The story that made me save for retirement

by Sandy L on July 25, 2011

The other day Crystal from BFS was sharing her experience volunteering for meals on wheels and it suddenly reminded me of a story of my own.  Basically for Crystal, seeing people relying on meals on wheels for nutritious yet not so palatable food is a big motivator for her to save for retirement.

I had a very similar experience when I was growing up.  We lived in  a 3 decker apartment building. We lived in one unit and rented out the other two.  When we first moved there in the 70’s, we inherited an elderly tenant in the process.  I was in grammar school so this goes back a way’s but I remember the following things about him.  The guy was old, frail, and extremely thin.  He could barely walk, yet he lived in the 3rd floor apartment because it was cheaper. That apartment was a mess by the way. The toilet was plumbed where the sink was supposed to be in the kitchen.  I can’t say that I remember people visiting him or how he managed to get his groceries. I think my parents may have shopped for him because I do remember going into his apartment on a regular basis.

For heating, he had a stove/heater combo unit that long have been discontinued.  It was a gas stove with pilot lights.  Every time I came over his house he had a tin of unopened beans sitting on top of his burner and a soggy used tea bag. He  never had the lights on in his house, ever.  In the summer, it was sweltering hot and in the winter it was always cold.  As a kid I thought all of this behavior was really odd.

For every question I’d ask about this guy I got a variation of the same answer.  “Why does he always sit in the dark?”  “Because he doesn’t want to have a big electricity bill.”  “Why does he store his beans on his stove?”  “Because he’s using his pilot light to heat his beans so that he doesn’t have to turn the burner on to cook them”….and on and on it went.  “Why does he eat his beans out of the can?”  “Because he doesn’t  want to use soap, water, and gas to clean his dishes.”  “Why does he eat so many beans?”  “Because they are cheap.”  “Is that why his house smells so funny because he farts so much from eating all those beans?” “Yes, now please stop asking questions.”  Eventually after my 2o questions, I think I figured it out.  This dude was dirt poor and he wasn’t doing all this strange stuff  because he wanted to, but because he had to.

This poor old man led the most miserable existence.  He spent his golden years in a dark and dirty apartment, eating beans every day and spent most of it living under extreme temperature conditions.   He wore the same clothes for days on end and I’m sure he was severely malnourished.  I’m sure once babci dug her garden his diet got a lot better, but by that time, he was pretty far gone already.  Sadly we couldn’t save him and he ended up going into a nursing home not too long after we moved there.

Even though I was only 7 at the time, it was one of those life changing experiences.  Seems like negative role models  tend to stick with me a lot more than positive experiences.  I knew even way back then that I’d rather work my butt off so I could have money versus live in such dire straits.  Some people think I obsess over money a little too much and have too big an emergency fund in my online savings accounts,  but it’s experiences like these that scare the living daylights out of me.    Maybe these days there are enough government safety nets in place that this type of life is no longer the norm, but who’s to say what the future holds.

Do you have a similar story that motivates you to save?

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Sharon July 25, 2011 at 8:19 AM

I’m hoping and praying I don’t ever have to be alone in my old age, that sacrificing and raising four children will guarantee me that at least one of them won’t let me live like that…

But just to be on the safe side, we are saving for retirement and quite frankly may be working well into our 70’s, based on all the healthcare needs we’ve been having lately. It’s scary to think that there are many elderly living in those conditions.


Sandy L July 25, 2011 at 5:31 PM

Sharon – I know. I wonder where this guy’s family was..or maybe he was the last one that was living. Healthcare costs are definitely a wild card. I’m really not sure how to budget for those.


Dr. Dad, PhD July 25, 2011 at 9:08 AM

Although their story isn’t nearly as dramatic as the one you describe, my parents serve as motivation for me. As a 1st generation American, I guess I’m also motivated by their fear of owing anybody anything. And I gained their deep-set stubbornness about being independent and the need to save for a rainy day. After all, “just in case” happens far more often than we’d like.

My parents also motivate me to work hard, which leads to earning more money (giving me more to theoretically save). Neither of my parents finished college and I remember, even as a young child, thinking how unfair it was that they worked so hard for such a small salary. I also remember my dad struggling to wash away the blood coming from a gash on his leg (I barged in on him while he was in the bathroom – he hadn’t wanted anybody to see that he got hurt) from a factory accident. Needless to say, I decided that I needed an education in order to have a “cushy job” that had benefits such as health insurance….


Sandy L July 25, 2011 at 5:32 PM

Dr. Dad – I’m with you on the fear of owing people. Debt is still such a foreign concept in many developing nations. My mom lost a finger at work and dared not sue. She didn’t want to bite the hand that fed her.


