Savings tanked, didn't plan, expenses too high. Here's how people are saving their retirement

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Retirement may mean different things to different people, but most agree on one thing.

It should be stress-free.

However, lack of stress usually comes from years of planning and decades of saving — which not everyone can do.

The average savings balance in the U.S. is less than $60,000. Few people can depend on pensions. Baby boomers heading into retirement may find themselves struggling because of inadequate savings and high health costs.

Even with the best of plans, despite saving and investing diligently, economic forces can derail everything.

Moving is never fun. Moving to a foreign country comes with even more logistical pain. “It creates anxiety plus the thought of leaving behind life as we’ve known it, including family and friends,” said Cynthia Staton, an expat retiree in Ecuador.

In 2008, Staton and her husband, Edd, now both over 65, found their retirement savings had been crushed.

The financial meltdown created an economic tsunami that swept away not just their jobs but even the fields they worked in. Edd was a marketing rep at a bank that specializes in auto loans. Cynthia worked in high-end new construction.

In addition to their home, the couple owned investment properties that made up a large portion of their retirement portfolio. All lost substantial value almost immediately.

“We had great careers and a great retirement plan — until we didn’t,” Edd Staton said.

The Statons realized they’d have to think outside the box if they wanted a decent quality of life. It was like facing three doors on a game show: Give up and accept a miserable retirement; keep on working and hope things would work out; or move abroad for a lower cost of living.

“After working so hard our entire adult lives, giving up wasn’t going to happen,” Edd Staton said. And continuing to work was equally unappealing. The Statons say they lost too much, too fast. “Time wasn’t on our side,” he said. They felt ready for a new chapter and did not want to work.

Their original retirement dream involved travel: They were going to chase perfect weather around the globe. Living abroad was more a shift in focus than an unwelcome idea.

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Their wish list had three top items: proximity to the U.S., a lower cost of living and a temperate climate. Cuenca, Ecuador, seemed to have all three, so they moved there and haven’t looked back.

Since then, they’ve enjoyed living in a four-bedroom penthouse apartment they rent for $700 a month, paying under $60 a month for utilities. They have a weekly housekeeper and regular massages, facials and mani-pedis.

The Statons, who have written several books on retirement, have a new project — an educational course called Retirement Reimagined! — that they hope will help bring more attention to moving abroad as a retirement option for U.S. citizens.

Longer life expectancy means many people will have more years in retirement or in the years we consider retirement age. These days, retirement doesn’t necessarily mean the end of work — and it’s not just the need for income that keeps people working.

We all know people who worked as long as possible because they love what they do. More people are finding out their life’s purpose may change, but they still thrive in the retirement years when they have something to wake up for each day. The last year and a half has seen a big change in how people think about retirement.

“Today’s retirees are much more realistic than even 10 years ago,” said Winnie Sun, founder of Irvine, California-based Sun Group Wealth Partners. “They realize they can’t just simply retire and get on a cruise ship.”

More and more, people are starting to think about retirement earlier. And, according to Sun, those who haven’t planned far enough in advance almost immediately feel the need to find another source of income in retirement.

Sun works with several clients who retired because they felt burnt out after decades in the same industry. “A lot of them are nervous [about money], but they need to come up with income for that mortgage payment,” she said.

Many people are finding they need to pivot, Sun added. “The whole concept of the side hustle was always about Gen X and millennials,” Sun said. “But baby boomers are realizing this is something they have to do, and they are doing it.”

One client plans to retire at 75, an age when people typically want to spend more time with their grandkids. Instead, Sun’s client hopes to create a radio show for seniors.

Brian Scott Lipton, 58, is an editor in New York. His parents retired somewhere near his age, but he’s unsure about his own future. He’d like to be able to stop working somewhere between ages 60 and 65 but doubts that will happen.

“The difference is, they had pensions,” Lipton said. “They started working young, and they worked steadily.”

Lipton has money in traditional and Roth IRAs, as well as a 401(k) plan. “But most of my life I worked at companies that either didn’t have a 401(k) or those that did, did not have a matching component,” Lipton said. He currently contributes to a 401(k) at a level that gets him the employer match.

Like many people, Lipton is uncertain about how much he can expect in retirement income. After chatting with a friend, Lipton realized he had no idea what his Social Security income would be, so he checked. “It will be helpful,” he said. “But I won’t be able to live off it.”

For now, Lipton’s retirement strategy includes investing at an aggressive risk level in a professionally managed account and considering a relocation.

Lipton and his husband don’t have a destination in mind, but it’s a near constant subject. “We can’t maintain our current life in New York City on a retirement budget,” he said.

“I think I will always want to write, but perhaps not eight to 10 hours [a day],” Lipton said. “Perhaps someday I will switch from journalism to books or essays. But I’d also like time to travel and to play bridge on a regular basis.”

Neither Lipton or his husband drives, so they’d like a city. Retirement, Lipton says, brings mixed feelings. “I’m always looking for the happy medium,” Lipton said. “So it’s probably a little bit of both terror and excitement.”

Kathy Gottberg, 63, and her husband, Thom, who live in Quinta, California, began reading and learning more about sustainability in their 50s.

Gottberg had been thinking about what retirement might look like. At the same time, her interest in living in a way that would sustain the environment was sparked because of friends from Colorado. “They were really into sustainability,” Gottberg said. “And it started seeping in.”

The couple had a luxurious home, and Gottberg’s husband was earning a decent amount of money, but their savings was not as healthy as they would have liked. They decided to look for something a bit smaller. The home they gave up had a pool, a spa, a three-car garage and four bedrooms — just for the two of them.

“We looked at what that house was costing us,” Gottberg said. “We were spending $3,500 a month.” As self-employed people without children, they knew they couldn’t rely on anyone.

After some house-hunting, they decided on a somewhat smaller home in a slightly less upscale neighborhood. Their first house had enough equity that they could buy the second one without a mortgage. They did some remodeling to boost energy efficiency. “Our utilities are probably less than $500 a year,” Gottberg said.

Without homeowners association fees and more expensive utilities, their monthly expenses took a nosedive — and they can still entertain friends in the new house. Gottberg recommends shifting your mindset to determine what you really need.

Rightsizing is more than simple downsizing, Gottberg says. It is about living with purpose. “I feel more wealthy than lots of people my age,” she said. “My husband says it is about freedom and peace of mind.”

When Gottberg and her husband scouted the options, rightsizing felt like a series of conscious choices that would pay off in the long run — rather than sacrificing anything.

Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.

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