Reader Case Study: At Age 57, It’s Not Over Yet!
I am delighted that this month’s Reader Case Study features a subject who is older than me! I cannot tell you how thrilled I am to bring you the story of Lucy, an active 57-year-old nurse with questions on her retirement and next career. Much as I love all the younguns’ I’ve featured in Case Studies, I was over the moon when I received Lucy’s email and her request to serve as a Case Study subject since there are so many positive financial lessons for all of us to embrace at any age. I’ve gotten some flack for not featuring more diversity in the Reader Case Studies, but I can only feature the people who submit studies to me. So if you consider yourself a “non-traditional” Case Study subject, please email me with your story!
Ok, ok, back to the topic at hand… Case Studies are financial and life dilemmas that a reader of Frugalwoods sends to me requesting that Frugalwoods nation weigh in. Then, Frugalwoods nation (that’s you!), reads through their situation and provides advice, encouragement, insight, and feedback in the comments section. For an example, check out last month’s case study. I also provide updates from our Case Study subjects at the bottom of each Case Study several weeks/months after their story is featured. To see what past Case Study participants have decided to do, check out the Case Study section and scroll to the bottom of the individual posts.
I probably don’t need to say the following because you all are the kindest, most polite commenters on the internet, but, please note that Frugalwoods is a judgement-free zone where we endeavor to help one another, not to condemn.
With that I’ll let Lucy, this month’s case study subject, take it from here!
Hello, Frugalwoods nation! I’m Lucy, I’m 57, and I work as a nurse at a teaching hospital in Boston, MA. I was born and raised in Kentucky, but came east for college and have lived in New England ever since. I’ve called a suburb outside of Boston home since 1991. My husband and I amicably divorced in 2007 and we have three wonderful children. I’m delighted to report that my oldest two are gainfully employed and living happily in Seattle and Brooklyn respectively, while my youngest is a student at the University of Massachusetts.
While in college, I studied Comparative Literature and spent my senior year in India. I returned to the United States wanting to do something that involved my hands, heart, and brain. For a year, I taught school in Kentucky and then moved back to New England in order to attend graduate school to become a nurse practitioner.
I practiced as a nurse practitioner until five years ago when the Boston teaching hospital where I work began replacing nurse practitioners with physician’s assistants. I decided to continue working as a nurse because I find my work in an ambulatory high risk obstetrical unit caring for women from around the country and globe a very meaningful pursuit. Continuing my career as a nurse entailed increasing my hours from 32 to 40 per week, but with the same income.
Health care is undergoing a lot of changes and it increasingly feels as though nurses are asked to do more with fewer resources. There’s much more haggling with insurance companies and less direct patient care as well as talk of another nurses’ strike. Work takes a lot out of me and, despite living eight miles from the hospital, the commute takes 1.5 hours each way. Running to work takes the same amount of time as taking public transportation! I work four ten hour days (leaving home at 5:25am and returning at 7pm). I like working four days, but recently there have been murmurings that I may need to work five. Most days I run to work and treasure the beauty and the quiet of running along the Charles River and over the bridge to Boston.
In 2009, two years after my divorce, I bought my ex-husband’s share of the house we purchased together in 1991 because I love my home!
It’s comfortable and spacious enough that I can host friends and family regularly. The mortgage and upkeep are expensive, but I greatly enjoy my garden, my neighbors and friends (some of whom I’ve been in a book group with for 25 years!), and can run to work from home. I took on a roommate and his dog in 2016 and this has helped with some of the expenses. I don’t want to sell because I truly enjoy my home and it has proven to be a good investment.
