What if A Normal Retirement Seems Out of Reach?


For many of us, retirement follows a pattern that seems almost preordained. We have worked for several decades. We live a “normal” life, sometimes spending more than we should but being careful to set aside money for the future. We try to control our human urge for instant gratification and do our best to live within a budget. Eventually, we leave the world of work and begin to experience the freedoms of this new phase of our life.

Social Security starts. Medicare eases many of our worries about health expenses. We travel some, spend more time with family, satisfy our creative urges, volunteer in a way that gives back some of our blessings, and often see growth in our spiritual life. In short, our retirement is what we hoped for.

Unfortunately, not everyone lives in this idealized picture. A post a while ago dealt with grandparents becoming parents. That topic generated some excellent comments. Another article about continuing to support adult children also hit a hot button for several. When does our financial commitment end, or is having a child a life-long support commitment? Most of us expect that the daily parenting part of our life is over as we approach retirement age. But, for too many, it is not. Dreams of a very different future are put on hold or ended.

What about having to retire due to an unexpected job loss, a Covid-induced issue, or any of the dozens of problems we all seem to be dealing with these days? How about folks that lived either paycheck to paycheck, just scraping by, or stitched together a series of part-time jobs, just trying to stay afloat until the economy and inflation tipped over their boat? The image of everyday retirement life isn’t part of their reality.

I will readily admit that my retirement is progressing well. I am living pretty much the way I thought I would be at this stage of my life. A few early struggles over financial worries and time management are the worst I have experienced so far. Finding passions and things to occupy my mind and energies took a few years. 

To offer advice to others in very different situations makes me somewhat uneasy. I have some thoughts based on what I have read, researched, and seen, but not based on personal experience. So, I hope I am not way off the mark. I can offer some thoughts and hope you will add your ideas and suggestions. 

* Housing is likely to be a significant problem for someone with serious financial restraints. A typical home or condo is increasingly out of reach for new homeowners. If you sell your current home for more than you ever dreamed possible, the next one will be just as mind-boggling. In many parts of the country, affordable apartments are hard to find. Or the past few years, this problem has become a literal crisis. Evictions are on the rise after a pandemic moratorium.

What are alternatives? Roommates and shared housing are options. The tiny house movement is a possibility. Park Models at RV parks offer security and comfort at reasonable prices. Certainly manufactured housing, either purchased or rented, can be an option. Staying with relatives may be the only option for now. 

*Many skills and experiences lend themselves to participating in the barter and exchange economy. An estimated $14 billion in services are exchanged in the U.S. annually without cash. A family member of mine exchanges a 60-minute massage for hairstyling. Both ladies benefit, and no money changes hands. Maybe you have training as a nurse or adult daycare worker. Is it possible to exchange that experience for room and board?

Folks are making enough money to make life more pleasant by selling household items or collectibles on eBay. Buying things at a local flea market and then reselling them is common. Millions of us visit the website every day, all looking to buy or sell.

* The quickest way to make money is to spend less of what you have. I hope I am not minimizing the real problem some of our fellow retirees face. Choosing between food or prescriptions is not a theoretical choice for too many. Living through a hot summer without air conditioning can be life-threatening as we get older. 

Even so, most of us can find something we can live without. What we consider a necessity may be a luxury when times are tight. After all, when we were growing up, there were three TV channels, no cell phones, and a meal out was a special treat. We didn’t feel deprived. 

* Retirement is not a forever state if you can’t afford it to be. There is absolutely no shame in going back to full or part-time work. You will be thought of as a successful entrepreneur if you turn a hobby or skill into a business that generates any level of income. Don’t get discouraged if some form of age discrimination makes things more difficult. 

* It is hard to make sense of a situation where health care costs, particularly prescription medicines, are unaffordable to tens of millions of our citizens. . For the truly poor, Medicaid guaranteed treatment at the emergency room, and other government programs are available. They can be onerous and sap one’s dignity, but they will keep someone alive. The lower and middle class gets shafted in this country, and I don’t have an answer. If someone is forced into early retirement, employer-provided health care coverage is gone. Meals-on-Wheels may provide the only decent food someone receives all week, and services like that have suffered dramatically after Covid.

The pre-Obamacare model didn’t work. The current state of health services is an improvement but continues to allow too many to fall through the cracks. Health care based on maximizing profits and minimizing contact with people who need a doctor is ridiculous. 

Frankly, this is not a political issue. This is a moral and ethical embarrassment. Society has a responsibility to provide an essential service like health care to its citizens that can’t afford decent care. New legislation that allows Medicare to negotiate drug prices appears likely and is a long overdue step, but that is not nearly enough.

A “normal” retirement shouldn’t be our goal, regardless of financial or health status. I will tell anyone that retirement is a unique experience for each of us. At the same time, there are questions about how our less-fortunate citizens can deal with the problems that confront them.

I hope a few of the things noted above are helpful, but I am willing to bet you have some thoughts, ideas, and approaches I haven’t touched on. 

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