September 10, 2018

A Satisfying Retirement with Limited Resources: Can That Work?

Here are two retirement questions that are asked on a regular basis: 
"If savings and investments are not sufficient to live the way I hoped to, can retirement still be a happy experience?"
 "If I must depend on Social Security for the bulk of my monthly income, what are my prospects?" 

I grew up in America. I was taught that continuous consumption is good and essential to our way of life. I learned that money is important and powerful. I believed that more money and possessions equaled more happiness.
Without questioning the reasons or justification, I bought the "work hard, make lots of money, and you are a success" mantra.

I was mislead. Not until my retirement did I understand the real correlation between one's financial situation and happiness:

a) consumption is not always good nor is it connected to a positive way of life.
b) money is not necessaarily linked to importance or power.
c) money and possessions do not equal happiness.

With that foundation, let me answer the two questions:

Yes, and good.

I'm not trying to be flippant. Rather, if nothing else after 17 years of retirement, the experience of writing this blog and interacting with tens of thousands of people, I have been allowed to see some serious fallacies behind the assumptions most of us carry with us.

Sure, having investments or a pension that produce a reliable income and savings that can cover a major crisis, lifestyle changes, monetary help for family members, or a way of satisfying some bucket list wants is nice. All of us would probably prefer that situation. 

But the reality is, not all of us do. Many of us don't even come close to that dream. Among all retirees, 21% of married couples and 43% of singles rely on just Social Security for 90% of their total income. That equals tens of millions of people. Of course, there are way too many who are desperately poor due to a combination of factors that I can't adequately address in this post. 

But, for those who might ask the questions that opened this post, what do these folks do? How do they spend their retirement years? Is it possible to be happy and have good prospects?

My most important suggestion has nothing to do with money. It has to do with accepting adjustments. Maybe you thought your retirement would include travel, maybe even a vacation home, lots of meals out, season tickets to the ballgames or orchestra.....whatever you pictured in your mind.

That isn't the way things turned out. That is the reality. But, it doesn't have to dictate whether your retirement is happy or not. It shouldn't make you feel like you're "failing" retirement because you can't do what others can. Your financial resources may set boundaries on retirement, but it absolutely doesn't have to determine what happens within those boundaries. That is still within your control.

Sure, living solely on Social Security or a smaller savings account means you may have to change your living arrangements: living with family, having a roommate, living in a manufactured home instead of your apartment or house. Your food choices will be more limited, but as we age we eat less and require less to maintain a healthy weight.

The number of free things you have access would overwhelm most people in the world. Libraries, concerts, educational classes, health clinics, meals and activities at the local senior center. Oh, and let's not forget one of the real joys of life: interacting with family and friends doesn't have to cost a penny.

Discount prescription drugs are increasingly available. Most senior centers schedule low cost day trips to the type of places tourists may spend hundreds of dollars to visit. Need a massage or hair styling? Go to a local barber college or massage school. You are likely to find vastly reduced prices since students have to perfect their skills on someone.

For many the spiritual side of life provides comfort and a sense of belonging. Churches and other organizations provide friendship and support. Even if you prefer to walk a spiritual path alone, your beliefs provide support and purpose to your life. This fits any budget.

Access to a computer opens up an endless world of knowledge, games, interactions with others, videos, studying a subject that interests you, and learning a new skill. If your budget doesn't stretch enough to cover an Internet service, every library in the country has computers available for use by anyone. 

Is your smartphone eating up too much of your budget? Several companies offer a basic talk and text service for a fraction of what the big boys charge. Can't justify the cost of a streaming service like Netflix?  I'll point you back to the library with thousands of DVDs available to take home. 

In addition to adjustments I will add one more "A" word to this post: Attitude. Being happy and content is an internal function, a decision made by you. It has nothing to do with finances. Sitting in a park on a beautiful day, eating a peanut butter sandwich and washing it down with a bottle of water costs virtually nothing but can add a tremendously positive experience to your day. 

Financial resources do not have to determine how satisfying a retirement lifestyle is. Too many people don't believe that and end up dispirited and defeated. Don't accept that as your fate. 

A satisfying retirement and limited resources can work. Trust me.


  1. A very important topic. Attitude is everything and Pride is a hinderance. Resources I am finding? Every state has a council on aging. Let a social worker into your life. Be kind and doors will be opened. Call now before you are desperate. There are often weekly meals and free gatherings. Senior low income housing has long lists- start early- again- before you need to be in a place. Call your local transportation agency. Bus services often have "handicapped" buses that can transport for a limited amount of money. Bus lines often have senior rates and sliding scales- but you have to ask. Use one drugstore for all of your prescriptions and sign up for their loyalty program. Loyalty programs add up and "adult undies" do go on sale. The library has loads of resources- ours even serves hot dogs on Wednesdays! Remember, what you see is not everything at a library. Interlibrary loans are a real asset. The library and I are joined at the hip for my Kindle. (Thinking a Kindle might be a present to give my friends who are struggling.) Quilting groups are easy- since everyone can find a scrap of fabric, needle and thread. Walk forward with confidence!

