Who will speak for the retired?

Before retiring I tried to make sure all my bases were covered. I had a good idea what it would take to finance the lifestyle my wife and I hoped to live. I did my due diligence to identify as many as possible of those interests, passions and hobbies that would keep me engaged and stimulated for the next few decades. My wife and I decided where we wanted to live while retired and made the move. And I did in-depth research to make the best choice to provide us with quality affordable healthcare (wishful thinking I know). This past month has been a rude awakening showing just how helpless we can be when it comes to basics such as medical coverage. Allow me to elaborate.

When my wife quit her job back in July she opted for COBRA coverage to extend for 15 months the medical, vision and dental plan we had been enrolled in while she worked. We figured we could research other options during that 15 month period but for now this made the most sense. She filled out all the required paperwork and began making monthly payments as directed. Easy peasie – everything should be fine for that time period, right? Not so fast.

About a month ago I noticed one of my prescriptions was not being refilled. I called the provider and was informed I was not covered. What? And so the saga began. My poor wife – bless her – began the long painful process of clearing up the mistake in “the system”. For weeks, multiple times a day, she talked with representatives from COBRA and the insurance company. Each time she made a call she had to start at the bottom of the call pyramid, explaining over and over who she was, her information and what the problem was. Often after explaining the situation she was put on hold and then suddenly rerouted back to the beginning or disconnected all together. Return calls never materialized – ever – whether promised by the initial contact or escalated to a supervisor. Sometimes the account showed we were covered, sometimes it said we were not. Our frustration was building. I could not have done it but my wife – bless her again – stuck with it.

Our salvation came from the fact this kind of thing was what she had done while employed. Luckily she had a contact for the broker who managed the health plan for her previous company. By getting her involved we were able to rise above the noise and get some attention. The broker made some calls and things started to happen. According to a call this morning everything should be fine now. We will see.

The sad thing is without an inside connection we might still be spinning our wheels while our blood pressures rise and resolution of the problem remains wishful thinking. What about all those who are on their own? You can be sure potential problems are not limited to healthcare. We have experienced challenges with regards to phone services, internet services, as well as electric and water services. It’s a jungle out there.

I believe companies and the people they employ generally want to do a good job. It may be naïve but that is the way I roll. However, it seems too often that service is subpar. The focus on profits has driven many companies to look for cheaper ways to do business. I get it but what is the real cost in terms of customer satisfaction? Automation reduces the need for people but also removes the personal touch. Those blasted call trees that you have to walk through – step by step – every time you make a call may save money but can try the patience of a saint. Outsourcing may be cheaper but when the person answering the phone cannot be understood what kind of service are we talking about? My biggest fear is things are only going to get worse.

And when things get bad and you feel you are getting nowhere, what can you do? How do you escalate a problem if you are just one of thousands of customers each relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of things? It is scary what the future may hold. I only hope my wonderful wife will stick with me and continue to make the bad things go away. In the meantime I remain cautiously optimistic and continue to work on my patience for all things frustrating. I am sure to get a lot of practice…

10 Tips to Stretch Your Retirement Savings

Those of us living the retired life are lucky in so many ways. We have the freedom to spend our days doing what we most enjoy. We are no longer subject to the stress of maintaining a full time job. Our children are beginning to discover the joy of independence as they head off to begin their own lives. We are finally able to focus some attention on the wants and needs of someone often overlooked during the day to day struggle to make ends meet – namely ourselves.

Although we may feel a measure of relief having made it to the promised land of retirement not everything is perpetually peachy. Since we are no longer working our income is limited to whatever savings and investments we have accumulated plus social security and any pensions. This nest egg needs to last us through the coming decades, ideally remaining intact in good and bad times. It is not always easy to stay on top of things. As many learn the unexpected can happen.

Now a veteran of three years retired (yeah!) I am learning the ropes when it comes to spending wisely. I am committed to making the most of my second act without living over the top. Our guiding principle has been to try to live below our means. In other words spend less than we have coming in. Here are a few ideas that help us live the life we enjoy without throwing money out the window:

(1) Dining out

Many of us like to occasionally celebrate special occasions with a meal at a nice restaurant. And we deserve it. The good news is it is possible to have an exciting dining experience without breaking the bank. Instead of ordering big individual meals that drive up the bill, try sharing a variety of hor d’oeuvres. You will get a little bit of everything and can even identify favorites for return visits. Instead of going with expensive cocktail options try a glass of the house wine. Many times these are good quality vintages from local vineyards well worth the cost. And of course you can always look for the early bird specials to get better pricing if you are okay with eating dinner while the sun is still high in the sky. You can have a memorable evening on a reasonable budget.

