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My Parents’ Retirement: A Look At Their Financial Journey

Author Ken Cutler
Parents Retirement

In a poignant reflection, Ken Cutler of HumbleDollar paints a vivid picture of his parents’ financial journey – a story of modest means, diligent saving, and unexpected challenges that may challenge your assumptions about wealth, retirement, and the pursuit of financial independence.

DAD WAS AN ACCOUNTANT. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, taking classes at night while working full-time. He also studied engineering at another Philadelphia college, again taking classes at night. Dad would have enjoyed being an engineer, but he could only take on so much while working a day job. He never completed that degree.

Being sharp at math and having an organized mind, accounting was a good fit. Dad eventually became president of J.S. Collins & Son, a chain of lumber and hardware stores in southern New Jersey that was incorporated in 1912. Dad started his career with Collins in 1939, but left in 1942 to join the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II. When he returned after the war, his old job was waiting for him.

My father was forced into semi-retirement at age 58 when the company’s owner closed the business. But Dad wasn’t done working for Collins, though he had to take a significant pay cut. He spent the next three years selling and liquidating the company’s real estate. He also took care of all the tax returns and legal paperwork necessitated by the business’s closure.

When that work was done, Dad was out of a job. He was age 61. He received unemployment payments for a few months. Because his career ended earlier than he’d expected and he had a son—me—to put through college, he took Social Security at age 62. His payout started at $445 a month, about $1,700 in today’s dollars.

Based on the rules at the time, he received extra Social Security payments for me during the months I was enrolled as a full-time student. Those payments, coupled with the freshman engineering merit scholarship that I received, were generous enough to fund my first two years of college.

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My mother was a homemaker. She’d worked until her marriage to my dad at age 27, but after that her work was running the household and bringing up my three sisters and me. Since her own Social Security credits were minimal, she received a Social Security payment based on my dad’s benefit. As Mom was four years younger than Dad, she didn’t receive Social Security benefits during the first several years of his retirement.

Dad’s pension for his 35-year career at Collins was fixed at $347.15 a month. It was initially worth about $22,000 a year, figured in today’s dollars. By the time of his death, inflation had eroded the pension’s buying power to about $7,000 a year. There was no survivor option, so my mom received no payments after he passed away.

In addition to owning their house free and clear, they had a modest portfolio of individual stocks and bonds. Several bank certificates of deposit rounded out their financial holdings. All in all, it was enough for a comfortable retirement, though my parents were hardly the millionaires next door.

How do I know all these details? Over his career with Collins, Dad produced a huge number of financial ledger pages—all by hand. He also kept ledgers for his personal finances. I have five of them in my possession.

Three of the ledgers are for estate trusts that he managed for decades. The trusts were set up for the benefit of his two mentally disabled brothers. Using a variety of specialized forms, he meticulously kept track of each trust investment and every expenditure. These ledgers were turned over to me when I became the successor trustee in 2001.

My father’s two personal finance ledgers are of more interest to me these days. What I discovered from looking through them is that, for many years into retirement, Dad continued to work as a private consultant and tax preparer for several wealthy clients, as well as some friends of lesser means. Among those clients was John S. Collins, Jr., the multi-millionaire owner of Dad’s former employer.

My father continued working until age 72, when he finished closing out Collins’s very significant estate. Although this part-time work didn’t make him rich, it often provided a decent supplement to my parents’ Social Security payments and Dad’s pension.

The first 20 or so years of my parents’ retirement went well. Two years after I graduated from college, they sold their home in New Jersey and moved to a new house they’d built in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a few miles from me. They’d always liked Lancaster County. We took a number of vacations in the area when I was growing up, so the area was familiar to them. When I settled down there, it gave them even more incentive to move. The property taxes on their New Jersey home were also a factor.

Dad brought along most of his woodworking tools and set up a well-organized shop in the large garage at their new house. He enjoyed making things, including toys for his grandkids. He had a wealth of practical skills that I lack and was always eager to help if I needed a repair or something made.

My parents did some traveling in retirement, mostly road trips. The most ambitious of these was a month-long bus tour to the Rocky Mountains and other places out west. Conveniently, I was around to look after their house while they were gone. They had a great time and enjoyed getting to know their fellow travelers.

Mom was a reader, intensely interested in nutrition, and a bit of a homebody. She liked keeping her house in good order. She was also prone to worry. One of her greatest fears was alleviated when her only son got married at age 29 to a gal who received her wholehearted approval. Always having a soft heart toward children, she was ecstatic when, a few years later, more grandchildren arrived. Mom and Dad were able to visit us in the hospital when both of our children were born.

When our precious daughter was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer at age two, my parents were there to help out in any way they could. We were blessed to have a large support network during the biggest trial of our lives. Mom and Dad were an integral part. Although the ordeal was very difficult for them also, I think helping us increased their sense of purpose. Today, our daughter is a happy, healthy young lady in her late 20s.

My dad had an even-keeled temperament, which was a counterpoint to my highly strung mom. He enjoyed excellent health, relished his daily crossword puzzles and took pleasure in the simple rhythms of life. But his routine was eventually disrupted. Around age 82, his non-symptomatic prostate cancer took a turn for the worse and spread throughout his body. He had a year or so reprieve with medication, but eventually the effects wore off and he went into decline. He passed away in 2001, a few months before his 84th birthday.

After Dad died, Mom lived alone in their house. We visited her often and assisted her as needed. She started having some issues balancing her checkbook, so I began taking care of that for her. Occasionally, she’d say some strange things. It became clear that she was showing signs of cognitive impairment and would be better off not living alone.

On her own, she drove to a nearby church-related retirement home and initiated the entrance process. She sold her house and moved into independent living. Her condition worsened. She was moved to skilled care, which was very expensive. Meanwhile, my tender-hearted sister, Lynn, decided she wanted to take care of Mom in Texas.

We had a huge 85th birthday party for Mom at the retirement home. Immediately afterwards, she flew off to start her new life. I continued to manage my mom’s finances, while my sister took care of everything else. Mom lived her final, challenging years in Lynn’s spacious house. She was surrounded by my sister’s five fabulous cats and was close to several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. My family is indebted to my sister for her competent and loving care. Mom passed away at age 91.

My wife and I are now in the early stages of our retirement journey. We have no way of knowing how it’ll turn out. Our experience will certainly be quite different from that of my parents. Still, as Mark Twain reputedly said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.”

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2 thoughts on “My Parents’ Retirement: A Look At Their Financial Journey”

  1. Thanks for sharing. We work so hard to accumulate so much for a retirement we can’t fully know until the end. Reminds me that family is our greatest treasure. Lives well lived.

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  2. Subscribe to get more great content like this, an awesome spreadsheet, and more!

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