Financial Help & Government Programs for Seniors
What they say about aging — it’s not for sissies — remains incontrovertibly true, and we didn’t need two years of an epidemic that targeted seniors remorselessly to know that.
But being courageous, determined, and resourceful in the face of mounting years doesn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, mean going it alone. There is help for seniors struggling with debt. A variety of government and nonprofit agencies offer programs that will take some of the financial tarnish off your golden years.
There may be shortages elsewhere, but one thing America has in abundance is seniors in debt, and worried about it. Among the chief concerns of retirees and, especially, those about to retire, is having enough money, according to a SeniorLiving study from late 2021.
Four-in-10 people 55 and older fear high medical bills. One in four worry they’ll never payoff their debt, and 22% are afraid they won’t be able to afford rent or will need help with mortgage payments.
This is not idle fretting, according to the National Council on Aging and Consumer Finance.
A follow-up study published in April 2021 using data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York suggests the trend has continued. Part of the problem: Seniors are taking on student loan debt. In 2019, adults in the late 70s often had higher shares of credit card and student loan debt than those 50-74.
Something else to lose sleep over, notes Lyle Solomon, a consumer finance litigator and the principal attorney at Oak View Law Group outside Sacramento, Calif.: “People nowadays are buying larger, more costly houses with less down payment and, as a result, carrying larger mortgages into retirement, which can push them toward a massive financial problem if they aren’t vigilant.”
Great. Even the American dream is a problem!
Meanwhile, more than 15 million adults aged 65+ are classed as economically insecure, with incomes below 200% of the federal poverty level.
Obviously then, getting older doesn’t always mean things are getting better. Here is list of resources to tap if you need some help.
Social Security Income
Squint hard and, if you’re receiving — or soon to receive — Social Security and/or Supplemental Security Income benefits, you can detect the faintest outline of a silver lining in the hungriest inflation in 40 years. Those collecting Social Security payments saw cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) spiking a historic 5.9% at the beginning of 2022; the benefits of those who have not yet tapped in received a similar boost to their future income.
The boost adds about $92 to the check of the average Social Security benefit for all retired workers, to $1,657. That’s an average only; your compensation may vary.
Organizations Helping Senior Citizens
You don’t have to be financially squeezed to be interested in dialing back the stress and uncertainty associated with aging. Help abounds in programs for seniors seeking a smoother path through earned benefits, more than 2,500 of them, according to National Council on Aging (NCOA).
You just need to know where to look.
NCOA created Resources and Support for Older Adults Living Alone: A Comprehensive Guide, which includes practical tips and resource recommendations from geriatric health experts and advocates, such as:
- PACE programs, which use Medicare and Medicaid to help older adults get nursing home-level care
- Benefits such as the Aid and Attendance pension that help veterans offset the costs of long-term care
- NCOA’s BenefitsCheckUp tool which helps older adults identify their potential eligibility for benefits and programs
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” says Jay Zigmont, a certified financial planner and founder of Water Valley, Miss.-based Live, Learn, Plan. “Many seniors are reluctant to ask for help until things get tough. Your family, friends, and community are here and ready to help where they can. That help could be in filing for Medicare, budgeting, making food, or anything you need. Just ask.”
Here’s a broad primer on the leaders in assistance for seniors.
- Volunteers of America — provides a wide range of service programs such as meal programs, transportation, Medicare enrollment help, nursing care, and affordable housing.
- Senior Living — offers a database of senior living options from independent living to hospice-based care.
- Feeding America — provides meals for seniors by working with a nationwide network of food banks.
- Retirement Jobs — helps seniors not just find companies right for their skill set and work needs, but also to navigate through the age bias to secure employment.
- Dental Lifeline Network — provides access to dental care by working with volunteer dentists and dental labs across the U.S.
- Meals on Wheels America — with locations across the country, serves home-cooked, nutritious meals to adults aged 60 and above, served at home or in a group setting.
- AmeriCorps Seniors — links volunteer seniors to other seniors with daily tasks and companionship.
- National PACE Association — offers medical, rehabilitation, personal, and other types of care.
- ADA Paratransit — provides complementary transit services to eligible seniors with limited mobility.
- BenefitsCheckUp — is a service that provides access to services for seniors such as medications, healthcare, tax relief and senior employment.
Government Programs for the Elderly
Use government programs to bridge the gap between your expenses and income. There are senior specific government programs available at the local, state, and federal levels.
Three of your major expenses after retirement will be housing, food and healthcare.
Here are just some of the programs available to seniors nationwide that can help cut those costs.
Through the U.S Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program, local licensed contractors perform an energy audit, then provide remedies where energy inefficiencies are identified. These include:
- Cleaning, tuning, repairing, or replacing heating and/or cooling systems.
- Installing programmable thermostats.
