Here at the Eliscu Institute of Economics and Depression, we’ve been studying retirement and financial sustainability, a project known as “U R Screwed.” And nothing makes our research—which includes the study of exactly three people in Westbrook, Maine—more important than the aftermath of the holidays. I refer you to your checkbook.
What really drives financial reality home is the influx of holiday brag letters that begins in early December. I don’t need to hear about the expensive faraway trips my once-a-year friends have taken, nor that their Ivy League kids are all safely married off to other Ivy League kids and have begun raising Ivy League babies.
“Then we’re off to our favorite seaside resort in Belize—fun, but EXHAUSTING!—then back to our Upper West Side penthouse in NYC!”
“Did I mention—Harold and I have signed on to a series of private wine tastings every Thursday evening…”
“God has been so good to us!”
Um, and crappy to the rest of us because…?
Just once I’d like to see a newsletter that goes something like this:
Dear friends, I know you only hear from us at the holidays, but we really don’t have time or interest to communicate more often. Let’s face it. It’s how we find out if it’s time to remove you from our address book. So Merry Christmas! We are broke as hell, we fight constantly and our kids are a huge disappointment. P.S.—Wash your hands after touching this. Don’t ask. Cheers! -The Martins
Compounding this, the brag letters seem to arrive in the mail along with the annual Social Security notice for retirees, which informs you of a cost-of-living increase and also contains information showing you that you’re actually getting less this year.
Retirement…one day you’re pushing your 4-year-old on a swing and the next day you get that initial Social Security letter giving you the dismal figures, earned after decades of working and contributing. Seriously—there is no free lunch.
But take heart. A good retirement can be low-cost. Forget luxury or traditional concepts of contributing to society. That’s so yesterday. (I learned that expression from my grandkids. See? No need to go abroad to expand one’s language skills.)
For fun ideas, I turn to my daughter Sally, one of the most creative people I know. She was in the Peace Corps years ago in the most dire of circumstances. Creativity? On three bucks a day, you get inventive.
I text her for helpful hints, and she says she’s down with that. (“Down with that” means she’s “up for it.” Remember that phrase in case you check out the local, free music scene or community protest events, guaranteed to make you feel happy and young. )
I call Sally about those financially lean Peace Corps years.
“I made a broom out of big plant leaves, a tree branch and string,” she reports.
I glance around my kitchen, not exactly poverty level.
“It worked really well,” she says.
“And I made a deck of cards out of paper,” she says.
The shuffling must have been amazing.
“I also made my own Monopoly game out of paper,” she says.
“Were the game pieces made of paper, too?” I ask.
That all took place a while back. But since rejoining society as a successful teacher, she’s still resourceful.
When she has friends over, she has “quarter” sales. Before leaving, they are required to buy items from her that she no longer needs. Twenty-five cents each. And yes, she still has friends.
Now, she offers up ideas of no-cost fun.
“Snuggling with a furry friend…feet in sand…smelling a baby…looking up at stars or clouds… picking wild strawberries…doing a tap dance…winning a game…kissing…”
Now we start tossing ideas back and forth.
“Singing…a picnic with no bugs…a good book…a nap…finding money…climbing an easy mountain…waterfalls…”
“Riding a bike…” she says.
I pause and think about my bike, sitting in the garage for years now.
“Making Easter eggs…laughing about bad restaurants…sunsets…farting and fart noises…cozy clothes…making up lyrics to songs…telling funny family stories…driving around looking at Christmas lights…” She and I do this together every year.
“Square dancing…old records…sledding…being home…finding out test results are OK…laughing out loud when no one else thinks it’s funny…”
I look over this list of laughter, connection, love. Here at the Institute, we like to state the obvious: It’s people who make life fabulous, at any stage of life.
Yup. The best stuff of life really is free.
And I’m totally down with that.
Kathy Eliscu, a retired RN, received a National Society of Newspaper Columnists Humor award in 2012 for her Maine Women Magazine column. She is the author of “Not Even Dark Chocolate Can Fix This Mess,” a humor novel. She blogs at www.kathyeliscu.com and lives in Westbrook.