I feel as though I’m in a bind right now. My family, including my elderly parents, live elsewhere, my work is exhausting and too often I feel lonely and tired. I’d like to work fewer hours and in a less stressful environment, preferably with family nearby, but I’m reluctant to move because I can’t imagine making the same salary anywhere else (and, like I said, I love my house). For the next few years, I am helping put my youngest child through college–he is slated to graduate in 2020–and we both benefit from the health insurance and benefits offered through the hospital. I’d love to be in a mutually loving and supportive relationship, but dating in middle age is not easy. I’ve tried online dating and would rather run a marathon and have a colonoscopy than try that again! At the same time, I’m not sure how much longer I can live and work in a place far from my children and family of origin. Something has to change.
Where Lucy Wants To Be In 10 Years:
- Finances: I’d like to be financially independent with my mortgage paid off and able to retire from my current job. I’d like to be contributing to the world in some way, whether through working with the dying or taking care of grandchildren or volunteering with the PeaceCorps. I wouldn’t mind continuing to work wherever I find myself, but I don’t want to HAVE to work for financial reasons. Once my mortgage is paid off, I could rent my house out as the rent would more than cover the taxes, insurance, and upkeep.
- Lifestyle: In ten years, I look forward to either helping my children with grandchildren (should I be so fortunate) or helping the world in some other way. If I move and am not ready to sell, I have considered renting my house. I want to stay physically active (running, swimming, yoga), and I want to be outside as much as possible. I love to write and for more than ten years have kept a daily gratitude journal. I like travel and in May am going to Israel and Palestine with monks from the Society of Saint John the Evangelists, a monastery in Cambridge where I worship on Sundays.
- Career: I envision myself finished with my current job and doing something else. I love Atul Gawande’s writing and working with patients at the end of life has long held appeal for me. Or perhaps gardening. Whatever it is, I want to slow down the pace.
|Salary||$6,122.74||After health, dental, vision, T pass, 403(b) deductions. $80 automatically re-routed to savings and $250/week routed directly to Joint Account (see below). After 403(b) is maxed out for the year, my paycheck increases by $1,804.|
|Mortgage (including property taxes and insurance)||$3,308.28||Interest rate of 3.375%, will be paid off 4/1/27; includes $500K umbrella insurance|
|Joint Account Contributions||$1,083.33||Contribution to joint account with ex-husband to cover in-state tuition for our youngest child as well as his car insurance. When this child graduates in 2020, these monthly contributions will end.|
|Groceries, food (including restaurants), and household supplies||$433.33||I shop at Market Basket and Trader Joe’s. This total includes all lunches at work, coffee out on weekends; I rarely go to restaurants.|
|Vacations and travel||$250.00||Includes visits to see elderly parents & children living in other states|
|Charity||$208.33||Monastery, PMC, 10Ks, walk for hunger|
|Gifts||$150.00||For children, family, friends, and work colleagues|
|Utilities: Gas||$137.00||For heating house and the gas stove|
|Car (insurance, gas, registration, maintenance, EZ pass)||$134.67||2016 Honda Fit (paid for)|
|Cleaning person||$120.00||Once a month cleaning person|
|Union Dues & RN Licensing Fees||$103.50|
|Home repairs and maintenance||$100.00||Chimney sweep, plumbing issues, broken dishwasher, etc.|
|Entertainment||$75.00||I go to a Broadway show once a year|
|Life insurance||$66.52||20 yr term policy 3/7/08 $500K beneficiary|
|Haircuts, mani-pedi, and makeup||$65.00|
|Cell phone||$50.57||Provider is Verizon. I tried Ting last year but there was no service availabe at the hospital.|
|Jpay Donation||$29.00||Non-tax deductible monthly support for prisoner|
|Medical expenses||$20.00||Including contacts and glasses|
|The New York Times subscription||$15.00|
|The New Yorker subscription||$5.00|
|Total Monthly Expenses:||$6,719.46|
|Total Annual Expenses:||$80,633.52|
|Net Savings Per Month:||$328.28||Most of this is saved for shorter-term needs such as a new car, iPhone, roof repairs, etc.|
