Monday, October 9, 2017

Five Ways to Save for Retirement ... That Don't Include Money

Let's face it. Most of us don't do a good job of saving money. We all know we need to save money for retirement, but for those of us without an automatic pension plan or a 401K option we started at the beginning of our careers – before we ended up needing a certain level of income to maintain our current lifestyle – starting the practice of regularly putting a little aside is difficult.  It becomes even worse the longer we wait, and if we have children or suffer job/income losses, saving for retirement can become all-but out of reach. 

In 1997, Deus Ex Machina and I moved to Maine. He found an entry-level job, and I started my career as a stay-at-home Mom. In 1998, I started a home-based business and have been self-employed ever since.  Over the last two decades Deus Ex Machina has worked at several different companies, only two of which had a 401k program. If we wanted to save money for retirement, we would have needed to have opened our own, personal, retirement savings account.

Living on one and a half incomes is a challenge, and without an employer sponsored retirement program, retirement savings ends up being one of those things one is going to do in the future. Unfortunately, sometimes, the future comes more quickly than planned.

According to this article, almost one-fifth of the senior population here in the US depends solely on the federal social security system for financial support. It's usually not enough, as the article points out, and (too) many seniors, these days, are taking low-wage jobs just to make ends meet.

Articles, like the one referenced above and this one, are full of great advice on how and how much we should be saving toward retirement. According to the second article, if one earns an annual salary of $74,000, one would need to have saved $1.3 million for retirement, which works out to over $900/month or $11,000 per year in savings. Putting that kind of money into a savings account and still keeping a roof over our heads and food in our mouths just isn't possible. The article advises starting early.

Yeah … well, that ship sailed without us.

The fact is that it becomes even more difficult to START saving the older one gets, and when one is my age, if one doesn't already have some savings, whatever one is able to save from this point forward isn't going to go very far anyway. Sometimes any little bit doesn't really help. What's that saying, rob Peter to pay Paul? That's how starting to save at my age can feel.

Suppose that I was able to find some stray $11,000 a year to put into a non-interest bearing savings account. When I retired, I'd only have $165,000 in the bank. That's a nice savings. I could pay off my house.  It's true that I wouldn't have a non-interest bearing account.  If those funds are invested well, I could be looking at twice that amount, or more.  Certainly, I'd be no where near the $1.3 million, but I could be sitting on a quarter of a million, or slightly more, when I retire.  

The problem - for me, anyway - is that those funds are rarely secure.  In fact the first article I linked to above has a heart-breaking story about a woman who invested in a 401k only to be robbed of her entire savings just when she needed it most.  So, I could be putting my money into a savings account and trusting that we won't end up with another 2008 too-big-to-fail situation but with the banks not being bailed out by the government.  I could be putting my money into US Treasury bonds and trusting that we won't follow Venezuela into economic collapse.  I could be investing in the Stock Market and hoping that we don't end up with 1930s style Market crash.  

Or, instead of scrimping and saving now, so that I can live on a tiny fixed income as a senior citizen, I could be investing in my future in very real ways that will make my future more secure and more comfortable.

Here are five ways Preppers (or anyone) could be investing that don't involve risking our hard-earned dollars.

Pay off the mortgage

I think the absolute best thing one can do to prepare for retirement is to make sure that one is debt-free when one enters those golden years.

And by debt-free, I also mean free from a mortgage. In the first article referenced above, the writer states that social security is less than what a person can make working a full-time minimum wage job. If that's true, a senior citizen who only has social security will be subsisting on about $1200 per month. If one has to pay rent or a mortgage out of that amount of money, it might not actually be possible to subsist on only that. As such, paying off the house and living rent/mortgage free would be a huge step in the right direction.

I could invest in a retirement savings, or I could pay off my house. The latter is, in my opinion, a much better choice.

The best thing I can do for Old Wendy is to make sure that she has a place to live.

Reduce the cost of one's utilities

Going hand-in-hand with paying off the mortgage is reducing/eliminating one's other bills. We already don't live with and don't want or need cable television. I would completely cut all television-related expenses, if I could convince my family, which means no Netflix, either. Granted, cable television isn't a utility, as the heading implies, but cutting the proverbial cord is a step toward the necessary independence to keep Old Wendy more financially secure.

