In July 2019, my grandmother turned 84 years old. My entire life (roughly half her life), she’s talked to me–no, drilled into me–messages about saving money to make sure I’m setting myself up well for retirement. In my 20s, I didn’t pay much attention to these messages. At that time, all I cared about was a bigger and bigger paycheck, not saving for my future.
Today, I’m at an age where I care a LOT about financial independence and my future. So to plan for it the best way I know how, I asked my grandmother how she’s living in retirement. She quit school in the 10th grade and never got a GED. She worked and retired in 2002, when she was 66-and-a-half years old. And since then, she’s lived life to the fullest, exactly the way she wants. She lives alone, pays for everything in full, and has no debt. She even bought a new car with cash. At a time when more than 70% of Americans have no savings, she’s pretty impressive. So, how did she do it? Lucky for me, all I had to do was ask.
Lesson 1: “Save 50% of Your Income”
My grandmother worked for the Pennsylvania State Police in a small town in Pennsylvania for 26 years. Her last annual salary was $40,000. After divorcing my grandfather, she remarried in the 90s. She had $250 in savings at the time.
In 1994, 8 years before she retired, she began saving one paycheck per month, roughly 50% of her income. Full disclosure: she did not tell her husband that she did this. The advice she’s given me more than any other is to keep some money secret from your spouse. Again, full disclosure: she divorced her second husband also.
So by the time she retired in 2002, she grew her savings from $250 to $40,000. I realize that not everyone is able to do this, at least not without a ton of discipline and sacrifice, but it’s what she did.
Lesson 2: “Keep Saving Your Money”
My grandmother has received Social Security income since her retirement, in addition to her State of Pennsylvania retirement pension, and is still able to save almost 50% of it every month. There’s no crystal ball to tell us whether or not we’ll receive Social Security income in the future. But if we do receive it, we should aim to keep our monthly payments low enough to still save our income. She won’t let me tell you how much she’s saved in the 17 years since she retired, but it’s an amazing amount for a person who has never worked again.
Lesson 3: “Don’t Gain Weight”
It may seem difficult for us to do, but my grandmother maintains her weight so that she doesn’t have to buy new clothes. She says that she has everything she needs. She stays active and maintains her weight so that she can maintain her wardrobe. She doesn’t exercise a lot, but she doesn’t sit in front of the TV snacking all day either. “I eat well, I sleep well, and I refuse to be fat,”she says. She vacuums, washes dishes, and climbs the ladder into her attic to find things. She goes on cruises and attends family reunions. She stays busy by visiting friends and family, and dating. Yes, my 84-year-old grandmother still dates and she tells me about her dates all the time.
Lesson 4: “Eat Simply, Eat at Home”
Virtually every morning, my grandmother eats cereal for breakfast, one of the most inexpensive breakfasts one can eat. She also makes lots of soups and stews, which stretch for days and prevents her from wasting food. She spends about $150 each month on groceries. She rarely goes out to eat, mostly on special occasions. Eating out is one of the easiest ways a person can spend unnecessarily, and my grandmother avoids it. “Sometimes I just stay in the house so that I can meet my obligations and save,” she says.
Lesson 5: “Stay Healthy”
Of course we’d all like to stay healthy, and my grandmother is vocally proud of the fact that she takes “no regular medication.” She takes 6-7 vitamins every day, because she says, “It keeps your skin good and your mind alert and your body doing what it needs to do. I think it helps with your memory, energy, and keeps you upbeat.” She also stays active, but despite this, your body will still get old and may require a bit of work. In the last 20 years, she’s had gall bladder surgery, sinus operations for her allergies, a hernia, a breast lump removed, etc. She’s been on Medicare since she turned 65. She said that you have to “be careful because they have cheap guidelines, so you have to know what’s best for you to go beyond [Medicaid limits].”
Lesson 6: “Dye Your Hair”
My grandmother and I share the personal belief that if you look old, you’ll feel old; and if you look good, you’ll feel good. That said, I’ve never seen my grandmother with gray hair. She’s colored it for 50 years. Her hair has always been a sharp currant shade against her brown skin, and looks totally normal to me.
My grandmother is part of the Golden Years ministry at her church, which takes her on trips to plays or out of town to other cities and states. She says it’s “full of judgemental women” who question her choice to color her hair. She responds, “Well you don’t see me wearing a wig, do you?”
Lesson 7: “Don’t Owe Anyone”
It’s a fact that my grandmother hates to owe anyone. She doesn’t take out loans, and pays for almost everything she can in full, including her cars. “I’m debt free, and I keep it that way. I have one credit card and it’s at zero,” she always tells me. If she wants something, she saves for it first, and then buys it. She’s never spoken to me at length about the interest and debt trap, but today I know that’s exactly what it is–a trap–and one I hope to avoid as successfully as she.
Lesson 8: “Still Plan for the Future”
Although my grandmother is 84 years old, she’s never reached the million-dollar mark of retirement that’s projected by most working adult retirement models today. She also realizes that although she’s healthy and has grown children and grandchildren, she may still require professional physical care someday. “If I get sick and can’t do things around here, I’ll have to pay someone,” she says. So what else has she done?
Since she can afford to support herself with her Social Security income and pension, she’s never withdrawn from her retirement fund, which was $37,754 at her time of retirement, which she rolled into an IRA. Since she doesn’t work, the IRA is taxed every year once she turned 70-and-a-half and constantly decreases. She budgets and continues to save and live simply. And, more full disclosure: my grandmother is not a homeowner. She lives in a nice, 3-bedroom apartment that costs $1300/month, which is relatively expensive for her small town in Pennsylvania. She pays for cable, car insurance, life insurance, renters insurance, and dental and vision insurance. She pays a membership fee for the Golden Years ministry and the Pennsylvania Retirees Association. She pays to go on a cruise almost every year. Although she pays for dental insurance, she goes to a specialist for her dentures so that they “don’t make me bright pink gums. They are dumb looking on a black person.” In addition, she gets longer dentures so that you can’t see her gums. It costs about $1,000 every 3-5 years to get them realigned. “I figure I’m worth it,” she says.
And that’s been her position the entire time she’s been saving for retirement–that she’s worth it. That she’s doing it for herself. She married my grandfather when she was 16-and-a-half and began having children immediately. Like many mothers, she spent her life caring for others, and once they were grown and she was happily divorced, she focused on herself. Today, it’s natural practice to look out for herself, to create a secure future without doubts about her care. She asks, “How can you let someone else be in charge of your life?”
My grandmother read and approved of this message.