- Repairing or replacing water heaters.
- Installing insulation.
- Replacing inefficient refrigerators with energy-efficient models.
Preference for eligibility is given to people over the age of 60, and families with one or more members with a disability.
Wait. There’s more on the energy-efficiency front.
The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) is a 40-year-old program offering assistance to families with energy costs. The plan includes help managing costs connected to home energy bills, energy crises, weatherization, and energy-related (minor) home repairs.
Having trouble with rent? Look into the Housing Choice Vouchers Program. Formerly known as Section 8, this program provides subsidies to low-income families and the elderly to help pay for rent.
Utilities and general maintenance are things you’ll have to deal with even if you’ve paid off your mortgage.
The section 504 Home Repair Program provides a grant of up to $7,500 to senior homeowners to repair damages that are deemed hazardous to safety and health.
» Learn more: What to Do If You Can’t Pay Your Utility Bill
It’s well known that seniors spend more on healthcare than any other age group. Just how much they spend often comes as a surprise.
Approximately 40% of retirees report their healthcare expenses in retirement are higher than they expected according to the Retirement Confidence Survey done by the Employee Benefit Research Institute. That may be because, according to an August 2021 survey by the Insured Retirement Institute, four in 10 seniors believe Medicare alone will provide complete coverage for all their healthcare needs.
That’s not how it works.
Retirees older than 75 spend 16% — 16%! — of their budget on healthcare. Here are a few programs designed to aid seniors with the cost of healthcare:
Medicare is the primary healthcare subsidy for seniors. It comes in three parts.
Part A, which covers hospital stays, is free if you (or a spouse) have paid Social Security for at least 10 years.
Part B covers outpatient services, such as doctor visits and rehabilitation. In 2022, the premium for Part B is $170 a month, with a deductible of $233 a year. After meeting the deductible you’ll usually pay 20% of the Medicare approved amount for most outpatient services.
Part D covers the costs of your prescriptions. The monthly premium for Medicare Part D in 2022 averages $33. Higher income beneficiaries pay more. Another way to get prescription coverage is through a Medicare Supplement plan or a Medicare Advantage plan.
If you’re struggling to pay your premiums, you may qualify for a Medicare savings programs.
If you qualify for Social Security and have limited resources, here are a few savings programs that can help:
- Qualified Medicare Beneficiary (QMB) Program
- Specified Low-Income Medicare Beneficiary (SLMB) Program
- Qualifying Individual (QI) Program
- Qualified Disabled and Working Individuals (QDWI) Program
In 2022, the limit in countable resources for QMB, SLMB and QI is $8,400 for individuals, $12,600 for married couples. The limit for QDWI is $4,000 ($6,000 for married couples).
Countable resources include money in a checking or savings account, stocks and bonds. They do not include your home or personal belongings.
About 20% of Medicare enrollees are also enrolled in Medicaid. Medicaid is a health care plan for seniors with very limited financial resources. Eligibility varies by state, but if you qualify for SSI, you should also qualify for Medicaid.
Americans experiencing significant hearing and/or vision loss can access technological help through iCanConnect. The National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program is a federal plan administered locally in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands.
Established by the Federal Communications Commission, iCanConnect provides training and equipment. For those who qualify, iCanConnect covers the cost for a variety of communications devices and technology, including computers, braille displays, smartphones, tablets, and more.
While the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows on average you’ll be spending less on food when you retire than any other time in your life, you still need to eat. (And it should be nutritious.) Here are some programs designed to help seniors pay for food:
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) helps low-income seniors with groceries by providing monthly stipends. This program used to be known as Food Stamps.
To qualify you must show proof of limited income and resources. Through September 30, 2022, the maximum gross monthly income is 130% of the federal poverty level, which is $1,396 for individuals, $1,888 for a household of two.
Another important program to help the elderly with food costs is the Seniors Farmers Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP). The SFMNP provides low-income seniors with coupon booklets to be used at participating farmers markets and food stands. These coupons are to be used for fresh and organic produce. You cannot use them for canned or dried goods.
But if canned yams are more to your liking, The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) can help. TEFAP provides a variety of foods to low-income households, like canned and fresh fruits and vegetables, along with meat and dairy products.
If you qualify for SNAP, there’s a good chance you qualify for TEFAP, but you should contact your state distributing agency to be sure.
The Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) works to improve the health of low-income elderly persons at least 60 years of age by supplementing their diets with nutritious USDA food.
Food and administrative funds are distributed to participating states and Indian Tribal Organizations. Not designed to provide a complete diet, CSFP food packages are good sources of the nutrients typically lacking in the diets of the beneficiary population.
A job can add some extra income while also alleviating some of the boredom you may be experiencing since retiring.
According to a Stanford study, “The Power of Working Longer,” only three months of additional work generates the same increase in retirement income as 30 years of saving an additional 1% of earnings.