Reducing one's overall footprint with regard to electricity usage and water usage will also be valuable to Old Wendy. The less one has to pay for those basic things, the less money one needs to live comfortably.

So, instead of spending $900/month on a retirement account, one could put those funds toward setting up an alternative energy system.  For less than a half a year's worth of savings, we could be generating enough electricity to power some small electronics (laptops, phones, some LED bulbs) and our freezer.  By the time I'm ready to retire, we could have a whole-house system with enough capability to run whatever we plug into it (including the power-hungry electric stove), that was completely paid off and we'd be generating electricity for free.  

Setting water barrels for watering the garden and giving the animals water (and for use in an emergency) will reduce the water bill, which will also translate into a huge savings.  Algae-free, filtered rainwater can also be used for washing clothes and dishes, which would reduce the water bill even more. 

And for a small, one time investment, the toilets (which are the biggest user of clean water in the average US household) could be replaced with composting toilets.  

With just those small changes (at a cost of less than three months of the recommended $900 of retirement investment), one could cut one's water bill in half.  We don't pay a lot for water, but our water company recently announced an increase in our water rates for infrastructure repairs we didn't ask for or authorize, but for which we will be paying.  If we were on a fixed income, increases, like that, might just be more than we could afford.  

With only a year's worth of the recommended retirement savings, we could take our house completely off-grid, which would save thousands over the years leading up to retirement, and leave us in a pretty happy position when we transition into those golden years. 

Learn to grow one's own food

One of the biggest problems that I hear for the elderly is having enough food. In the first referenced article, the author advises his readers to visit the food pantries. I agree that the service the food pantries provide is invaluable to a lot of people. Speaking only with regard to the food pantry where I volunteered, pantries provide supplemental food and keep edible food out of the garbage. It's a good thing.

The problem is that there is absolutely no continuity of food choice at the pantry. One week might yield a refrigerator full of salads, fresh eggs and gourmet cheese, a freezer full of organic meat, shelves brimming with long-grain rice, BPA-free cans of refried beans, gluten-free cereal, and all-you-can-pack-in-a-grocery-sack of day-old produce and bread. The next visit will yield mealy apples and Wonder bread, a freezer full of ice cream and frozen pizzas (not gluten-free), shelves of canned tomato soup and boxes of fruit roll-ups, and a refrigerator containing cans of off-brand diet soda. It can be a good supplement, sometimes, but more often than not, this discarded food is stuff that other people don't want to eat. It's the donated stuff from the backs of people's cabinets or the bottom of the grocer's produce bin. The best thing our pantry offered was a steady supply of quality breads (none of which I can eat, because I don't eat bread) and a lot of still-edible produce, most of which needed to be used much sooner than later, because most of it was right on the edge.

Over the past decade, I have been learning to grow my own food. Some years are better than others, but I'm finally figuring a few things out. Potatoes grow really well in bags. Actual seed potatoes are much better than trying to reuse those grocery store potatoes that grow long and spindly in the cabinets. Diatomaceous Earth is awesome. I never plant enough garlic. Raised beds, strawbale gardens*, and container gardening is really the only way I should do things.

Which actually works to my point. Those methods of growing are easier and yield more for me, but they are also easier for older people. Raised beds and strawbale gardens don't require the kind of bending, stooping and tending that a regular garden with rows will require.

But also, having a garden is a very cheap way to supplement one's food supply. When I was volunteering at the pantry, we had a couple of elderly clients who also had a plot at our local community garden. We didn't see those patrons for most of the summer, because they were able to grow what they needed to supplement their diets. With a slightly bigger plot and the ability to preserve some of their harvest, those patrons might not have needed to use the pantry at all.

One 4'x4' garden bed can feed one adult two vegetables per day for the growing season. That's the statistic I've heard over and over again. 

