Coping without a COLA to sweeten Social Security

The current lack of inflation in the U.S. economy has many impacts, for better and worse. One of the latter will definitely hit America's seniors, whose Social Security income will remain stagnant in 2016 due to the lack of a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) next year.

While this is certainly bad news for most retirees, you can take some steps, big and small, to help make ends meet. These ideas mainly fall into the category of "coping to survive" -- they aren't ideal by any means, but they can help.

  • Downsize your home to reduce housing costs, including rent, mortgage, utilities and taxes. Many seniors want to stay in their current home for as long as they can. Unfortunately, some stay too long and become too frail to move. If you're feeling a serious strain in your monthly budget, you might consider relocating while you still have the ability and energy to do so.

  • Review your Medicare coverage, including possibly switching to a Medicare Advantage plan instead of Medicare plus Medigap. The Medicare open enrollment period is still going on, and you might be able to reduce your monthly premiums by shopping around. Be careful, however, to make sure you don't increase your costs for deductibles, co-payments and co-insurance.

  • Boost the income generated by your retirement savings. Many retirees try to live on just interest and dividends, or they take the required minimum distribution from IRAs and 401(k) accounts. If that's what you're doing, you can lift your monthly income significantly by purchasing a low-cost annuity from a highly rated insurance company. Annuity income lasts for the rest of your life, so you don't have to worry about outliving your savings.

  • Rent out a room or two, if you're still living in a big house, to boost your monthly income. Home-sharing apps such as Airbnb make this idea feasible to implement easily. In the process, you might make new friends and helpful social contacts.

  • Consider taking out a reverse mortgage if you have significant home equity. You can either generate a monthly income or take out a line of credit that you tap only as needed.

  • Go back to work. Even if you were able to earn just the federal minimum wage ($7.25 per hour), you could work about 10 hours per month and earn what you might have lost due to the lack of a Social Security COLA.

  • Save on utility bills by adjusting the settings on your water heater, refrigerator, heater or air-conditioning unit. Even slight adjustments can create monthly savings in the ballpark of the Social Security COLA that you'll miss next year.

  • See where you can trim your food costs. Still eating costly packaged and processed foods, and lots of meat, or eating out frequently? Fresh fruits and vegetables can cost less than snack food and meats, and by consuming more fresh foods, you might improve your health in the process. Plus, if you reduce the amount of food you eat by 10 to 20 percent, you can realize comparable savings in your food budget.

Let me repeat: None of these ideas are ideal, and some are easier said than done. And others just won't work for many retirees. But Americans are remarkably resilient and adaptable, and most people will figure out how to survive.

If you have good ideas for helping retirees cope without a COLA, please share with our readers in the comments section.

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    Steve Vernon helped large employers design and manage their retirement programs for more than 35 years as a consulting actuary. Now he's a research scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity, where he helps collect, direct and disseminate research that will improve the financial security of seniors. He's also president of Rest-of-Life Communications, delivers retirement planning workshops and authored Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck and Recession-Proof Your Retirement Years.