NEW YORK (AP) -- Allan Wikman knows the pluses and minuses of life on Social Security.
The 70-year-old retiree from Kingston, N.Y., has lived on his monthly benefit checks of about $1,000 -- and the largesse of friends -- for the past eight years.
''I scratch to make ends meet,'' Wikman said in an interview. ''I rent an apartment from a very accommodating landlady. I don't go to the movies. I don't drink anymore. I don't smoke anymore. I don't even buy books, but get them from the library.
''I've learned to do without.''
Like Wikman, four in 10 of the nation's retirees count on Social Security checks for almost all of their monthly income, according to a recent study by the Employee Benefit Research Institute in Washington, D.C.
Despite its importance in underpinning American retirement, few workers pay much attention to Social Security.
This year, with a number of changes going into effect, it's a good time to take a fresh look at what the program can and can't do, experts say.
Starting in 2003, the age at which Americans qualify for full benefits will rise above 65 for the first time. That means Americans are expected to work longer.
Someone born in 1938 will have to reach the age of 65 years and two months to receive benefits. The qualifying age gradually rises until it reaches 66 for people born between 1943 and 1954, and 67 for people born in 1960 or later.
In addition, higher-income Americans as well as many who are self-employed will see their Social Security taxes rise this year.
Earnings subject to tax will increase to $87,000 from the current $84,900. That will raise the maximum tax paid by both employees and their employers to $5,394. Self-employed people will pay both shares for a total of $10,788.
Social Security beneficiaries -- some 32 million retirees, 7 million survivors of deceased workers and 7 million disabled workers and their families -- will get a 1.4 percent cost-of-living increase in their benefits. But some of that will be eaten up by an increase in the deduction for Medicare coverage.
The average retiree's check will rise to $895 a month, or $1,483 for a couple -- not a lot to live on, said Don Silver, author of ''Baby Boomer Retirement.''
Those figures should be wake-up calls to workers, to make them understand that Social Security is a supplemental program and that they need to save more, he said.
''The problem is consumerism, a big inclination to spend and not to save,'' Silver said. ''People seem to think it will work out like a television show, that it will all come together in the end. This is not television.''
Still, Silver said, people should appreciate the importance of Social Security: ''It's a life preserver. It will keep your head above water.''
Wikman, the retiree living on Social Security, understands that.
He was a self-described job hopper as a young man, never working anywhere long enough to qualify for a pension. Depression since the early 1990s has kept him from resuming work as a motivational speaker, something he still dreams of doing.
He remembers vividly his dad's admonishment ''to save 10 percent of everything you earn.'' He never did, but he wishes he had.
''You can have bare subsistence living on Social Security,'' Wikman said. ''But if you don't have savings, you don't have choices.''
Workers can find out what benefits they'll eventually qualify for by monitoring the Social Security statement they should get in the mail about three months before a birthday. Those who don't get their forms can ask for one at the Social Security Administration's Web site, www.ssa.gov, or by calling 800-772-1213.
SSA spokeswoman Carolyn Cheezum said workers should carefully check the earnings listed for each year they've worked.
''You want the numbers to be accurate because ultimately your Social Security benefit is based on your earnings,'' she said.
Workers next should look at their benefit estimates and ''use them in your financial planning,'' she said.
The Social Security Administration estimates that the average worker can expect a retirement benefit that represents about 40 percent of his or her average lifetime earnings, leaving a big gap to fill with pensions and savings.
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