|403(b)||$566,964.85||Retirement Account at Fidelity: includes $555, 947.42 Fidelity Total Market Index Premium Class and 11,017.43 Vanguart Inst Tr 2025|
|Traditional IRA||$239,534.24||Vanguard Total Stock Mkt Index: 2669.24 shares =172,406.28 and Vanguard Total Bond Market Index Fund 6238.66 shares =67,127.96|
|Cash balance account (pension through work)||$158,506.00|
|Joint Account (for youngest child)||$41,022.16||Contributions to this will end in 2020|
|Life insurance||$32,826.15||2 policies-whole life-death benefit 86K, one bought when I was born; I also have free life insurance for 1x my salary thru work and pay|
|Retiree Medical Savings Account||$25,121.44||Offered through my employer.|
|Roth IRA||$22,272.11||Vanguard Total Stock Mkt Index|
|Taxable investment||$5,262.34||Humana Stock @ Fidelity|
|Acorn||$1,616.45||An investment app that rounds up user purchases and invests the change in a robo-advisor managed portfolio. In addition to the rounding up of purchases, I authorized them to draw $10 a week from my checking account to invest. I’ve had the account for a couple of years invested in their most aggressive investment profile.|
|2016 Honda Fit||$15,000 (Kelly Blue Book value)||Paid off|
|Home Equity Line of Credit||$0.00||$97K line of credit to be used as an emergency fund if needed. There are no fees associated with this HELOC, which I’ve had open since 2011. If accessed, the interest rate would be prime rate minus 0.510%.|
Lucy’s Questions For You
- How much money do I need to retire?
- How can I pay off my mortgage sooner than 2027? I want to retire in 2025 when I am 65, if not sooner. My mortgage ends in 2027.
- Should I change my investments or asset allocations at all? Or do they seem correct?
Mrs. Frugalwoods’ Recommendations
I have to start off with massive congratulations to Lucy for putting herself in an excellent financial position. She’s made some wonderful choices over the years and created quite the nest egg from which to ponder her retirement.
Having the ability to choose what she wants to do in retirement–and having the financial backing to actually retire–is fantastic. Weathering a divorce is no small financial feat and she appears to have emerged unscathed and in excellent financial shape. So, hats off to Lucy for a lifetime of fiscal prudence!!
And now, let’s address her questions in turn:
Lucy’s Question #1: How much money do I need to retire?
The answer is that it depends entirely upon how much you spend every year. There is no one-size-fits-all, magic “you may now retire” number for everyone because this dollar amount is calibrated–in full–on what you spend every year. There’s really no other way to calculate it. It’s no simpler or more complicated than that. But this question leads me to what I see as the huge, overarching elephant for Lucy to ponder as she contemplates retirement…
Lucy owns a fabulous home in an even more fabulous suburb of Boston. Since I happen to personally know this real estate market better than most (as my husband and I own a rental property in Cambridge, MA), I can speak to this with a bit more knowledge. The value of a home–and its potential for resale or rental–is almost ENTIRELY dependent upon the market in which it is located. Just like there’s no one-size-fits-all dollar amount for retirement, there’s also no guarantee that a home will be a sound investment (in many markets, it’s not). But fortunately for Lucy, she owns in one of those red hot areas of the country. However, this also means that by living in her home, it’s a majorly undervalued asset. In reading through Lucy’s case and finances, whether or not to sell her home is actually her biggest, and most crucial, decision to figure out. The value of her house–and percentage of her net worth that it represents–is enormous and dwarfs everything else.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, but she needs to decide what’s more important for her future: 1) to live in her house; or 2) to sell the house and use the proceeds as part of her broader portfolio and have the option to do just about anything with her time.
Staying In The House
The argument for Lucy to stay in her house is that she loves it and greatly enjoys where she lives. And that is a perfectly fine thing! It wouldn’t be wrong for Lucy to remain in her home, but it would limit her financial agility since the house is worth so much more than she’s extracting from it (in a financial sense).
