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Don’t live beyond your means in retirement

Not long ago, I met with someone whose 70-year-old father had been living beyond his means.

The father, a retired businessman, confided to his 40-something son that he had $100,000 of credit card debt that he could not repay. “How could that be?” asked the son. The father answered that he didn’t realize anything was wrong in the beginning, and life was proceeding along as usual. Eventually, he became aware that he was dipping into credit, but he felt he had to “keep up appearances” as a leader in his community.

In another situation, a teacher on a limited income received a letter from her retired father asking her to send him money so that he could stay in his home. He had been paying his bills through home equity lines of credit. Could she and her two siblings each send him $1,000 a month so he could stay in his house?

In my role as financial columnist, author and money manager, I’m hearing more and more stories like these. I have seen many retirees successfully navigate the retirement minefield. Let me share some of their secrets with you:

1. Do a situation audit. The transition to retirement calls for an audit that goes something like this: “My spouse and I will no longer be working. How will we support ourselves for the rest of our lives? Can we continue to use credit cards? Should we change our lifestyle? How can we be sure that our resources will last a lifetime, in sickness and in health?”

2. Do a cash flow analysis. Cash flow management is the very simple process of making sure that outflow (your monthly expenses) never exceeds inflow (monthly income from pensions, Social Security, and dividends and interest). Retirees who know how to do this have successful retirements with healthy finances. Anyone of any means can arrive at this result.

3. Obey coverage rules. The ideal situation is to cover essential expenses with “guaranteed” sources of income, such as Social Security retirement benefits, pensions and pension substitutes, such as an annuity. Then pay for discretionary expenses only when there is extra cash generated from your investments. If you can’t do that, you’ll need to consider lowering your lifestyle desires to fit the reality of your pocketbook.

4. Address social changes that will occur after you retire. Consider what the future may bring. What happens if you predecease your spouse, or you become ill or incapacitated? What do you want to see put in place to help your spouse manage? What happens if your spouse predeceases you, or becomes ill? How will you manage? Who will help? What role do you want your children to play? What about the role of your financial, legal and tax advisers?

5. Engage your spouse as a partner. Before retirement, one spouse usually takes the lead in financial decisions, and the other jumps in the back seat.

That has to change in retirement for one very good reason: What happens if the leader predeceases the follower, or becomes ill and incapacitated? Successful retirees realize that retirement is a joint venture between spouses, calling on both to share decision-making, planning and, importantly, managing the financial team, comprised of the family’s adviser, accountant and lawyer.

Every life transition — retirement, divorce, loss of a spouse, loss of a job, sale of a house or sale of a business — calls for a re-examination of your personal economic, lifestyle and social drivers. The sooner you get started, the better off you and your family will be.

Think of the burden your children may need to shoulder if someday you had to write a letter saying: “I’ve got bad news. I’ve outlived my money, and I need your help.”

Julie Jason is a personal money manager at Jackson, Grant of Stamford, Conn., and an award-winning author. Contact her at

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