Chris Farrell: Doomsters need to remember the creativity of retirees

  • Article by: CHRIS FARRELL
  • Updated: September 19, 2009 - 11:24 PM

Last week I participated in a panel discussion in New York on baby boomers and retirement. The panel was tied to the launch of the second season of Twin Cities Public Television's series "Life: Part 2,'' which deals with the practical aspects of an aging boomer generation, from caregiving to finances to dating.

We covered a lot of ground, but I want to highlight a theme that resonated with the audience. Many Americans, it seems, are gripped with foreboding over the prospect of living longer. But we often forget how creative people are at coming up with solutions. Retirement is no different. The doomsters underestimate our creativity.

Many retirees find that they can make significant cuts in expenses without slashing their standard of living. The retired have the time to shop for and take advantage of deals and discounts, to clip coupons and plan ahead. It's easy for them to substitute home cooking instead of a late-night dash after work to get takeout.

A letter writer to the New York Times put it nicely: "You can get by on a lot less when you're retired, without really depriving yourself of anything important. ... If I had known earlier how much 'wealth' derives from such simple pleasures, I would have retired much sooner."

He's right. When my Dad retired, one of the first things he did was walk to all the nearby locally owned businesses he had supported for years, from the garage to the pharmacy. He enjoyed doing business with local entrepreneurs. He told the owners that he had stopped working. He wondered what they could do for him since he had been a loyal customer. Every owner gave him a discount and he continued doing business with them.

Part of being creative is a willingness to experiment.

For instance, Frank and Sandie learned by trial and error. Frank had been a pharmacist in Denver. Sandie worked as an assistant in doctor's offices. They owned their home and they had become empty-nesters. They were looking at another 15 years of work before they could retire. But they wanted more.

They sold their house, bought an RV and started living in it full time. "We decided that if we didn't own a house we only needed half the income," Frank told "Right on the Money" television producer Lisa Blackstone. They worked out a plan for working longer but earning less. But their first RV was too small. They went to northern California in the summer thinking it would be cool, but it was 108 degrees the first day Frank went to work. Eventually they got a bigger RV.

They ended up working six months of the year in Yuma, Ariz., three months maintaining a campsite alongside a lake in the Colorado mountains, and the other three months building Habitat for Humanity homes. All this, and no debt.

So, when it comes to retirement planning, be flexible and creative. Don't despair.

Chris Farrell is economics editor for American Public Media's "Marketplace Money." Send questions to cfarrell@mpr.org.

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