Crystal July 25, 2011 at 10:43 AM

That would be a motivator and a heart breaker. 🙁 Poor guy.


retirebyforty July 25, 2011 at 12:55 PM

That’s heart breaking. It’s not an old age that I would look forward to. 🙁


Suba July 25, 2011 at 8:37 PM

That is sad. I don’t have any specific motivation to save for retirement because my parents (and grandparents) planned well for it, so it was almost invisible. The only thing I wish for my old age is to have company and not to be alone.


Sandy L July 26, 2011 at 6:21 AM

Suba – yes, that is a fact. Yes, it’s gotta be sad when your dearest friends and loved ones predeceased you. Even babci gets lonely and we see and talk to her on a regular basis.


101 Centavos July 26, 2011 at 8:16 AM

What a story, FGA. Ending up all alone in my old age is probably worse than being poor. I’ve been poor, that I could handle.


Little House July 26, 2011 at 10:00 AM

I shiver at the thought of that old man and I know I don’t ever want to be in that position. I also know that because I got a late start on saving for retirement, I’ll likely be working into my late 60’s. However, that gives me enough time to catch up with my mutual funds, stocks and eventually a 403(b) and hopefully I’ll receive some kind of pension (I’ve been paying into it for 10 years already with another 25 to go). Since I don’t have kids, I know I need to stay healthy well into my “golden” years. I don’t want to end up in a run down convalescent hospital alone. Scary!


Sandy L August 2, 2011 at 10:28 PM

Little House – like I was saying to Paula below, even if you don’t ever have children, you can still invest your time into the relationships of your extended family and friends. I think it doesn’t have to be your kids that are there for you in the end. My husband took care of his aunt and uncle for 10 years while he was in college. They never had children but were always very good to him growing up and a big part of his life.


Everyday Tips July 26, 2011 at 8:33 PM

Oh my gosh, that old man is going to haunt my dreams tonight, poor fella. Life must have been exhausting for him.

It is almost always the bad examples that I learn from as opposed to the good ones, and I don’t know why. Or, maybe I naturally follow the good examples without thinking about it as much? Not sure.


Sandy L August 2, 2011 at 10:20 PM

Everyday Tips – I just wonder where he got the will to live as long as he did. I think bad examples make a more lasting impression. There was one year where I attended like 7 weddings in a summer. I seemed to more clearly remember the really bad wedding food or the cheesy things about certain venues, but not the picture perfect ones.


Molly On Money July 26, 2011 at 8:41 PM

My grandparents lived the high life until they outlived their retirement. My grandfather had planned to die at 85 but lived until 89. When they died they were bankrupt. Luckily my parents took them in so they could live their last few years with dignity.


Sandy L August 2, 2011 at 10:20 PM

Molly – well, they must have been good people if your parents took them in. Gotta love good family.


Kay Lynn @ Bucksome Boomer July 31, 2011 at 3:04 PM

Every once in a while you read about someone like that who had money but just saved it because they were afraid of running out of money. Extremes either way are sad.


Sandy L August 2, 2011 at 10:23 PM

Kay Lynn – moderation is key. My uncle was a money hoarder and it did him no good in the end. If anything it caused more trouble because his son couldn’t wait to get his hands on it and did some dreadful things as a result of his impatience.


Paula @ August 1, 2011 at 11:30 AM

He heated the beans on a pilot light … wow, what an incredible detail. That makes the story feel very, very real. I almost feel like I can visualize it. What a sad story.
And what struck me most about the story was how alone he was … and how bored he must have been. What did he do all day? Who did he talk to? How did he keep his mind engaged? Where were his family and friends? That seems saddest of all.


Sandy L August 2, 2011 at 10:15 PM

Paula – I guess another big lesson is that in addition to investing money into retirement, you should also invest time into cultivating and maintaining relationships, even if they are not with your immediate family. I think if the guy had made more of an effort to be there for others, he probably wouldn’t have been so alone himself.


Buck Inspire August 1, 2011 at 10:21 PM

What a story. I don’t have a motivating story like that one, but now yours is etched into my mind! Beans by pilot light with added fragrance in case you forget. Don’t think I can look at Pork and Beans the same!


Sandy L August 2, 2011 at 10:16 PM

Buck – The smell of that house was something I’ll never forget.


Kevin@RothIRA August 31, 2011 at 9:55 PM

Some people are in that situation for reasons that are no fault of their own. Personal illness, the illness of a family member, a lawsuit, a business failure, a job loss late in life–the possibility are endless. But there are things we can do to minimize the chance of facing the same fate. It starts with saving for old age, which many people don’t do.

Save where ever you get a chance–savings accounts, investment accounts, retirement accounts. Even if you don’t think it will be enough to insure a comfortable retirement, save something.

It’s one thing to travel through youth without any money, but quite another when you’re over 65. The time to plan for that is now.


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