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Deborah Gaines Headshot

Getting Ready To Join The Old And Poor

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I'm 53 and have virtually no retirement savings. According to popular wisdom, I am destined to spend my golden years in a box under the nearest railway trestle. The money I've been paying into Social Security since 1982 will barely cover my skyrocketing medical costs. The only good news is that I'll have plenty of company -- according to a recent Huffington Post article, the median level of retirement savings held by American households is just $3,000.

The article focuses on the difficulties faced by low-income families, but I don't even have that excuse. As a writer, I've had some lean years, but I've also had many where I earned six figures. Somehow the combined costs of housing, raising kids, and finding the most possible joy in each day didn't leave a lot of extra cash for retirement.

So is it time to panic? The New York Times and Wall Street Journal are just two of the august publications throwing around the word "crisis." Maybe I'm kidding myself -- it wouldn't be the first time -- but I don't feel like the sky is falling.

Okay, it's clear that I won't be able to "maintain my current standard of living" when I retire. But why would I want to? I currently have a four-bedroom house in a lovely town with one of the highest tax rates (and best school districts) in the Northeast. I'm paying college tuition for one child and financing an endless stream of music lessons, tae kwon do equipment, and macaroni and cheese for the other.

Take these things away and it will cut my expenses by approximately 70 percent. Less income with a correspondingly lower level of responsibility; it sounds like being 25 again, only with wrinkles and more frequent doctor's appointments.

The big bugaboo, it seems, is health. What happens if I need specialized medical care? I'll have Medicare and may be able to purchase a Medigap policy as well. I've seen big savings stashes decimated by expensive assisted living options; chances are, I won't be able to afford those. But neither can most people.

It would have been great to save for retirement without depriving my family of the things I chose to give them. But I don't have a lot of regrets. I don't regret the trips we took together or the bar and bat mitzvahs that gave us so much joy. I don't regret taking on (or paying off) college loans. I don't regret choosing a gorgeous, safe, diverse community where our family could feel at home, even though the taxes were ridiculous.

When it comes to savings, I may be more of a risk-taker than most people. But almost everyone has had their savings plan derailed in some way, whether by the market crash, an unexpected illness, or some other unscheduled expense. Most of us are not where we thought we would be at this point in our lives. We can't change that, but we can choose how we react to it.

Studies show that, while they may have less money, older people are the happiest of any age group. My guess is they've learned to be grateful for what they have instead of defining themselves by what they want. As for me, I have seen that depriving myself of joy today for fear of what will happen tomorrow is the shortest road to misery. I won't be taking that route as I ride off into the sunset.

So when I retire, you may find me in a modest apartment in a small town; an inexpensive paradise like Mexico or Costa Rica; or even camping out in my kids' backyards (just kidding, guys). No matter what, it will be an adventure.

Listen to Deborah talk with Chicago's WGN Radio about being 53 with no retirement savings here.

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

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