Retirement: Playing a Frantic Game of Catch Up


Janet Patterson has faced a lot in her life. Divorce, alcoholism, depression. Each time the 59-year-old Californian has come back from the precipice, and she’s now an accomplished nurse who specializes in pediatrics and critical care.

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But now Patterson is readying for the most daunting foe of all, and it’s a battle she’s not sure she can win: She’s approaching retirement age with barely a dime to her name.

She’s got $46,000 in student loans, $3,000 racked up on various credit cards, an $8,000 loan on a used car. She has no property, and no savings to speak of. Except for $7,000 in a 401(k)--  which she’s already taken a loan against.

“It’s terrifying,” says Patterson, who rents a room from friends, with kitchen and bathroom privileges. “I never really understood money, and I was raised with attitudes like the husband would take care of the checkbook. Now, I don’t ever expect to stop working.”

There’s nothing like the existential dread of facing a future of destitution. That’s why Patterson is frantically playing catch-up with her savings, just as retirement age closes in. She has side gigs doing data entry, making baby clothes, and freelance writing. She’s selling her old books and movies. She collects bottles and cans from the streets, and cashes them in at the corner Safeway.

She even picks up discarded lottery tickets, enters online contests, and scours for abandoned change in parking lots. She does it because she has no choice.

“I feel peculiar doing that, but you know what? It’s money,” she says. “And I’m not proud anymore.”

If you think Patterson’s situation is a rare and heartrending case, you should think again. According to the Washington, D.C.-based Employee Benefits Research Institute, a full 27 percent of Americans have less than $1,000 squirreled away for their retirement years. That’s barely enough to cover public transportation to the soup kitchen.

“The numbers are frightening,” says Craig Copeland, a senior research associate with EBRI. “Many people are having a difficult time just getting through the day right now, let alone saving anything. They’re looking at a grim future; they’re going to be hit hard, and they won’t know what to do.”

There’s Social Security, of course, which at least provides a minimum level of support for poor seniors. But that safety net is thin, and in danger of snapping altogether, with a projected $5.4 trillion underfunding over the next 75 years.

As a result, for those in the same situation as Patterson –- with little to their name, and the window of remaining working years slowly closing -– it’s time to take action.

First of all, start immediately. Do exactly what Janet Patterson is doing: Scratch, and claw, and kick your way back into contention. Yes, it may be late in the game, but don’t let that fact frighten you into inaction. “It’s never too late,” says Hillary Price, a financial planner and president of H.D. Price in Beverly Hills. “Of course you should have begun before, but why wade in that guilt? That’s not going to make you feel any better, so just look forward and get started.”

The good news: If you’re still gainfully employed, you can take full advantage of catch-up provisions for your retirement accounts. For those over 50, on top of existing maximums, you could chip in another $5,500 for 401(k)s and $1,000 for IRAs every single year.

You can also move the retirement goalposts, so to speak, and keep working as long as you possibly can. Not only for the added income, but for the health-insurance implications. “Not many companies have retiree health plans anymore, and medical insurance and out-of-pocket costs are just so expensive,” says Price.

Next, if you can’t do much to alter the income side of the ledger, at least you can revise spending plans for your golden years. Downsize your expectations, trade down from the old family home to a modest apartment, and shelve the grand dreams of touring the world. “If you’re near retirement and don’t have much time to make up ground, you need to start thinking about changing your lifestyle,” says EBRI’s Copeland. “Come up with a plan to get those expenses down.”

Most of all, in the words of Winston Churchill after the London blitz: Never, never, never give up. That’s what Janet Patterson is doing. She’s slowly whittling down her student loan and credit card debt, and is determined to continue down her new-and-improved financial path. Not only for her own sake, but so she won’t be a burden to her two grown sons. “As much as it’s scary, you just deal with it--and move forward.”

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