Her decision to have a roommate is an excellent one (bravo!) and if she does want to remain in her home, this is one way to defray some of the expense. Not selling her home isn’t the most financially optimal thing to do, but if it’s what she wants to do, then that is just fine. As long as she knows she is spending money on her living situation in order to increase her happiness, it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Other than being a place to live, the home is not currently providing her with a return on her investment.
Selling The House
On the other hand, if Lucy is open to selling her home, it’s likely she could retire much sooner than her projected date of 2025. She should run the numbers herself (as I am not a financial professional), but I believe if she sold her home and finished contributing to the Joint Account for her youngest child when he graduates from college in 2020, she could retire at that point. Easily. And with plenty of money. I think this for two reasons:
- Selling the house would net her quite a bit of cash
- Her expenses would decrease quite a bit if she no longer owned such a large home
Digging into #2 for a moment, without the house, she’d eliminate the following from her monthly budget:
|Home repairs and maintenance||$100.00|
Additionally, given the fact that she’ll be finished contributing to the Joint Account for her son’s college education in two years, that’ll be another $1,083.33 per month ($12,999.96 per year) saved. The elimination of all house-related expenses, and the Joint Account contributions, would save Lucy $58,991.04 per year, which coincidentally, is in the ballpark of her annual take-home pay. Obviously she will need to live somewhere and will still have utility bills to pay; however, if she were to downsize to a condo or apartment, her monthly outlay would likely be much less. This could be particularly true if she were to relocate outside of the Boston area in order to be closer to her kid(s) or parents, which is something she mentioned possibly wanting to explore. Without the heavy overhead of the house, and without the Joint Account contributions, she could retire to a lower cost of living area quite easily.
As a sidenote for consideration: since Lucy is single, she will receive a $250K exclusion on the capital gains taxes for the sale of her home (meaning that she won’t be charged taxes on the first $250K of capital gains). If she does decide to sell the house, she can put the money into diversified investments that meet her risk tolerance and income needs and then go do whatever she wants.
While Lucy said that she loves her house and doesn’t want to sell it, she also noted that she feels as though she’s currently in a bind and that something has to change about her life. Selling the house would grant her a significant amount of financial freedom and stability, so I’d say it’s something to at least consider.
Renting The House
Lucy mentioned the possibility of renting out her home and I’d encourage her to explore the numbers on this in greater depth. Her suburb is a good place for rentals, but it’s not the hottest in the Boston area and I have a sneaking suspicion she’d do better by selling. However, this is another area where running the numbers will be crucial! Lucy should have both a realtor and a rental agent come out to the property (they do this for free and it’s how we decided to rent our place) and have them assess the home for its monthly rental and potential sale prices. If she decides to rent, she’ll need to factor in the cost of a property manager (unless she wants to self-manage), a maintence fund, a vacancy fund, insurance, repairs, etc. For more on how to be a landlord, I recommend the site BiggerPockets.com.
Where Does Lucy Want To Be And What Does She Want To Do?
The house consideration really boils down to the question of what Lucy wants to do and where she wants to live. If she is interested in retiring sooner rather than later, she should sell the house and downsize dramatically. Conversely, if she’d prefer to stay in the house and continue working, she should plan for a slightly later retirement.
Either option is fine and it’s much more a question of what she wants to do as opposed to a financial quandary. From a financial perspective, this house is a fantastic (though currently underutilized) asset and she’ll do very well when she decides to sell it and move on.
Lucy’s Question #2: How can I pay off my mortgage sooner than 2027? I want to retire in 2025 when I am 65, if not sooner. My mortgage ends in 2027.
