Social Security

In a few years, I’ll be dependent on Social Security (if it still exists) and will have to live on a little over $900 a month. That’s not much money, given the current cost of living (and the fact that I worked and paid into the system for 40 long and mostly miserable years). The average monthly benefit was about $1,230 at the beginning of 2012 – which I could probably get if I were willing to wait a few more years – so lots of us will be in the same boat. There are plenty of people out there who live on less.

But consider this: according to the American Housing Survey, the median monthly rental housing cost in 2011 was $845, including utilities and trash collection. That doesn’t include internet, cable, Medicare Part B, prescription drugs, clothing, or any type of transportation or entertainment.

Oh, or food.

This figure is not broken down by apartment size, so it’s higher than the median rental cost of a studio or one-bedroom apartment. But after spending a lot of time living in the real world, I have to assume that the median monthly rent on even the tiniest of apartments is going to eat through most of my monthly Social Security check.

Interestingly enough, the rent and utilities my significant other and I currently spend on our small one-bedroom apartment – plus internet, phone, and cable – is $838.00. Of course, there’s still insurance and prescriptions, cars and all their associated costs, food and the other necessities of daily living. If we owned a house, we’d probably be underwater – and even if the mortgage were paid off, we’d still have all the other costs of home-ownership like taxes, maintenance, and repairs. And as we get older, we’d probably also have to pay for help with things like lawn mowing and snow shoveling.

As long as there are two of us, we can probably make it. But who knows? The cost of everything – from coffee to cough syrup to personal property tax – just keeps going up and up and up.

That doesn’t leave much money for what supposedly makes the Golden Years so golden, does it? Mediterranean cruises and tours of Tuscany, skiing in Tahoe and tennis on Martha’s Vineyard, 4-star restaurants and cocktails at the Club… isn’t that what retirement is all about? And what about all those “Best Places to Retire” lists of towns and cities across the U.S and abroad that boast ideal weather, low taxes and crime, and an abundance of culture and arts and entertainment? Aren’t we supposed to study these lists so that we’ll be able to decide between moving to the resort town with the championship golf course or the college town with the world-class drama department or the bay-front community with the yacht club?

Since the real estate meltdown and ensuing recession of 2007-08, more and more Americans realize that these are impossibly ridiculous fantasies. Retirement goals these days are more about self-sufficiency than self-indulgence. Rather than fulfilling bucket lists, most of us today are keeping our buckets empty in case we have to bail, just hoping to stay afloat without having to ask for help from our relatives.

But speaking of relatives…one of the most insightful articles I ever read about the best place to retire was written by Tom Sightings of U.S. News and World Report (Jan 20, 2012). His final line sums it up:

“No matter where you end up in retirement, remember that relationships are more important than the weather. The warmest climate can be found amid the safety and security of family and friends.”

He suggests that we skip all the brochures and the statistics and stay (a) where we live and already have friends, (b) where we used to live and still have friends, (c) wherever our retiring friends decide to live, or (d) where our children [relatives] live. That makes more sense to me than anything else, if for no other reason than this: if you and your significant other drive off into the sunset – away from everyone you know and love in search of the ideal place to live – what’s going to happen when one of you doesn’t wake up some morning?

I think this is good advice for everyone – retired or not.

The world is not as friendly a place as it used to be. “Neighborhoods” have become something we have to drive through to get to WalMart. Still, we all need people we can call on and count on when times get tough. And regardless of how little money we have to live on or what geographic area we wind up in, we can all muddle through if we just think small enough.

Isn’t that always the key??

Once again, simple living provides all the guidance and direction we need. What could be simpler than realizing that the people in our lives are more important than the tax rates or the temperature? True to form, minimalism focuses our attention on the important things in life while putting inconsequential distractions in perspective. Because, after all, what could be better than living near and spending time with people you genuinely like?

It’s really not about having money. All you need is love.

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