For many retirees, golden years not what they expected
Arlene Fischer imagined a retirement filled with vacations in New England and tending to her backyard garden, one relaxing day after another. Instead, her golden years are spent working a 32-hour, five-days-a-week shift as a sales clerk at a local Walmart. The 74-year-old jumped back into the job market a few years ago. The decision wasn’t by choice but by necessity, as retirement made it difficult for her and her 81-year-old husband to make ends meet, she said.
“I couldn’t afford to stay home. You can’t live on Social Security; it doesn’t pay enough,” Fischer said, lamenting the rising cost of gas and groceries, and the property taxes she pays on her house. “I don’t expect to retire any time soon. I need to work, and I don’t know how long I’ll have to.” Fischer, it turns out, is part of a sizable minority of Americans who have discovered life in retirement isn’t what they expected.
A poll by National Public Radio, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health reports that one in four retirees thinks life in retirement is worse than it was before he or she retired. For many, disappointments center around finances.
The poll found that 22 percent of pre-retirees expect their financial situation to be worse in retirement. The reality is more harsh. A full 35 percent of retirees said their financial situation is worse in retirement.
Debra Mennecke, division manager of the Greater Erie (PA) Community Action Committee’s Area Agency on Aging, said her office is seeing fewer seniors sign up for volunteer programs because more seniors are forced to work up to and through retirement age. “We’re seeing trends of a reducing willingness to volunteer,” Mennecke said. The Area Agency on Aging serves more than 11,000 people in Erie County. “Their financial concerns are making them depressed, and they don’t always know where to turn,” she added. “Some don’t know whether to use what they have to pay for a meal or medication.” Others, including some folks with modest incomes, say retirement suits them just fine.
Eighty-two-year-old Jean Blodien said she never married and never made a lot of money, working for much of her career as a church secretary. Yet Blodien said she lives comfortably in her Erie apartment building and has no trouble paying her bills on a modest income that comes from Social Security, federal retirement benefits from the eight years she spent working for the FBI and the proceeds from her own investments. “I learned financial planning in business college,” she said, adding that she spent no more than a third of her income on food and housing and set aside a regular amount to invest in annuities. It paid off. “I know how to deal with finances, and I do fine,” she said. Blodien remembers a doctor who once told her she might live to be 100. “I told him I hope my money lasts,” she said. Today, 20 years into retirement, she’s confident it will.
Others, however, have to adjust their expectations to align with reality, said Craig A. Schwegman, a financial adviser in Millcreek Township.
“Typically, people don’t seriously start thinking about retirement until their 50s, and often their goal is to retire at 60,” he said. Schwegman said he’s been known to toss a bucket of cold water on those plans, sometimes urging clients to work for a few more years. “They are surprised at just how much money it takes to retire at the lifestyle they have today,” Schwegman said. “They don’t factor in inflation.”
Nellie Lohr, 70, said retirees have to “know their limits and do things on a smaller scale.” Lohr, of Albion, worked for 43 years, 20 of those as a machine operator, before retiring. Living as a retired widow in poor health is a challenge in a sputtering economy, but Lohr said being raised in a family of 11 children taught her at an early age how to live within her means. “I can’t go on a nice vacation or buy a new car, but I go out to lunch often and take my grandchildren places,” she said. “My advice to others in this situation is make a budget every month and think positively because there are a lot of other people worse off than you.”
Money isn’t the only key to finding contentment. Three members of the maintenance crew at a local Wegmans share a few things in common.
All three of them — Larry (61), Peter (66), and Tom (71), retired from good jobs with comfortable pensions and few financial worries. But none of them was ready to sit still or spend all his time on a golf course.
Tom, who retired eight years ago as plant manager, said he found himself working out at the gym four or five times a week.
“I was bored,” he said. Like the other two, he went to work part time at a local supermarket, chasing shopping carts, changing light bulbs and fixing display cases. Tom said he doesn’t need the extra money, but it helps, allowing him to buy extras, like golf memberships, without worry.
Mostly it gives him a purpose. “I still have a lot of life left in me,” he said.
For others, though — even some who thought they were prepared — a combination of health problems and uncertain finances can prove to be a potent one-two punch.
When Claire and Tom Lata were in the local workforce — she as a business analyst, he as an electrical mechanic — they were each making more than $20 an hour. Tom retired after 37 years on the job. Claire followed her husband four years later after a pair of back surgeries cut her career short. The couple thought their pensions and Social Security, plus her disability checks, would provide solid financial footing for their golden years. But going to a fixed income has made retirement a constant struggle for the Latas. “We find ourselves just trying to keep up,” said Claire Lata, 61, adding that health issues prevent her and her 70-year-old husband from returning to work. She said the couple is tens of thousands of dollars in debt because of credit-card bills and a home-equity loan. She also said dreams of traveling and vacations to Alaska have been dashed. “You’ve always heard that if you stayed in your job day in day out and worked hard, that you get to retire, you get to do this and enjoy that,” Lata said. “But if you don’t have the money, you can’t do any of it.”