'The forgotten generation'
The financial strain is acute here in Port Charlotte and neighboring Punta Gorda. Located on Florida's southern Gulf Coast, the area has the nation's highest concentration of residents over 65. They live in disparate circumstances, from trailer parks and low-income housing to high-end homes in Punta Gorda Isles, a waterfront community on a point south of Charlotte Harbor.
Among the Isles' relatively affluent residents, low interest rates present more of an annoyance than a hardship. But many fret about their nest eggs, and some are frustrated with what they see as policymakers' failure to appreciate the costs of stimulus efforts, even if they agree that those efforts are necessary.
"It makes you kind of feel like the forgotten generation," says Roger Cohen, a 66-year-old who retired to the Isles from Boston, where he headed a national coffee-service company. He says he supports the Fed's efforts to stimulate the economy by lowering interest rates, but "you have a lot of folks who feel there's a lack of fairness."
John Lehman, a 70-year-old former hardware entrepreneur who lives on the other side of the golf course from Cohen, has less sympathy for what he calls "those idiots in Washington, D.C." He says he's keeping about 80% of his considerable investments in stocks, despite the shock he suffered during the financial crisis. He hopes his returns in equities will allow him to live without dipping into his capital.
"That's why most of us are in the stock market, because there's no place else to go," he says, noting that he would happily move into safer CDs if he could get a better rate. "I hope my assets don't run out before I die."
Taking risks, cutting back
Lehman's taste for stocks goes against the traditional advice of financial planners, who urge older Americans to keep most of their assets in relatively safe, fixed-income investments. But more retirees are getting into riskier positions as they try to avoid running out of money, says Neil Kasanofsky, a financial adviser in Port Charlotte who has a largely elderly clientele.
"The fear is palpable at this point in their lives," he says. "Given the low level of interest rates, you're hard-pressed to tell someone to get into bonds or 10-year CDs."
To stay on track, even the wealthy are cutting back on some luxuries, such as golf-club memberships. John Benande, a board member at the St. Andrews South Golf Club in the Isles, said the club has scrambled to attract new members as the number of people quitting each year has increased sharply. The club charges an annual membership fee of about $4,000 for families.
"You do spend money differently, even if you have it," he says.
Some people in the Isles are in deeper trouble, says Marianne Principato, the manager of the Port Charlotte office of Consumer Debt Counseling. In some cases, she says, retirees took out mortgages and ran up credit-card debt on the assumption that their interest income would help cover the payments. But then the payments on the debts went up, and their interest income fell.
"They're losing their investment income precisely at the time when they need it most," she says, noting that the area's older people tend to hide their troubles as long as they can. "People are very prideful. It's small-town stuff."
Lifeline for seniors in need
The Cultural Center of Charlotte County, a sprawling collection of buildings set amid the hospitals and housing complexes of central Port Charlotte, offers a picture of how the less fortunate are faring.
The nonprofit center, which includes a cafeteria, gym, theater, thrift shop and space for everything from income-tax preparation to crazy-hat bingo, gave refuge to hundreds when the area suffered a direct hit from Hurricane Charley in 2004. Now, its 50-cent coffees and $2 breakfasts are a lifeline for local seniors trying to get by.
Donna Barrett, the center's marketing manager, says traffic keeps increasing as more people find themselves short of money. In January and February, revenue at the cafeteria was up about 15% from the same period last year.
After a recent investment seminar at the center, Jim and Eileen Keller, a couple in their mid-60s, reviewed their finances. They had moved to the Port Charlotte area in search of a better lifestyle after both took early retirement from a Michigan phone company. Lately, their financial prospects have dimmed.
"I'm scared to death," Eileen Keller says. "At one point, we thought we'd have a little money to leave our kids. That ain't gonna happen."
The couple's savings took a hit in the stock-market crash. And they're afraid that unless they can improve the return on their remaining $200,000, they'll have to rely solely on Social Security.
Eileen Keller says they've been cutting their expenses as much as they can. She shops at the cultural center's thrift shop instead of department stores. She tries not to spend more than $20 on any single quilting project, as opposed to the hundreds of dollars many of her fellow quilters can spare. The couple avoids going to the movies.
'We did all the right things'
"It bothers me, because we did all the right things," she says, noting that their $7,500 bank account paid $4.84 in interest last year. "We weren't frivolous. We saved our money. And still we get hit like this."
Later that day, Yeager was tucking into lunch at the cafeteria, where he eats about three times a week. Born and raised in Indiana, he says he served in the Signal Corps under Gen. George S. Patton in World War II, and then spent 25 years working at Eastern Airlines in Miami, mostly as an airplane cleaner.
He says he retired in 1982 with ample savings, but he and his wife, Vivian, "lost our butt" in the stock-market crash of 1987. After that, they stashed their savings mainly in bank CDs, which yielded as much as 7% before the financial crisis. His wife died of a heart attack shortly after the 2004 hurricane.
Yeager says he's still betting on dying before his money runs out. He and a neighbor are planning a trip to Las Vegas in May.
"I'm too old to work," he says. "I don't think I'm going to make it that far anyhow."
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