Many Canadians Having to Downsize for Retirement
Barely six weeks after Suzanne Leblanc retired from her job as an executive assistant in Montreal, she began to worry that all was not right with her nest egg. A decision by Leblanc's broker had landed the 60-year-old single mother of two with a huge tax bill. More worrisome, her investment statements suddenly came bathed in red ink. Then Leblanc's worst fears came true when she learned her signature had been forged and her investments transferred out of her registered savings account. Nine years later, Leblanc can only guess at how many tens of thousands of dollars she lost. "I damn near lost my house," she says.
Regulators stripped the broker of his licence, but that did little to help Leblanc (who, along with some other people interviewed for this story, asked that her real name not be used). So, not even two years into retirement, she took a deep breath and went back to work. "It wasn't what I intended to do, but I found it was something I enjoyed," she says of her job at a financial services company. After rebuilding some of her lost savings, Leblanc earned enough to do minor renovations on her house and even travel to Europe occasionally. Only now, at 70, is she talking about slowing down. "The one thing I didn't want to do was carry any anger, because it only hurts you," she says. "I just had to move on and say 'That's it, I was not meant to be rich.' "
Not everybody has to face that kind of luck, but more and more Canadians are having to deal with a similar bottom line: we simply don't have the cash to retire in the level of comfort we thought we would. Despite the warm assurances of financial planners who repeatedly tell us we can have it all - the nice house, the cottage, the tropical vacations and plenty of money to support the kids - retirement rarely works out so tidily. Whether the result of poor planning or just plain bad luck, studies indicate many Canadians won't have enough saved up to live the lifestyle they envision.
That doesn't mean all hope is lost. By coming to grips with their new retirement realities, some seniors are trying to find ways to adjust to life on less while not sacrificing their happiness. That can mean trimming expenses, going back to work or downsizing their homes. It's not easy, but the experts agree the time to start thinking about those options is now.
Studies show the majority of Canadians now plan to retire before the age of 65, and expect to live much longer than their parents did. The problem is many Canadians' idea of saving for retirement is to kick in to the office lottery pool. Independent studies by financial services firms paint a bleak picture. Last month, Fidelity Canada issued a report that found the median Canadian household is on track to take a 50 per cent haircut on their income after retirement. Granted, the fund companies have a vested interest in selling more investment product to anxious Canadians. But the numbers suggest scaling back our lifestyle is an inevitability for most of us in retirement. "The vast majority of people have to downsize their retirement," says Rick Henderson, a financial adviser in Winnipeg. "They're going to the Motel 8 in Grand Forks instead of the Hyatt in Hawaii."
Scaling back doesn't necessarily have to be quite that drastic, but it helps to plan ahead and be prepared for a more frugal lifestyle. When getting ready for his early retirement at 55, Dave Moon, a former telecom technician in Winnipeg, and his wife, Barbara, knew their combined income would drop afterwards. They aggressively paid down their debt and overhauled their spending habits. Out went all the credit cards, save one for emergencies. That put them on a much sounder footing than many other retirees. A survey by Desjardins Financial last week found 80 per cent of Canadians expect to enter retirement "in the red," meaning they'll still be paying off debts incurred earlier in life, like a mortgage.
"We both went into it with the notion we would continue to live a more cash-in-hand purchasing existence, rather than using credit because it's convenient," says Moon, whose post-retirement income is down to 60 per cent of what it was before. Barbara, 57, still works as a nurse. The couple are always on the lookout for items on sale. And when they decided to redo their kitchen, they opted for the barter route rather than hiring an expensive contractor. The Moons asked a friend and retired tradesman to help them work on the kitchen themselves, in exchange for Dave's assistance on projects later on. Moon says such moves have allowed him and his wife to improve their lives on more modest means. "I promised my wife that when we retired, we would not live on baloney and beans," he says. "We still go out to dinner with friends. You still need to live life."
To do that, though, a growing number of retired Canadians, like Leblanc in Montreal, are finding they need to go back to work. According to a 2005 study by Statscan, just over one-fifth of people who retired in recent years later ended up finding some form of paid employment. And seniors are in hot demand with the labour market as tight as it is. Going back to work isn't always about money, but the reality is the bulk of seniors who pick up a job do so to help them get by. In a survey of 2,000 older job-seekers expected to be released this week, retiredworker.ca, a specialized job hunting site, found 42.5 per cent of respondents said they needed the extra income to cover basic living expenses.
That's no surprise to Judy Cutler, 66. After 15 years away from work, Cutler is now the director of government relations with Canada's Association for the Fifty Plus. "I would love to retire and do different things, but I don't want to live in poverty," she says. Like many working seniors, Cutler has negotiated a more flexible work schedule that at least gives her some downtime. For instance, she's taking next month off to go to India. "It's a compromise," she says.
But going back to work isn't an option for everyone. For those retirees who have health problems, or those who lack computer skills, the jobs available are seriously limited. Do we really want to stand on our feet all day and greet shoppers at the local Wal-Mart if we don't have to? "There's this myth out there that work is the solution to a lack of savings," says Carien Jutting, a financial planner in Stratford, Ont. "The people who go back to work and make real dollars, versus minimum wage, are usually professionals who have something to sell."
John Wichelow certainly has no interest in returning to the workaday world. At 67, he's had a colourful banking career working in four countries and ran a home business, along with his wife Anna, producing educational material for schools. Even so, he says he's never been good at accumulating savings. "We don't have pots of money," he says. The couple has owned a home in Stratford, Ont., for the last six years, but with Wichelow's health beginning to deteriorate they decided to move to Toronto to be closer to their daughter. The only way to afford the move, though, was to sell the house and move into a rental apartment. "The money we're getting from selling our house will give us a lovely life in Toronto," he says. For many retirees, the thought of giving up their home is terrifying, but there's more to life than owning a spot of turf. "A word I love and I think other retirees should use more often is 'enough,' " says Wichelow. "You don't need a house to be happy."
Whether we're prepared for it or not, most Canadians are on track for some difficult decisions come retirement. If we insist on clinging to the notion that we will have enough to do it all, the disappointment will be that much more bitter to swallow when we find we don't. But it is a reality that the whole family will need to get a grip on, financial planners say. Canadians carry an idealized notion of retirement in our heads, one that we mull over as we battle rush hour traffic or clock another all-nighter at the office.
We'd all like to think we'll have the house, the cottage, the trips, plenty of money for a life of leisure and still be able to leave a fat inheritance for the kids. But perhaps it's better to bring our expectations more in line with Frank Maurice, a retired teacher in Ottawa (who asked that his real name not be used). "Do we really need a lot of money to enjoy life anyway?" says Maurice. "Looking back over the years, I can say that health is the main thing, and the best things in life are free or not very expensive."
Maclean's November 26, 2007