(2) Watch for the “real sales price” on commonly used items

I shop at a few stores on a regular basis and am familiar with their pricing. I have even discovered a useful pattern. On a day to day basis you pay the normal price – nothing special, basically what it is. Then there is the sales price – a bit cheaper than normal. But if you time it right you can pay what I call the real sales price. This price is a bit better than the standard sales price and makes its way to the shelves at regular intervals. It pays to be vigilant especially when it comes to those commonly used items you do not need to buy immediately. Once you get used to what are the real best prices you can hold out until they hit the shelves and pocket the savings.

(3) Look for reward cards that really reward

Some rewards cards have restrictions, expiration dates and are generally more hassle then they are worth. Fortunately not all are so difficult. Safeway has a program that allows you to select online items you commonly purchase to receive an additional discount. Instead of having to collect and remember to bring coupons these e-discounts are automatically applied when you check out. No fee, no hassle just price savings. It makes sense to shop around before you commit to carrying more plastic in your wallet.

(4) Viva la vinegar

Rather than spend good money on cleaning solutions try a little vinegar to make things sparkle. Vinegar and water do excellent job of cleaning glass including mirrors and windows. For those harder to clean glass shower doors, we use a mix of one part dawn soap and three parts vinegar. Throw in a little vinegar to dirty laundry to help remove unwanted odors. Many a workout shirt has been rejuvenated by a spray in all the right places. And vinegar is cheap so no need to scrimp.

(5) Walk instead of drive to nearby destinations

If you live within walking distance to grocery stores, restaurants, and your local post office, try breaking out the walking shoes instead of the car to run errands. Not only will you save on gas but you will get a little exercise as well.

(6) Keep it cool

We lower the thermostat to cut back on our electricity bills. It is not uncommon to find me wearing my jacket indoors. We also heat one room where we spend the majority of our time rather than the whole house. The family room has a fireplace so it is the natural spot to generate a little warmth right where we are.

(7) Stay on top of your water usage

We live in California so the drought is a way of life. If you use more than your monthly allowance you can expect to pay a hefty fine. Since we love our garden we would rather share water with plants than have it run down the drain. Our list of water conscious actions include a bucket in shower to catch water as it warms, turning off the shower while soaping, turning off the tap while brushing our teeth, and low flow toilets and shower heads throughout the house. I also check the drip irrigation regularly to be sure they hit the target and do not send water running down the street. The little things can add up to savings.

(8) Consider generic prescriptions unless your doctor advises otherwise

Pricing for prescription drugs can be downright scary. Anything to help the cause is worth considering. Generic prescriptions save us a significant amount each month. Also try COSTCO for those medicines not covered by insurance.

(9) Do it yourself (if you can and if you want)

Being retired allows me to try my hand at fixing where needed around the house. I avoid electrical as well as plumbing and you will never catch me working on the car. That said I love beginning my day with a walk in the garden. I can count on discovering something requiring my attention whether watering, weeding, transplanting or pruning. We save $165 per month with me taking on gardening duties. I also like to vacuum and clean the floors so we do without a cleaning person, saving another $130 per month. Of course we call on the experts when needed believing it is better to get it done right than try to MacGyver our way beyond our limitations.

(10) Comparison shop gas prices in your neighborhood

The difference in price per gallon can be significant from one block to the next. Find the best price near you and save a few additional dollars come fill up time. We have one station that charges 50 cents more per gallon for premium than regular while three blocks away the difference is a more reasonable 20 cents.

Treat yourself to your favorite things

When it comes to our favorite things a little loosening of the purse strings is in order. I love bread and am willing to spend a bit more on the really good fresh stuff. We do not penny pinch when it comes to chocolate (with a Swiss wife it is not even an option). That relaxing oh-so-comfortable leather couch will fit perfectly in the family room. If you really love something get creative. You can cut back elsewhere.

Living within a budget is a challenge but there are things you can do to further your cause. It is even kind of fun to discover new ways to save some money. These ten things help us stay ahead to the game. What are you doing to maximize your retirement savings?