First off, Lucy doesn’t need to pay off the mortgage before selling the house if she decides that’s the route she wants to go. And, as mentioned, if she were to sell the house, I believe she could go ahead and retire at that point. However, if Lucy wants to stay in the house and work until 2025, there are only two ways to pay a mortgage off faster:
- Reduce expenses
- Increase income
First option: Reduce expenses. Let’s take a look at Lucy’s expenses to see what she could eliminate. Lucy’s spending is perfectly fine, but if she wants to either pay off her mortgage faster or retire sooner, then she does have a lot of low-hanging fruit that could be eliminated:
- Gifts: $150/month ($1,800/year). This is an area that could be reduced with the application of some frugal gift-giving hacks, or with a decision to perhaps pare down the gift-giving list. Here are a few posts on how to spend less, but still give gifts from the heart:
- Cleaning person: $120/month ($1,440/year). Not exactly a necessity and something that could be eliminated if Lucy has an earnest goal of paying off her mortgage faster. Here’s some motivation for cleaning one’s own home:
- Clothing: $100/month ($1,200/year). Lucy could embark on a clothes-buying ban in order to save this dollar amount every year. I’m in my fourth year (and second pregnancy) of a clothes-buying ban (with an interruption to buy one pair of winter boots last year), so I assure you it can be done. A few posts for inspiration:
- Entertainment: $75/month ($900/year). Another category that could be eliminated if Lucy wants to save more every month.
- Haircuts, mani-pedi, and makeup: $65/month ($780/year). The haircuts, manicures and pedicures could all be insourced and the makeup could either be eliminated or perhaps cheaper options could be found. Here are a few posts for inspiration and guidance:
- YMCA membership: $52/month ($624/year). Lucy mentioned she runs to work (kudos!) and so I wonder if that could supplant this membership? Alternately, are there any other less expensive options or ways to exercise at home for free?
- Cell phone: $50.57/month ($606.84/year). That’s a mammoth bill! I see that Lucy tried Ting last year (way to go!) and that it didn’t work. However, there are a number of other cheap providers she should try, including Republic Wireless and BOOM Mobile. My recommendation is for Lucy to ask her tech-savvy co-workers (or the folks in the IT department) at the hospital which provider they’ve found that works. I guarantee there’s a nerd there who has tried them all and knows which one works… and I say “nerd” very lovingly because that would be my husband who did, in fact, try every single cheap provider to find us one that would work on our rural homestead. This is something everyone should do because it’s an ongoing expense that you can DRAMATICALLY reduce. For reference, I pay $19.99 per month through BOOM Mobile (and BOOM is not the cheapest on the market–it just happens to be the one that gets service where we live).
- New York Times and New Yorker subscriptions: $20/month ($240/year). The public library carries copies of both of these for free!
If Lucy decided to eliminate all of these expenses, she’d save an additional $632.57 per month and $7,590.84 per year, which would make a significant dent in her mortgage payments and enable her to retire sooner.
As I’m always fond of saying when reviewing expenses in Reader Case Studies, your expenses are very personal choices and everyone has to make the decisions that are best for them. It’s not wrong for Lucy to spend this money, but since she asked how she could pay her mortgage off faster, this is one answer. This all ties into where Lucy wants to be in the future and what sort of life she envisions for herself as she nears retirement.
Second option: Increase income. The only other way to have more money every month is to increase your income. Lucy has already done a fabulous job of this by taking on a tenant in her home. I don’t know if there are any professional advances Lucy could make at work to increase her salary or if she could take on another renter in her home, but those would be the obvious first two steps. Alternately, she could explore any number of side hustles that would net her more money every month. The combination of reduced expenses and increased income would, obviously, jet Lucy towards her goals even faster.
Lucy’s Question #3: Should I change my investments or asset allocations at all? Or do they seem correct?
Lucy’s investments look pretty good, though I’m not sure about the Humana stock and the Acorn account and question what the fees are on both of those. Ideally, you want the lowest fees possible, which both Vanguard and Fidelity offer and so I’m delighted to see that Lucy is invested with them. Since she didn’t include the fees of any of her holdings above, I advise she do a quick check on the fees for all of her accounts (available on their websites) since fees are what can absolutely cripple your net worth over the long run.
