Rewriting Retirement

Behavior

A Laid-off Boomer’s Retirement Plan 2.0

Jennifer Lee quoteJennifer Lee wanted to work until 70 to max out her monthly Social Security checks – at least that was the plan before she was laid off three years ago from a Washington D.C. church.

The church’s newly hired pastor “decided he wanted a whole new staff,” she said. “I felt to a degree he was entitled to do that,” she said – except that “he was only eliminating people on the staff who were over 60.”

She wasn’t having any luck finding a new job and felt that her only choice was to sign up for Social Security at 63½ to pay her bills. Eventually, Lee, a one-time nurse and medical administrator, landed a nice part-time job as a Jack-of-all-trades in an oral surgeon’s office. Post-pandemic, her duties have expanded to include overseeing the COVID-19 safety protocols.

The recession is putting many baby boomers in a predicament similar to Lee’s: a layoff has derailed their plans to work full-time to build up their retirement savings. Since March, the unemployment rate for Americans who are at least 55 years old has more than tripled, to 9.7 percent in June.

“Most older people, when they’re laid off, will take Social Security right away,” but “that’s not their best short-term solution,” said Wendy Weiss, a Cambridge, Mass., financial adviser. She urges them to find other ways to generate income or reduce expenses, because delaying Social Security increases the monthly check by 7 percent to 8 percent for each additional year the benefits are postponed.

But, Weiss acknowledges, the recession is putting growing numbers of unemployed boomers in situations that aren’t easily solved. “It’s not going to be pretty,” she said about the next few years.

Lee, who is 65, was fully aware she should have postponed her Social Security. But it took her more than six months to find her current job, and she didn’t have any unemployment benefits to tide her over, because church employers don’t usually pay into state unemployment insurance funds. She wasn’t old enough for Medicare at the time of her 2017 layoff either.

“I waited five months to apply for Social Security. I waited as long as I could,” she said.

She sees a problem not in the difficult decisions she’s had to make but in a shortage of policies for older workers like herself, who may be more vulnerable to layoffs and also can have a tougher time finding a new job even in an expanding economy.

“The unfairness of forcing older people out of their jobs and then expecting them to get benefits when they can’t get a full-time job, what can they do?” she said. For example, she said, why not make Medicare available before 65 for older people who are laid off?

Yet, she says, “A lot of people I know that this happened to are 57 or 58, so I’m very lucky.”

Financial experts say another strategy boomers can use to delay Social Security is to spend some of their retirement savings.  In the real world, however, many have little saved. In Lee’s case, she has about $155,000 in retirement and emergency savings, but the prospect of draining what little she had made her very uneasy.

Lee, like many middle-class baby boomers on the downward arc of a steady career, will find ways to manage. She has a lot going for her, including her lengthy past employment, which resulted in a $2,000 monthly check from Social Security – about $500 more than the average retirees’ benefit. Adding in her paychecks, her annual income is slightly below $50,000.

But Washington is an expensive city. Although the mortgage payment is not especially high for her desirable Northwest Washington location, the mortgage, combined with her monthly co-op fee, totals just over $1,600.

Lee is also able to save some of her paycheck for the day she will be too old to work. If the going gets tough when she’s fully retired, she has another valuable resource: a co-op she estimates has about $300,000 in home equity.

Lee is aware that she could tap this equity if she needs it. A financial adviser told her she is “a poster child for a reverse mortgage,” she said. She could also sell her home and move to an area with a lower cost of living – perhaps Oregon, where her brother lives. New Hampshire and Vermont are also on her radar.

Lee is in what might be called a “semi-retired” state. Her full retirement plan continues to evolve.

Read more blog posts in our ongoing coverage of COVID-19.

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