Our troubled economy

Pensioners pinching pennies tighter

  • Article by: H.J. CUMMINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 16, 2008 - 4:04 PM

A burst of rising prices has increased difficulties and anxiety for middle-class retirees living on incomes that are falling further and further behind inflation.

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Robert and Dorothy Koshenina of White Bear Lake are getting estimates to replace their 12-year-old water heater and 21-year-old furnace and air conditioning unit with new, more-efficient models. Like many seniors, they’re coping with rising expenses while living on retirement incomes.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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The limitations of Nancy Embertson's budget have inspired economies both small and large.

It's only matinees or second-run movie houses for the retired computer operator now. She's slower to flip the switch to turn on the air conditioning in her Maplewood home, and when she does, the thermostat is set at 76 degrees, not the previous 73. Because of her asthma, there are days that she just can't do without it, said Embertson, 71.

More drastically, when her basic prescription coverage maxes out each year, and she has to pay in full, Embertson makes hard choices. Usually around October, she uses her asthma inhaler once instead of the prescribed twice daily, and she takes a cholesterol pill only every other day. "The high-blood-pressure medicine, that's the one I make sure I take," she said.

Embertson is one of Minnesota's middle-class retirees. There are plenty of them among the state's approximate 600,000 senior citizens. Half of Minnesotans 65 and older have incomes of more than $30,000, nearly 12 percent higher than the national figure, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

They worked, paid off mortgages and saved for their senior years. But even they are increasingly feeling pinched, as the prices of basic necessities rise faster than they ever imagined or planned for.

Power companies are warning of 30 to 50 percent higher heating bills come winter. Although gasoline is on its way down from more than $4 a gallon, it has still doubled since 2006.

Overall annual inflation is running at 6.2 percent as of last month, with the three steepest climbs in energy, at 29.7 percent; transportation, 14.4 percent; and food, 6 percent, federal figures show.

But Social Security's cost-of-living raise was just 2.3 percent last year. Even combined Social Security, pensions and savings are not enough to ward ff worry.

For some, basic living expenses already consume a lot of their money. Embertson gets some assistance for the nursing home bill of her husband, Jim, but his many, smaller needs -- such as $8-a-pair support socks -- add up, she said. Other seniors have growing anxiety that they could outlive their money, after all. And they're looking for any way to cut pennies off their expenses -- even hanging out the laundry or switching from butter to margarine.

"People are not living extravagantly," said Michelle Kimball, director of the Minnesota AARP. "Their lifestyle hasn't changed. What's changed is how expensive it's all becoming and how static their income has been. And what you see is a growing sense of struggle."

Food at a discount

On a recent afternoon, Robert and Dorothy Koshenina made their first trip to buy discounted food at the White Bear Lake Senior Center through a program called Fare For All. The program, through the Emergency Foodshelf Network, makes monthly stops at 12 sites throughout the Twin Cities -- mostly senior centers -- and mostly selling meat and produce at about a 40 percent saving, a spokesman said.

"We're trying it out to see if it will help with the grocery bill," said Dorothy, 64, a part-time seamstress. Robert, 71, is a retired machinist. Her $800 monthly income does little more than cover her health insurance premium and his Medicare supplement payment. They've switched from butter to margarine, given up steaks for hamburger and crossed off her favorite treat: cookies. She does buy some candy, she said, because Robert is trying to quit smoking and they can't afford the $164 for a protocol of nicotine patches.

Wood burning and walking

Jim Simning, 71, plans to cover more of his winter heating needs with his wood-burning stove. He also said he's walking more and driving less for errands and a regular, weekday card game. On the bright side, the retired printer in Birchwood said: "It's good exercise for a fat old man."

David and Allifreda Diskerud of White Bear Lake have modified their already modest lifestyle. They drive a 14-year-old Geo Metro and have scaled back from satellite to limited cable service for their television -- their main entertainment, said David, 79, retired from a railroad, and Allifreda, who worked in retail. "We're just now starting to feel worried about how things are going to go in the next few months," Allifreda said, in anticipation of winter.

"For all our own concerns, we have a lot of sympathy for younger people with families, and all those expenses," David said.

It's a common sentiment among seniors, Kimball said. They talk often about worries for their children and grandchildren making it through a tough economy, she said. In an AARP survey in April, one-third of responders 65 and older said they have had to help a child pay some bills in the past year.

H.J. Cummins • 612-673-4671

  • about this series

  • The Star Tribune's coverage of the housing crisis, the credit crunch and their effect on Minnesotans.
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