I personally am a fan of streamlining and combining investment accounts into a broadly diversified asset base, but all in the same account. There’s no diversity gain by holding various different investment accounts, as long as you’re in low-fee index funds because an index fund means you’re invested across the entire stock market. For the sake of simplicity, I’d close the Humana and Acorn accounts and lump them in with her other investments, but that’s largely a personal choice.
In general, you want to reduce the risk exposure of your investments as you near traditional retirement age in order to insulate your money against potential market downturns. When you are young, you want to invest aggressively in order to take advantage of the overarching gains that history demonstrates will occur in the market over your decades and decades of investing.
But since Lucy is 57, she should think about reducing her risk, which usually means increasing bond exposure. What I recommend to Lucy is that she read both the book The Simple Path To Wealth, which has great overviews on how to manage your assets throughout your lifetime, and also check out this article on Michael Kitces’ site: The Portfolio Size Effect And Using A Bond Tent To Navigate The Retirement Danger Zone. As I’m not a financial advisor, I am loathe to give advice any more specific than that.
HELOC As Emergency Fund
Lucy didn’t ask about this specifically, but I need to weigh in and share that I do not like anything to be an emergency fund other than cold, hard cash that is immediately available to you from your checking account. Anything other than that–a car, a paid-off house, your grandmother’s china, a HELOC–is NOT an emergency fund. An emergency fund is something you can withdraw, at a moment’s notice, as you’re standing in the police station, the fire station, the hospital… you get the picture.
Additionally, a HELOC (home equity line of credit) is usually contingent upon your employment and so if you lose your job, it’s entirely possible that your HELOC may no longer be valid, which would negate its role as an emergency fund in the event that you lost your job (which is one of the primary reasons to have an emergency fund). At the end of the day, a HELOC is not your money and could be rescinded. At best, a HELOC is a high risk emergency fund that might not actually be there for you when you need it. Furthermore, Lucy would have to pay interest on the HELOC if she were to access the money in the event of an emergency, which again, partially negates the point of an emergency fund. A true emergency fund is three to six months’ worth of living expenses held in an easily accessible checking or savings account. Nothing else on earth should be considered an emergency fund.
Fortunately, Lucy already has $11,819.24 across her savings and checking accounts, which is a fabulous start to an emergency fund. I strongly urge Lucy to stop considering the HELOC an emergency fund and work to build that $11,819.24 up to the range of $20,158.38 (which would be three months’ worth of spending) to $40,316.76 (six months’ worth of expenses). Since emergency fund totals are based off of one’s monthly spending, if Lucy were to reduce her expenses, she could skate by with a smaller emergency fund. At present, her $11,819.24 would cover less than two months’ worth of expenses.
In summary, I advise Lucy to do the following:
- Save up a true emergency fund.
- Determine when she truly wants to retire from her current career and what she’d like to pursue next.
- If she decides she wants to retire sooner, I advise she target 2020 for her retirement since her youngest son will graduate from college and she’ll no longer have the monthly Joint Account contribution.
- If she elects to target 2020 for retirement, she should determine whether it’ll be more financially advantageous to sell or rent her home. This two-year runway will give her plenty of time to research the rental vs. sale market and decide where she wants to go next in the world.
- If she decides she’d rather stay in her home and continue working, she should consider if she wants to pursue paying off her mortgage more quickly, in which case she can reference the above suggestions on reducing expenses and/or increasing income.
- Lucy should check in on the fees and risk exposure of all of her investments to ensure that she’s decreasing her exposure to risk as she nears retirement.
- Enjoy retirement! Lucy has put herself in a wonderful financial position to enjoy retirement and I wish her all the very best with whatever she decides!
Ok Frugalwoods nation, what advice would you give to Lucy? She and I will both reply to comments, so please feel free to ask any clarifying questions!
Would you like your own case study to appear here on Frugalwoods? Email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) your brief story and we’ll talk.
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