This means that it may be easier to work a little longer than to save a little more.
For retirees looking to re-enter the workforce, the Senior Community Service Program (SCSEP) pays anyone over the age of 55 minimum wage (federal, state, or local, whichever is highest) to work at government or community agencies.
SCSEP provides training for a variety of jobs from teacher’s aide to computer technician to help for local nonprofits. You can even use the skills you acquired during your work life to pursue other career opportunities.
To apply, visit Careeronestop.org. They can connect you with your local SCSEP office so you can get started on training.
“When seniors face a financial crunch due to debt and lack of income, they should focus on making money,” says attorney Solomon.
Consultant, subject-matter expert, teacher — all are prime candidates for seniors with a certain level of expertise and energy.
“Businesses generally hire consultants to assist them with specific tasks or provide assistance during transitions,” Solomon says. “Seniors can earn a lot of money, especially if they have the experience that companies are looking for. In addition, seniors usually have some leeway when it comes to selecting their working hours.”
Consider, also, Solomon suggests, investigating online or work-from-home jobs. Just be wary of scammers, who is almost anyone who asks for money upfront to set up your home office.
“Finding your sweet spot can be a challenge,” says CFP Zigmont, “but the local disability services or unemployment office may be able to help. Look at options for shorter days or less physical jobs if you have limitations. Find something you enjoy first, then worry about finding the right pay.”
Some low-income seniors may fall below the threshold necessary to file a tax return. (Check with the IRS or a qualified tax preparer.) The rest should make every effort to be sure they’re paying Uncle Sam precisely what’s owed, and no more.
- Credit for the Elderly: Low-income people age 65+ at the end of 2021 who qualify may claim a credit that reduces their tax bill from $3,750 to $7,500. Seniors should check with the IRS or their tax preparer to see whether they qualify.
- Standard Deduction for Seniors: Since rules designed to simplify filing included in the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017, most taxpayers have used the standard deduction. For the 2021 tax year, the standard deduction for seniors filing singly is $14,250. Married senior couples filing jointly may claim a standard deduction of $27,800.
- Medical Expenses: Seniors with high medical expenses may qualify for an itemized deduction that is better than the standard deduction.
Senior Citizen Financial Planning
Estimates vary, but the rule of thumb is the average retiree needs about 70-80% of his/her preretirement income to sustain an accustomed lifestyle once they’ve stopped punching the proverbial clock. Depending on your commitment to thriftiness, if you earned $50,000 a year while working, you should be comfortable on somewhere between $35,000-$40,000.
These, again, are estimates. Your mileage may vary.
Spending on a variety of core necessities was skewed dramatically by the impact of COVID-19. For instance, housing costs surged; as we sheltered in place, transportation spending slumped. Before the pandemic, however, the BLS provided the following targets for spending in its Annual Expenditure Report.
- Housing – 32.4%
- Transportation – 17.1%
- Food – 12.9%
- Healthcare – 12.2%
These are the four greatest expenses for people over the age of 65. After the age of 75, healthcare costs eclipse transportation, taking up 16% of your income, while transportation drops to 13.9%.
To be clear, these are only averages. How much each person spends on each category will vary. You shouldn’t set aside 17% of your budget for transportation if you live walking distance from your usual haunts, or you have satisfactory and inexpensive public transportation nearby.
Nor should you throw budgeting to the wind for a European vacation just because you really want to see the Eiffel Tower or ache for bratwurst by the Danube.
In short, financial planning is not just for youngsters still building their lives and careers, saving for the kids’ college, and investing for retirement. Financial planning is for anyone who manages a household budget with an eye to maximizing its potential.
There’s plenty to read on the subject online, in bookstores, and at the library. And the local community college or credit union can be a reliable source of information.
“If they have equity in their home,” Solomon says, “seniors can take advantage of reverse mortgages to pay off debts. For unsecured debts, they can enroll in a debt settlement or a management program. Bankruptcy for seniors should be their last choice at this advanced age.”
» Learn More: Loans for Seniors with Poor Credit
Among the best for helping stressed consumers, including seniors, get on top of their financial are nonprofit credit counseling organizations. Experts certified by these agencies have heard every horror story, and they know the tools to cure your financial nightmares — without cost or obligation.
About The Author
Bents Dulcio writes with a humble, field-level view on personal finance. He learned how to cut financial corners while acquiring a B.S. degree in Political Science at Florida State University. Bents has experience with student loans, affordable housing, budgeting to include an auto loan and other personal finance matters that greet all Millennials when they graduate. He has a prodigious appetite for reading, which he helps feed with writing from Scottish philosopher Adam Smith, the “Father of Capitalism.” Bents writing also has been published by JPMorgan Chase, TheSimpleDollar and Interest.com.
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