Judy and Jim Decker with their cocker spaniel, Bailey, in their Crystal home. “In the big picture, we’re pretty lucky,” he said.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Middle-class blues: Frustrated on a fixed income

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM
  • Star Tribune
  • September 27, 2008 - 8:59 PM

Jim Decker jokes that he doesn't want to die "being the richest man in the cemetery." Decker knows, though, that the likelihood of that is slim.

Decker, 66, retired from his job with a nonprofit working with at-risk teenagers in Austin, Minn., three years ago and feels like he's doing everything right. He and his second wife, Judy, 67, live in her tidy, two-bedroom home in Crystal that was paid off long ago. Both their cars are paid for. Judy, retired from a longtime administrative job, scours the Sunday newspapers for coupons and they only buy meat if it's two-for-one. Their $60 monthly cable TV bill is their one "luxury."

Still, Decker worries. Their combined Social Security incomes total about $32,000 annually, Decker said.

While that more than covers bills, including $200 a month for groceries and $150 for gas, "where we run into trouble is real estate taxes," he said. The couple, married 2 1/2 years ago, must tap into their small savings, including Judy's tax-deferred annuity from her former employer, for that. Jim also has a small retirement plan from his former employer.

"The problem when you're not working is, if you take it out of savings, there's no opportunity to put it back in."

His big concern is not knowing how many years the money needs to last. "Retirement would be a lot simpler," he mused comically, "if you knew how far you needed the money to go."

Decker's story is one squarely at home in the 20th century. His father worked for 45 years as a plumber and welder at the Hormel packing plant. His homemaker mother managed her three boys and the two-story, five-bedroom home they bought in 1954 for $11,000. Decker never wanted for anything, he said, mainly because everyone they knew lived like they did. "We were all middle-class," he said. "There wasn't a lot of economic distinction."

That's part of why he's stunned when he hears about the troubles of middle-class people today, especially younger Americans. "When you see people buying a $350,000 or $400,000 house when they're 26 or 27, I don't understand that," Decker said. "The mortgage must be enormous."

"Young people are willing to take more risks," suggested Judy, a mother and grandmother.

"It's a pay-me-now attitude," her husband added.

The Deckers have no debt -- though they charge many items, they pay the bills off monthly and do it for the credit card rewards -- and they consider their health insurance, offered through UCare, a good deal at $200 a month for each of them.

Still, they have nervously watched their grocery bills rise over the past four or five months, particularly with eggs, milk and their beverage of choice, coffee. They're considering going down to one car.

They eat at restaurants once every couple of months and, when they do, they use discount-dining cards that offer $5 off, or two-for-one meals. But twice a week they're at the Crystal Community Center for senior dining. They greatly enjoy the company of and conversations with "older" people, Judy said, and you really can't beat a hot meal of roast pork or Swiss steak for $3.25 each.

"In the big picture, we're pretty lucky," Jim said.

"If you talk to people and they say they wouldn't do anything differently, they're not being honest. All of us would have done things differently, but you have to do your best with the cards you're dealt."

Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350

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