Dear Liz: I’m 64 and lost my last full-time job a year ago. I have since exhausted my unemployment benefits and been on and off food stamps. (I’m waiting to get back on them right now because my temporary-to-permanent job didn’t become permanent after all.) Fortunately I almost never need to go to a doctor, or if I do, I don’t know that I do and can’t afford to find out. I have about $3,000 in emergency savings, and my IRA is about $15,000. I was fortunate enough to sell a home in Hawaii 20 years ago, but I managed to run through all the money. My income when I was working full time was only $26,000 a year. I don’t know what to do, and I don’t know why I listen to all these financial programs that seem to target twentysomethings or people with retirement savings and comfortable incomes. They do not speak to my situation. My priority isn’t saving for retirement. It’s paying the bills.
Answer: Financial programs are, at least to some extent, concerned about the entertainment value of their programming. They often focus on people who fit their audience demographics and whose problems have satisfying solutions. That’s why the people featured tend to be younger or to have resources, because those are the ones who typically can recover from past mistakes and get their finances on track.
When people have no income, there’s not much financial advice to give. And when they’re in their 60s and have virtually no retirement savings, there’s no way to “catch up.”
That doesn’t mean your situation is hopeless, but it does mean you’ll have to hustle to stay afloat.
Finding a full-time job at this point is a long shot, so part-time work and Social Security probably will provide your income in the coming years. Social Security might replace as much as 40% of your previous low income (the replacement rate is lower for higher earners), but that still leaves you with a substantial gap to fill.
Ideally, you would hold out until age 66 before applying so you can get your full Social Security benefit. You’re eligible for benefits now, but your checks will be permanently reduced if you start early and your earnings could potentially reduce your check further under the earnings test (which you can learn more about at http://www.ssa.gov/oact/cola/rtea.html). The benefits that are withheld aren’t lost, because at full retirement age your monthly check would be increased to account for the withholdings. You’ll have to balance whether those disadvantages outweigh the upside of starting a guaranteed income now.
By the way, if you’ve ever been married and the marriage lasted at least 10 years, you may qualify for spousal or survivor benefits (even if the marriage ended in divorce) that could exceed the benefit you’ve earned on your own record. You can discuss your options by calling the Social Security Administration at (800) 772-1213.
You’ll need to look for ways to reduce your expenses so that you can get by on whatever income you receive. If you qualify, the federal Section 8 program could help pay for housing (start at Benefits.gov to see what programs are available). Some of the other ways to reduce housing costs — the biggest expense for most people — include getting a roommate, becoming a live-in caregiver for an older person or a family with kids, or becoming an apartment manager or the caretaker of a property.
At 65, you’ll qualify for Medicare. Although this government health insurance program for older Americans doesn’t cover everything, you will have access to healthcare again.