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Senior Correspondent

Late in 2011 I wrote a post about frugality and retirement. In re-reading it recently the message remains important. I am going to take some of it and add some fresh thoughts for this post.

I read the phrase, Simple Sizing, somewhere in the last few years and like it. Simplicity makes the process sounds as if we have all chosen complexity before. Downsizing can sound a little draconian and too much like what businesses due when it is time to shore up the bottom line. Frugality has a tinge of religious fervor that carries with it a feeling self-denial. But, whatever word we decide to use it is not unusual for some cutbacks to occur on the path to a satisfying retirement?

Simple sizing seems a good way to summarize what one is attempting to do: make our life easier by putting our possessions and wants in balance with our needs. I don't care how disciplined you may be, life has a way of adding clutter. If that weren't true the storage business wouldn't be booming. Our garages would actually be able to hold a car instead of our stuff. Do we really need a terabyte of hard drive storage? That is enough space for over 300,000 photos. OK, so maybe Betty will eventually fill one, but even so …

There are folks who think of cutting back as being a smart steward of their money. A free movie from the library occasionally replaces the $10 ticket at the local cinema. Dinner out can be either the $5 foot long sub at Subway or a home cooked meal instead of the $30 restaurant experience. Do we really need a new wardrobe for summer?

For some others, the word takes on an almost religious tone. Spending more than is required to stay alive is to be avoided. Living space is cut to the bone. Almost all belongings are given away or sold, leaving a dresser drawer with a few changes of clothes. If possible, a car is replaced by public transportation or walking. Health insurance is dropped, in favor of self-medication and an occasional trip to the emergency room or free clinic.

This second interpretation is not what I think about when I think of simple sizing my retirement. I think of not being wasteful, not spending unnecessarily, of being economical and thrifty. How many people would not find those words something to strive for? The problem comes when each of us puts our own interpretation on those words. To somebody a 60" LED TV screen is a necessity. Buying a $60,000 car instead of the $75,000 version could be considered thrifty.

Simple sizing is in the eyes of the beholder. Living on $100,00 before retirement and $70,000 after is certainly more frugal. But, for many of us the numbers may be more like $50,000 before retirement and $25,000 after. So, how does a satisfying retirement work?

Making it work

There is no argument that it takes work and a commitment to reach the goal. It requires reassessing what you need to be happy and content. It demands that you prune those things that no longer fit within your budget. It pushes you to decide what are needs and what are wants. 

Of course, a "need" for me could be a "want" for you. I need a high speed Internet connection to be able to blog. Since blogging is my passion and what occupies several hours of a typical day, cutting out the Internet connection isn't an option. I'd give up going out to any movies again if that was the trade off my budget demands. 

For you maybe a "need" is a meal out at least once a week at a decent restaurant. Your volunteer work, or babysitting the grandkids, or part time work at the store leaves you drained by Friday. A meal out with your spouse, friends, or even alone, is something you look forward to. It is a reward to yourself for the week's efforts. That is a need for you and your budgeting decisions will reflect that.

Simple sizing may mean that you have to settle for a medical insurance policy that is designed to help you only if hit with huge bills after an emergency or major surgery. Regular doctor visits or drugs come out of your pocket. So, you do your research and find out the hospital and local Walgreens have regular free clinics for blood pressure checks or diabetes testing. Costco or Walmart will sell you a 90 day supply of the generic version of the expensive brand name prescription for $10.

Here are just a handful of examples of what simple sizing in retirement means to me:

  • Spending time with my grandkids and family. Except for gas = free
  • Watching a movie or documentary at home from either the library or Netflix. Cost is $17/month (less than one movie out for 2 people)
  • Sitting on my back porch, reading and watching birds and clouds = free
  • Cutting my cable TV bill from $90/month to $20
  • Running errands only 2 days/ week. Saves approx. $70/month in gas
  • Cutting meals out to just once every 10 days. Saves $160/month
  • Not buying new books, only used ones or going to library. Saves $50/month
  • Keeping a 10 year old car that squeaks and rattles for another few years.
  • Clipping coupons and paying attention to sales on stuff we need thus cutting our monthly food budget by about $75.
  • Only doing laundry and running dishwasher between 9 PM-9AM during the week (rates 66% lower).
  • Buying an RV and making it our vacation vehicle for the next several years..a long delayed goal that has proven to be a tremendous addition to my retirement happiness and well-being.

That last example is important in this discussion of simpler living since an RV is not inexpensive to buy or operate. For Betty and me it gives us a freedom we have been seeking. It gave us a break from our routine, allows us to step away from daily commitments and stress, and allows us to add rich memories to our marriage. At that point, it had become a need. It is an investment in ourselves.

Balancing needs, wants, and resources during retirement do work together. It requires being flexible. It means you know yourself well enough to understand what you need and what you can adjust to being without. It shouldn't mean leading a bare-bones, sterile, hand-to-mouth existence at all. It is about re-balancing, or simple sizing what you have and how you will mold it into what you need.

Share with us your efforts to simple-size.

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