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10 Ways to Keep From Retiring in a Cardboard Box

Photo: Stocksy/ Alison Winterroth

Photo: Stocksy/ Alison Winterroth

I’ve never had access to a 401(k) plan — I’ve been working full-time freelance since 2006.

I’ve always wanted to retire, no matter how anathema that sounds in workaholic America. Maybe it’s because I’ve also lived in countries where people actually look forward to — and many can afford — a labor-free later life: England, France, Mexico and my native Canada. Not coincidentally, fear of medical bankruptcy  — the greatest single destroyer of Americans’ finances — isn’t an issue there either because they offer single-payer government healthcare from cradle to grave, working or not.

I’ve been saving hard for years. I’m married, so I do have the advantage of an additional income and shared costs. If I were single, I’d probably sell my home and rent or use a reverse mortgage.

As a journalist who’s been covering personal finance for years for outlets like The New York Times, Reuters, Investopedia and others, I’ve learned a lot about the common financial mistakes people make. I’ve also handled my own money for decades, moving out of my parents’ home at 19 to live alone in a Toronto apartment. I know how to live on a tight budget and the sacrifices it requires.

Thanks to my insider knowledge, tough negotiating and decades of habit, I’ve amassed a decent nest egg – more than 10 times the median American amount saved by those nearest retirement age ($14,500_.

And now, I’m sharing my knowledge with you. Here are 10 ways to avoid living under a bridge or in a box:

 1. Make retirement your top priority.

This goal must drive every single decision you make, for decades. Avoid spending your potential investment income on new stuff — fancy vacations; owning a property that demands costly repairs, renovations and upkeep; a bigger apartment; a second home; a new(er) vehicle. And no new tech unless it’s necessary for work.

If you don’t consistently make retirement savings and later income your top priority, you’ll leak money for decades no matter how much you eventually earn.

 2. Choose cheap housing.

I’ve stayed in the same suburban New York one-bedroom apartment (owned) for the past 28 years, enjoying a mortgage interest tax deduction and a terrific quality of life. Its relatively low monthly costs have helped me sock away money for retirement. I’d kill for more room but not for the cost that extra space would add to my overhead.

I want to retire.

Roommates? Boarders? Airbnb? A move to a lower-cost city or state? Keep your housing costs low and controlled, however you have to do it.

3. Ignore peer pressure.

Without a thicker skin, you’re toast. Ignore or block social media images of Tuscan villa vacations and shiny new kitchens. Drive a (safe) beater car, or forego a car altogether. If you can’t live without designer loot, buy it at thrift or consignment shops.

If friends or family sneer at your frugality, ignore them. Who’s funding your retirement? You are.

4. Don’t be so damned nice.

I see women every day scared to charge top dollar for their highly developed skills, whether staff or freelance, for the same reason: What if they think I’m a bitch? What if I overbid? (They can always make a counteroffer.)

If your family or friends are constantly hitting you up for funds, snap your wallet shut. You’re not a bank. Unless they’re severely impaired, they can figure it out on their own. It’s called being an adult.

 5. Don’t have children.

Most women do. I didn’t. It costs a fortune.

If you have high-achieving kids who seek affordable and excellent colleges, consider my alma mater, University of Toronto, McGill or Queen’s, Canada’s Ivies. Some Canadian universities cost 10 percent of the annual fees of their American equivalents.

 6. Safeguard your health.

Without it, you won’t be able to work to full capacity. Once you hit 40, 45 or 50, age discrimination is going to hit you and your anticipated earnings — hard.

Stay insured, no matter what else you have to forego; medical bankruptcy can destroy any retirement savings. If you’re working freelance, sleep, rest and re-charge. Stamina is key and burnout will kill you — and your earning power.

 7. Question every non-essential purchase

Everything. I’m using kitchenware I bought 40 years ago. I’ve splurged and upgraded many times, on clothes, shoes, home items and beauty, but I typically buy little beyond gas and groceries. (OK, I also see movies, go to the hair salon and purchase fresh flowers. I need joy, too.)

8. Learn the lingo, as in FICO, APR, ETF, SEP, ROI (OMG!).

If you’re “terrified” of money, you’re likely going to end up poor. Money is power — the more of it we have, the more choices we get. Take a class. Read books and websites like LearnVest or NerdWallet or BankRate.com to fully understand complex financial language and how to maximize your income and minimize your taxes and other expenses.

Do you know how much you, (and perhaps your husband or wife) will get from Social Security? (It’s slated to run out of funds in 2032.)

Once you’re up to speed, don’t let others manage your money. If you do have a money manager, confirm that they’re acting as a fiduciary. Ask them plenty of tough questions as often as necessary.

10. Show your money who’s boss.

 First, consistently save 15 percent of every payment you get — or more. Yes, it hurts. It means losing out on all sorts of amusements. But unless you’re wealthy, that’s how you’re going to create wealth. Build it!

How many credit cards do you own and use? I have 3 (two Amex, one Visa) and only use one. Life is a lot simpler that way. Do you know your APRs? Have you negotiated a lower rate this year?

How are your IRAs doing? Have you rebalanced your portfolio? (Do you have a portfolio?) Is it diversified?

Read the financial section of your newspaper and/or financial and business magazines to track the larger economy. You can’t dodge a bullet you didn’t see coming.

 10. Know the current market value of your skillsand negotiate hard, every time.

This is the toughest issue for many women who are worried they’ll look greedy if they dare to ask for more money.

Men ask for more all the time.

You can’t save what you never earned. I highly recommend Women Don’t Ask as a primer on why we don’t negotiate and how badly it hurts us, whether we work for a salary or freelance. If you need more convincing, their follow-up book is Ask For It.

Filed under: Money

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Caitlin Kelly

Caitlin Kelly, a writer in Tarrytown, NY, is the author of “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, a memoir of her 27 months as a sales associate in a suburban New York mall. “A clear-eyed account” (The New York Times), it was nominated for the Sidney Hillman Award, which honors "journalists who pursue investigative reporting and deep storytelling in service of the common good." Winner of a Canadian National Magazine Award for humor, she has written for The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Marie-Claire, Glamour, More, New York, Smithsonian and many others. She has been a freelance contributor to The New York Times since 1990. Her first book is “Blown Away: American Women and Guns” (Pocket Books, 2004). A graduate of the University of Toronto, she blogs at broadsideblog.wordpress.com with 15,000 readers worldwide.

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