Financial budgeting and planning makes a big difference for Whatcom seniors

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 14, 2014 

When it comes to managing finances, Reid Frederick knows that slaying those feelings of helplessness and fear can be as simple as putting a pencil to paper.

A social responsibility coordinator for Whatcom Educational Credit Union, Frederick finds that when he gets people to start writing down their monthly expenses and income, their first noticeable reaction is one of relief.

"When you start to write things down, you feel better because you get a sense of control again," he says. "Budgeting can be daunting when you don't know where to begin."

For retirees, the transition from having no time but a steady income to having more time and less income can be a challenging one, one that's made even tougher without a budget. Given the economic turmoil of recent years and the impact that has had on retirement funds, keeping a budget is more important than ever, but it's still not done by everyone.

"Basically, you're the outlier if you keep track of your income and expenses," Frederick says.

Living in Whatcom County can help, he says, because of support for public programs that benefit seniors.

"We are fortunate to have a well-bused system, parks and senior centers where you can find so many resources," he says.

NO SINGLE ANSWER

For people heading into retirement, figuring out monthly expenses can be tough, because it varies with each person. Bryant Engebretson of Tradewinds Capital Management in Bellingham says the most common question he gets is, what is the average amount of money needed to retire?

His answer? There is no average. He has had clients who can live on very little each month, while others prefer to spend much more.

What's important to remember about retirement is that it's less about net worth and more about cash on hand.

"People generally don't think about this until they have a panic attack in the middle of the night," Engebretson says. "Once you go through the thought process of what cash flow you have, it seems to help."

While getting organized about expenses and income helps some people get back on track, many others find themselves in the situation where their expenses outstrip their income. That's where financial literacy classes and public assistance can make a difference.

As executive director at Whatcom Love INC, an organization that mobilizes churches to support individuals and communities, Kae Unrein has noticed more financial stress for seniors, with more of them carrying mortgages and credit card debit into retirement. Many of those problems are related to broad economic struggles of the past six years, but Unrein says she has seen problems with both gradual and unexpected expenses.

"Some people are finding that they cannot retire in their 60s," she says. "It is also difficult for seniors to find jobs."

If someone finds themselves deep in debt, Frederick says keeping lines of communication open with creditors is important to finding a solution.

"Most companies want to be flexible," he says, "because they want to get paid."

At Love INC's financial classes and workshops, many seniors learn that cutting back on little things can make a big difference. Just one less trip a week to the coffee shop can add up to significant savings over a year's time.

Frederick agreed, saying that if you can find line items to cut, they can add up to hundreds of dollars in savings.

When creating a budget, cutting expenses, and adding extra revenue still doesn't make ends meet, Bellingham is a great community that can provide support, says Trudy Shuravloff, executive director at Whatcom Dream.

Whatcom Dream, which focuses on lowering the poverty rate in the area, advocates "time banking" in some of its financial classes. In time banking, people with a skill, such as cooking meals, can trade it for another person's skill - thus trading time instead of money.

Shuravloff says it's something that can work at the neighborhood level, especially if people join neighborhood associations to connect with others who can help.

"You can have a rich life on a low-income," she says, "but you need to be involved with the community."

Reach Business Editor Dave Gallagher at dave.gallagher@bellinghamherald.com or 360-715-2269. Read the Business Blog at bellinghamherald.com/business-blog or get updates on Twitter at @bhamheraldbiz.

BUDGET CHECKLIST

The National Council on Aging suggests areas for seniors to check when it comes to saving money:

Current expenses: After compiling all expenses, see if you are spending in the most cost-effective way and that you are using the things you are paying for.

Health insurance: Medicare has a variety of savings programs that can help with premiums and other costs.

Prescription drugs: For those who qualify, assistance programs can help cut costs.

Property taxes: Some taxes can be reduced for seniors who qualify.

Telephones: In many states, including Washington, individuals over a certain age can qualify for a free cell phone plan.

Volunteer community service: Many community service programs, such as Senior Corps and Senior Community Service Employment Program, offer stipends.

Use of your home: From reverse mortgages to offering rooms to rent, income can be generated for those who own a home.

Senior discounts: Many retailers offer discounts, so see what they have to offer.

Estate planning: Having a plan in place, including a will, reduces confusion and family conflicts.

Help online: A variety of public benefits are available, and the NCOA has a free online service to check on possible benefits. Details are at ncoa.org.

Reach DAVE GALLAGHER at dave.gallagher@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2269.

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