 I have much more space than just two 4'x4' garden beds, which means that, depending on the crops I choose, I could grow enough vegetables to feed us for three-quarters of the year. If Deus Ex Machina builds some cold frames or that greenhouse I want, we could have vegetables year round.  

If we keep raising chickens and the rabbits and it's just the two of us, I could raise enough protein (between meat and eggs) for the whole year. If we forage the wild apples and berries we find and add them to the grapes, apples, peaches, and raspberries we have growing on our property, we have plenty of fruit. If we include maple syrup, we have completely rounded out our diet and the only thing we aren't raising is dairy and grains. 

 But we're already gluten-free and mostly grain-free. By the time we're retired, we could be completely grain-free and with just two mouths to feed, could be supplying nearly everything we need to have a calorie-rich, healthy, organic diet with just what we produce here, supplemented by our local dairy farmers.

Cultivate self-sufficiency skills

Deus Ex Machina is fond of saying one either has time or money, but rarely both. Money allows us to pay someone else to do the things we would/could do for ourselves, if we had the time. In retirement, the one thing most people have is time, but it's best to begin learning those skills before they become a necessity.

Skills like: cooking from scratch, canning/preserving, butchering animals, darning socks, mending/making clothes, changing a bicycle tire (and riding a bicycle, if that's not something one learned as a child), sharpening a knife, cutting one's hair, cooking without electricity or gas, building a fire, turning tree sap into syrup, making soap from rendered animal fat and lye, turning wood ash into lye water for soap making, tincturing herbs for medicine, fermenting vegetables (for preservation and healthier food), making cheese and yogurt from milk (to prevent spoilage and waste), and doing small home repairs (like painting the house, changing filters, repairing a faucet, patching a hole in the wall).

None of the above skills require great physical strength or are particularly difficult to do, but knowing how to do them, and more importantly, doing them, could save a great deal of money.

For instance, we all know that cooking at home costs far less than eating out, but cooking from whole ingredients rather than buying the prepared foods from the freezer section, also saves a ton of money.

If it's just the two of us, and I still cook like I do now, one day of cooking will give us three or four meals. The leftovers can be packaged and put into the freezer,or, depending on the food, put into jars and pressure canned for meals at some much later date. Get stocked up enough, and we wouldn't even have to go grocery shopping regularly, which would save us a lot of money by preventing those inevitable impulse purchases, and also save us in the cost of gasoline to get to the store.

Stay Physically Fit

A few years ago I was having a conversation with a friend. I said, “If my house is paid for and I don't have any debt, and I am growing my own food and making my own electricity, what do I need money for?” She said, without hesitation, "Medical expenses."

As someone who hasn't had very many medical issues, I wouldn't have thought of that one, but the general notion in our culture seems to be that age is equal to poor health. In fact, according to this website 75% of people in my age bracket are taking prescription medications. I guess I'm in the minority among half-centenarians. But I approach health differently, I guess.

I went to the doctor a few weeks ago and had a blood test. Nothing on my blood test worried my new doctor, except the low iron, and he recommended a stool test. I asked him why I needed a stool test, and was told it was to check for bleeding. I told him that my blood tests have showed anemia since I was in my twenties, and if it was a bleeding issue, then I've been bleeding for thirty years. Seems like there would have been some other symptoms in all of that time. I declined the stool sample.

But what I saw for the blood sugar levels bothered me, even though they didn't seem to worry the doctor. As such, being a proactive participant in my personal health maintenance, my response was to cut out sugar and alcohol.  The goal is to be sugar-free for at least a month, and then, to go back to have my blood test done again.

Or maybe I'll just cut sugar as a regular part of my diet.  It's not a necessary part of a healthy diet, anyway, and the occasional maple syrup as a treat is both healthier ... and cheaper, because we make it ourselves.  See how this works?  I save money by cutting out sugar, AND I get healthier.  

The other thing that alarmed me, but didn't phase my doctor was my weight, and I seemed to have put on a lot more of it than I had realized. I don't have a scale at home. I knew that I was porking up, but because I didn't have a way to test it, I could pretend I didn't know.

