Yesterday, I was in a hurry to get to my volunteer gig, and I did something I do so rarely I can probably count the times I've done so recently. I hit the local yellow arches for breakfast-where I got a sausage egg biscuit. I also got..wait for it...a diet coke.
Now, at first glance, this is the kind of situation that inspires jokes and snide remarks all the time. How many times have you said to yourself, or heard someone else say something along the lines of "that diet coke isn't doing him any good with that burger/bag of fries!"? It's the fodder of more jokes than I could ever begin to list. What so many of those comments and jokes miss, though, is that everything in life is a trade off. This is the kind of situation that falls under that "You can have what you want, just not all at the same time" mantra of mine.
The truth is that I rarely get fast food for breakfast. And before the nutritionists among you jump to the fore, I have a diet soda on an average less than once a week. In the situation above though, I was both hungry and thirsty. But, just like we have limited time and money, I have a limited amount of carbs I can eat per day. While I could fit the sandwich into my allotment for the day, or a regular soda, I could not fit both. In other words, while the sandwich was not the healthiest thing I ate all day, just imagine where I would have been. And in truth, although I told you I was drinking diet soda, I know from experience that there are lots of folks who get, say, water or iced tea for the same reason. And while I hate to pay for empty calories, the soda was probably cheaper than the bottled water.
My fast food example is just that. Although I don't write quite as much about the frugal side of retirement lately as I have been, I regularly get emails and comments and questions. How do you afford this. But that means you can't buy that! Or as one person said "I just want to be able to see something in a store and get it".
The truth is that most retirees live on a sort of fixed income and we all make trade offs in both time and money-the same kind of trade offs that I made nutritionally above. Those decisions are not always made every time we shop, although it can happen. More likely, we've set our priorities in such way that we may make the choices unconsciously. The end result though is that we all make choices and we all make them differently.
I love real coke. So much that even with borderline sugar control and loosing weight (albeit slowly), I have a can of coke (usually a small one) every single morning. In fact, somewhere along the line I decided that for me personally, sweet carbs were more important than the other kind (for the uninitiated,, these days a carb is a carb and sugar is not worse than potatoes). I don't particularly care about potatoes, or rice or pasta as part of my meal, so I am more likely to use up my less than 200 carbs on that morning coke, kettle corn with my v8, or real syrup on a whole grain waffle. Now those decisions are in my subconscious.
I make the same kind of decisions in my financial life. As an example, I've shared my picnic basket style expensive cooler in which I pack peanut butter sandwiches and fruit and pop and water and sometimes even stuff for dinners. Invariably I get at least one comment that sounds something like "It must be a pretty sad retirement if you have to pack your own sandwiches". I'm certainly not the only person to get such comments, I seem to remember a similar one came to former blogger Tamara. Comments like that, of course, miss the point. I don't HAVE to pack my own sandwiches as such. I could of course, have fast food, or eat at Denny's or even eat at say, Macaroni Grill every lunch. I pack my own food for travel because I don't want to eat that way all the time. If you were to follow me on that road trip to my final destination, you will probably see me at the most expensive seafood restaurant the city has to offer. Because for me, one $100 meal is a no brainer-and if it means eating my own sandwiches along the way, that's peachy.
In the late spring, I'm slated for a one month train trip (it has to coincide with the cherry blossoms in DC). If you were to see the planning portion I am working on now, you would think I was the cheapest, poorest retiree you knew. I've planned to take my lightweight picnic cooler on the train. Most of the time, I'm not booking the sleeping car. I'm booking the cheapest non stop trains, taking advantage of every senior discount and generally being extremely tighwaddish.
I am doing all of those things, and doing them happily for the other options in this trip. Because I am counting every penny on places on this trip where I can, I'll be able to spend money in other places. Places like good hotels in Chicago, New York, Philly and Washington DC. Money saved on food and train costs will allow me to do things like take a boat tour in Chicago, see at least one play in New York, and visit one of the really good restaurants mentioned above in each place.
There are retirees who don't think about how much they spend as such. I do know a woman who says she buys whatever she wants-although from my experience she doesn't want much. It's also true that my income of $33000 annually may well be less than other retirees can or want to live on. But I personally don't know many retirees, single or partnered who don't make spending trade-offs a part of their finances. I also don't know many retirees who don't re-evaluate spending at the end of each year, as they plan retirement for the following year (as many of us are starting to do now)
My priorities have changed drastically, through the years I have written this blog. For example, I went for a few years with travel being low on my priority list, but have put it back on the front burner. While I'm still assessing my priorities I can say that I'm willing to spend money on traveling the US (and taking one cruise this year), home comforts and family, outreach and community help, on my health (therapy, massage and so on), and on fabric and craft supplies.
This means that I do not spend money very often on restaurants (I save it for travel) clothes or dress for success (I wear a uniform in bright colors that coordinate and it works for me), On entertainment (I do free or cheap and get one or two good tickets a year, I go to the five dollar movies) or on expensive recreation (I don't ski or play golf or..). You get my drift.
It works for me because I know my priorities. Now, I am the first to admit that if I wanted to go to the movie every Friday night, go out to dinner every weekend once or twice, play golf once a week, buy my clothes only at Norstrom AND go on an Atlantic Cruise, my finances would be in trouble. And if you are looking at retiring on less than you thought and you were planning to do every single one of those things, you would probably be in trouble as well.
In my case, I would not want to do all those things, even if I had the cash. For one thing, I would lose control of my time, and for another, I never did all those things when my husband was making close to $100,000 a year.
So if you are wondering if life in retirement is managable on a fixed income, the answer is yes. Don't get me wrong, when it comes to savings, more is better. But if you don't have $500,000 in the bank, it's not the end of the world. LIfe is about trade-offs and choices and retirement and retirement finances are no different.
Of course, as many retirees know, it's not just about money management in retirement, it's about time management as well. Even though I am the first the admit I have much more time than money over all, using that time in the best way sometimes comes down to touch choices and keeping that two letter word that begins with N very close. But that's a story for another time. And now I'm off to have healthy "pulled" chicken, salad and veggies to make up for my dietary lapse much early.
And so it goes this weekend in December.