You've just turned 80, but instead of celebrating, you're brooding. You've gone over your finances and things are worse than last year - worse than you ever imagined.
Never mind your heart or lungs, it's interest rates that could hurt you. And if that doesn't do it, what about the politicians who are eyeing Medicare and Social Security cuts? Your friends say it's only a question of time before it happens, and while you can't believe they're right, it's still plenty scary. If Washington can be so oblivious to what's happened to older people over the past two years, anything is possible.This is the ultimate generation gap. Anyone under 70 just doesn't get it. They don't understand that at this stage of the game, you're not in any position to earn a living. After all, who wants to hire an 80-year-old? Who could put in a 40-hour week? You can't start over. You depend on savings, pensions and Social Security - that's it.
That's the problem. Every day, your life revolves around a mailbox as you wait for those skinny, see-through envelopes that hold the bits and pieces of your income. Except the amounts on the checks are getting smaller and smaller. Some days, you wonder whether you might outlive the nest egg. And then what?
Back in the '80s, retirement didn't seem like a bad deal. You put your money in almost anything and could expect a very healthy return. Interest rates were 16 percent, 17 percent - even for short-term money markets. Looking back, those were pretty good days. With a principal of $250,000, you could pull in 40 grand or more. Some of that was (and remains) tax-free, including a portion of your Social Security benefits.
So it was a pretty comfortable lifestyle. You set yourself up in one of those retirement communities and kept rolling over Certificates of Deposit. Even the stock market looked appealing, particularly if someone tipped you off about a company on the verge of being taken over. You would hear stories about folks tripling and quadrupling their investments. It was a little crazy - and very risky.
Most people stayed conservative: Treasury notes, utility bonds, low-risk mutual funds - anything, really, that seemed safe. A few of your friends kept warning you that interest rates couldn't stay that high forever, but in those days no one paid that much attention. The whole world was bullish and you sounded like a fool if you asked any questions. Everyone kept telling you to grab it while you could.
You began to get nervous after the stock market crashed in '87. Not that you got hit too badly; actually, your companies recovered very nicely over the next few months. But it wasn't a good sign. Too much spending. Too much debt. Things would get worse.
Sure enough, two years ago the Fed decided to drop the discount rate. Then came a drop in the prime. Then T-bills. It wasn't too big a deal at first - maybe one or two percentage points. But what the Fed wanted to happen to the economy didn't happen, so rates were lowered again. And again. And again. It got so you were afraid to pick up the newspaper.
The loss of income has been astounding. In 1990, the average yield on a one-year CD was 7.8 percent. The next year it was 5.8 percent. This year it's 3.8 percent. You can't count on those 9 percent to 10 percent interest bonds you bought a few years ago because they're being called in. They'll return the principal, plus a bit extra, but what are you supposed to do with the money? No one will pay that kind of interest anymore.
This year you'll be lucky to make $20,000, and rent will eat up more than half of that. You've become very frugal - coupon clipping, early bird dinners, fewer trips to see your children, that sort of thing. Sometimes, you get annoyed when a 30-year-old kid pulls up alongside you in some snazzy car you couldn't begin to afford, but that's not the worst of it.
The worst of it is that after all the scrimping and saving, you still struggle to make ends meet. There are just too many costs. You have supplemental health insurance for what medicare won't cover, which is substantial. And car repairs. And utilities. And the incidentals that come up in life. Nothing fancy, but it adds up.
Your friends tell you stories of unexpected medical costs running into the thousands of dollars. You couldn't handle those bills - not at this rate. Yo're now dipping into your principal for even the routine stuff. Which would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
But that's the way things are as you turn 80, and that's why you're brooding rather than celebrating. Frankly, you just don't know how many more of these birthdays you'll be able to afford.