So, I started a regular walking program. I've lost three pounds in two weeks – which is about a pound and half a week. That is a very respectable and safe weight loss regimen. If I can keep it up, I'll be down to something closer to where I want to be by Christmas, and maybe Santa will leave some new clothes for me under the tree, because my pants are already getting a bit too loose.

None of the above is medical advice. It is simply what I did when I was confronted with medical issues. I could have done nothing, continued to gain weight, continued to enjoy sugary drinks and snacks, tested positive for diabetes and been prescribed a diabetes medication when I reach those twilight years.  

And maybe I'm still destined to be diabetic.  My grandmother was diagnosed with diabetes when she was my age, and she controlled hers with diet only for most of her late adult life.  She was in her 80s before she needed medication.   

Maybe none of my changes will stop me from developing diabetes, but if it does, I've saved future Wendy thousands of dollars in medication expenses. Not spending my social security money on medication is cash in my pocket, and not needing medications, means that I can survive on less cash.

All of the above ways of preparing for retirement are cumulative. That is, once one starts doing them, the savings start to pile up, both the savings in actual dollars, but also the savings in stress and worry from not having an adequate bank account.

If my house is paid off, I don't need money for housing, and I can live without the worry of being homeless and elderly.

If I have a garden and some suburban livestock, I don't need as much money for food and I reduce  the worry and pain of hunger.

If I make my own electricity, I don't have to pay an electric bill and I eliminate the concerns of having my electricity turned off when I can't pay my bill.

If I can mend my clothes, I don't have to purchase new ones as often.

Certainly, there will be things for which we will still need money, but I've run the numbers, for us. Without a mortgage or electric bill, absent a payment for classes and cars, reducing everything else to what it would be with only two people, and allowing for $400 a month “just because”, Deus Ex Machina and I will need about $1100 per month of income, which is about what I will get from social security.

I've read everything Paolo Bacigalupi has written, so far. I'm very excited about Tool of War, which is being released tomorrow! It is a sequel (of sorts, in that it has one of the characters that appeared in two of his other YA novels, The Drowned Cities and Ship Breaker).

If you're into dystopian fiction, these are great novels to read. They're set in the US and depict a future in which our government has collapsed, the US has become a “third world” country, climate change is wreaking havoc on the coast, and genetic engineering has resulted in some pretty horrifying creatures.  Bacigalupi talks about a Category 5 hurricane in Ship Breaker, a storm whose magnitude was not heard of when he wrote the book, but which came close to being a reality with the recent Hurricane Harvey.

Bacigalupi's two adult novels: Wind-upGirl and Water-Knife are equally chilling in their potential accuracy. Water-Knife is set in the American southwest and predicts water wars – a reality that is too chilling in possibility.

All of them are great stories.

* For those with small spaces who are interested in strawbale gardening, I can't recommend strongly enough the book Strawbale Gardening by Joel Karsten.  I borrowed a copy from the library and liked it so much as a resource, that I bought my own copy.  


  1. Loved this post.

    I ended up retired due to health problems when I was 52. Years before I thought I'd retire. I'm now almost 61.

    What has truly saved me is that I had no debt when I got ill. My car was paid for. I had no other consumer debt. I had recently sold a house so I had no mortgage. I was able to find an income-based rental apartment.

    Having a home that was paid for would have been great. Except, for me, I would not have been able to pay the property taxes or the higher utility costs with a house.

    I, too, am able to garden in a community garden. I don't buy fresh produce for 4 months each year. I am still amazed at how much can be grown in a 6ft X 10ft plot.
    Cheers, SJ in Vancouver BC

  2. and build relationships. With people who feed themselves and have skills and similar priorities.

  3. THANK YOU! I just sent a link to this post to my husband. You've succinctly articulated what I've been trying to convey to him for a long while. When it comes to retirement, money is good, but needing less of it is better, more reliable, and more secure in an uncertain future.

  4. Excellent post! I have thought a lot about those things too. I work in the medical biz and I see so many people who could do simple things, and/or use alternative medicine, cheaper and safer, but they won't. they still worship "Dr's." We're growing more food every year, preserving more. All great ideas, will share your post! Nancy