programs. You can find information on a broad array of offerings, all in one convenient place.

Use BenefitsCheckup for yourself—or if you're a caregiver, friend, or neighbor who knows of an older adult who needs help. If you or they qualify for assistance, we’ll give you detailed information on how to apply.

Sources

1. U.S. Inflation Quickens to 8.5%, Ratcheting Up Pressure on Fed, Bloomberg. Found on the internet at https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-04-12/u-s-inflation-quickens-to-8-5-ratcheting-up-pressure-on-fed

2. Fewer hot showers, less meat: How retirees on fixed incomes are dealing with inflation, The Washington Post. Found on the internet at https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2022/03/21/elderly-inflation-fixed-income/

3. Poverty Among the Population Aged 65 and Older, Congressional Research Service (Updated April 2021). Found on the internet at https://sgp.fas.org/crs/misc/R45791.pdf

4. Here’s where most Americans are really getting their retirement income, CNBC. Found on the internet at https://www.cnbc.com/2020/01/17/heres-where-most-americans-are-really-getting-their-retirement-income.html?__source=sharebar%7Ctwitter&par=sharebar

5. Social Security Fact Sheet: 2022 Social Security Changes, Social Security Administration. Found on the internet at https://www.ssa.gov/news/press/factsheets/colafacts2022.pdf

6. The Hidden Retirement Crisis: Older Americans' Debt, Forbes. Found on the internet at https://www.forbes.com/sites/nextavenue/2019/08/09/the-hidden-retirement-crisis-older-americans-debt/?sh=3f597e4f114f

7. The State of Senior Hunger in America in 2019, Feeding America. Found on the internet at https://www.feedingamerica.org/sites/default/files/2021-08/2021%20-%20State%20of%20Senior%20Hunger%20in%202019.pdf