Pandemic's effect on retirees' financial outlook


November 1, 2020

Some call a booming economy a “rising tide that lifts all boats.” We’re experiencing the flip side of that now: a sinking tide that is wreaking havoc unequally. Age, income and circumstance have affected all Americans in the tsunami of this pandemic. Seniors are bearing the brunt of the crisis as it relates to serious infection and death, but the financial picture for most “boomers and beyond” has been a mixed bag.

Short term, our age group is faring better financially than others. Most seniors are beyond the tethers of salary needs and dependents. Almost 90% of people age 65 and older draw Social Security; the income provides on average one third of our income. If we’re fortunate, we also have savings, pensions or annuities. These income sources cushion us from the job loss affecting so many of our youngers.

Moreover, boomers typically have a lower fixed cost of living. Most of us are free from the financial burdens of children-rearing. We may enjoy providing extras or contributing to our kids’ households, but the buck no longer stops with us. Three-fourths of us own our homes, and the majority have paid off our mortgages. The big exception to lower expenses is healthcare costs, particularly those who have contracted the virus.

Seniors are better off than other age groups not only financially but also emotionally. This finding is according to an August survey by Edward Jones and Age Wave of 9,000 people across five generations from the U.S. and Canada. Fewer financial burdens are part of that emotional

well-being. We are also benefiting from the family togetherness that the pandemic has foisted upon us. Two-thirds of Americans report that the pandemic has brought their families closer together, even if they’ve had to remain physically distant.

Gentle nudge: If you’re in the one-third whose family interactions are virtually unchanged, be the change agent yourself. You can pick up the phone or get a lesson in Zooming or Facetiming. This can be a lifesaver whether you’re infected or just lonesome.

Help out, but be careful

Boomers are making lemonade from the pandemic’s lemons in the short-term, but the long-term outlook for some has become more fragile. One cautionary factor is the financial help that some of us are providing our children who are in more difficult straits. The pandemic has significantly reduced the financial security of a quarter of North Americans, with the greatest impact of job and health coverage loss falling on younger generations. Seeing our children suffer in the pandemic, 24 million Americans are choosing to provide financial support to adult children. A vast majority of retirees admitted they would offer financial support “even if it could jeopardize own financial future.” It’s hard to argue against helping family except to remind ourselves that time is no longer on our side to replace savings needed for our later years.

For those of us still in the workforce, these times are also scary. The same survey found that over 20 million Americans had stopped making regular contributions to retirement savings. Before the pandemic, close to 60% of those who had been contemplating retirement felt confident about the move. This confidence figure has now dropped to 46%. Nevertheless, we’ve been through hard times before. Most of us have the hard-won experience to keep an emergency fund for such times if we can.

Low returns require re-thinking

The challenging part of the pandemic for us is facing interest rates that are historically low. The investments we’ve safely sequestered in interest-bearing vehicles are yielding next to nothing. Moreover, our long-term is shorter than for other age groups. We no longer have the stretches of time for our investments to recover from a spate of bad years for the market or interest rates.

A financial advisor can help you parse through whether your portfolio has the stamina for years of low interest rates. It is important to estimate whether your budget still works long term with your income stream. Perhaps your cushion is a little smaller and you have to cancel travel that has already been tabled by the pandemic. Perhaps a total budget revamp is necessary if low returns affect the trust funds supporting guaranteed income such as pensions and annuities.

Nevertheless, I’m confident it will work out. We’ve been preparing for our later years our entire working lives. By virtue of our ages, we’ve become adaptable to the varying circumstances of life. We may not board the yacht we once envisioned, but our boat will still come in.

Karen Telleen-Lawton is a Certified Financial Planner in Santa Barbara, Calif.


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