    1. Some excellent ideas, Janette. The key point is to research and ask before your need a service or help. I know our local Senior Center has so many ways for members to be involved and be cared for.

  2. I am obviously a big believer in attitude beign the most important thing when you are retiring on less than we thought. Having said that, there is a huge difference between retiring on less than we thought and living in poverty, whichm most people who live on social security alone do (usually through no fault of their own. If youre a single mother rasing kids and working as a preschool teacher with no help from the other parent, saving for retirement is probably impossible, in the truest sense). Do I know people who do this cheerfully? Yes. But they often haven't been to a dentist in years, cut pills in half, and choose between food and heat at least once each month. Even when they take part in free transportation, daily free lunches at the senior center, and all the other "freebies" and help that there is out there. So I think there needs to be a large explanation of the difference between "fixed income and/or less savings" and the more extreme. Like I say, I am one of the most positive people I know about fixed income living, in every sense. But I work daily with people who "DO" live on social security only, and those of us who do not should be real about what they are experiencing. Frugality generally comes from a place of priviledge.

    1. I agree. The people who asked these questions were probably not living solely on Social Security, though millions of us do. They have limited investments, or pensions plus government aid but the monthly cash flow is tight.

      I think what the questioner wanted to know was whether their situation is hopeless. I stand by the idea that adjustment to what constitutes a satisfying retirement makes a huge difference. If we bemoan all we don't have and can't do there will be nothing positive achieved.

      That said, as a society we are failing those who do have to cut pills, choose between heat and food, or otherwise simply try to survive. I don't mean to diminish the seriousness of that at all.

  3. No question that it's better have more money than less but to your point it's not essential to have bags of money to have a satisfying retirement. Studies show that even those with money don't seem to actually be spending all that much of it.

    A recent Employee Benefit Research Institute study found that people in the United States who retired with more than US$500,000 in savings on average still had 88 per cent of it left 18 years after retirement. The study found that even individuals with less than US$200,000 in non-housing assets immediately after retirement still had 75 per cent of their cash assets 18 years later.

    1. Those figures are amazing, David. I'd love to hear from some folks in situations like that: a below-average nest egg who are making it stretch the way you indicate. How are they accomplishing that? That would be an excellent follow up post.

    2. Other figures from the Employee Benefit Research Institute study show that one-third of retirees actually end up with a nest egg larger than they had when they left their jobs. Even people who had only $32,000 shortly after leaving the work force had about $24,000 left two decades after retiring.

      While some people do run out of money clearly the oft repeated line that you need a million(s) to have a successful retirement is not true.

  4. It can be tough to be old and have no money, I agree. But a lot of it is in your attitude. My brother-in-law's parents were, in effect, homeless. They went to live with their son and his wife -- and everyone found the experience both enriching and enlivening. Now, years later, and after his father has died, his mother is still there and even in her 90s contributes to the family and benefits enormously from the living situation. She's not lonely, she gets the help she needs; she still does some cooking for them and, you know, she has a great sense of humor when we're all sitting around the dinner table.

    1. Attitude and adjustments to reality are essential. I'm glad you mentioned the multi-general housing solution to what seems like an unsolvable problem.

  5. I have read, with great interest, about Nomads and Workcampers. Apparently, there is a whole community out there of people in their 70's and 80's'working at Amazon, the sugar beet harvests, parks, etc., and the Rubber Tramp Gathering in Quartzite, Az actually sounds interesting!

    1. Yes, there are. Amazon is hard work but if you are fit, it isn't a bad way to take on some seasonal work and pad the budget.

      WorkCampers would be more my speed. I don't mind cleaning bathrooms...I do it at home!

  6. I'm just past my one year of retirement and I would agree, attitude and adjustment are the foundation for enjoying living on less. My income is about 25% of what it was 2 years ago, which is almost laughable to me at times. I've made a lot of adjustments to my budget but I would describe them as wise decisions that probably should have been made years ago. So far I don't feel like I'm missing out on anything and all my needs have been met. Raising 6 children taught me to always look for a bargain or a cheaper way so thankfully I'm pretty good at that. No, retirement is not what I thought it would be. The biggest adjustment has been to live this season of my life without my husband who passed away 2 years ago. That is something money can't buy.

    1. I am sure having to enter retirement without a partner is very difficult and saddening. All those plans you made together need major overhauls. Even so, your sentence, "So far I don't feel like I'm missing out on anything and all my needs have been met" is a tremendous testimony to your will power and attitude. Your odds of having a satisfying retirement are very good.

      Best of luck on your second knee surgery (just checked out your blog).

    2. Thanks so much. I'm ready to be out of pain. I enjoy your blog and have been following it this year. It's been a great reference and encouragement to me.


Inappropriate comments will be deleted