I retired at 50, went again to work at 53, after which a medical difficulty left me jobless: ‘There’s no such factor as a secure quantity of [retirement] cash’

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I had always said that I would retire at 50. I had been working and saving since I was 16. Retiring without Medicare and Social Security is a scary thing. I retired and then went back to work. At 53, I took a part-time job with a decent pay for the hours, but I was sooooo bored. And then life rang for me.

I had major medical problems. So big that when I got back to work they let me go because they felt I couldn’t keep up with the work flow. They were probably right. No one else was comfortable enough with my health issues to hire me. I applied for a severely handicapped pass, but it was rejected. I appealed and received my denial of appeal while in intensive care. I appealed again and was rejected because they felt nothing had changed about my original application.

I suppose you can imagine how much my savings are now. I took early retirement with the penalty because I needed income. $4,000 a month wouldn’t have affected my prescriptions.

Everyone needs to know that there is no safe amount of money to save for retirement. Life happens and in the blink of an eye your whole life and everything you’ve worked for can be gone.

See: I am 68, my husband is terminally ill and his $3 million estate goes to his son. I want to spend the rest of my days traveling – will I have enough money?

Dear Reader,

I normally only provide letters with questions for this column, but your comment was just so important to other readers that I had to respond – and let others see what you shared.

I am very sorry that you experienced this. There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to retire early — so many people want to do so, especially after decades of work. But without proper planning, it could lead to despair, especially when an emergency arises.

“Early retirement is a dream for many people,” said Landon Tan, a board-certified financial planner. “But those years when you haven’t worked reduce your chance of a successful retirement more than almost any other metric we toggle when creating financial plans.”

Retiring early means you have more years to cover financially, and that takes money — lots of it. If you’re planning to retire early, those extra years need to be factored in — at the peak of retirement, but also at the end if you live longer than expected.

“Today’s retirees expect their accumulated wealth to work for them 10 to 20 years longer than it used to,” said Glenn Downing, board-certified financial planner and founder of CameronDowning. “Centenarians are no longer uncommon. For this to happen successfully, there needs to be more assets – it’s as simple as that.” Everyone should be prepared to live longer than expected lest their money outlast them, which can feel daunting.

Those missing years can also impact your Social Security benefits, which so many older Americans depend on for most of their retirement income. People retiring early should have a clear picture of what they can expect from Social Security in the future and how their plans may affect those expectations.

Retiring from work may also mean losing participation in group health insurance, and I think it’s safe to say that the pandemic has shown how important health insurance can be in tough times.

You’re absolutely right: Retiring before Medicare is scary. Health care is expensive even without an emergency. Not everyone considers these costs when dreaming of retiring in their 50s, but if they don’t have proper insurance in place when they retire, they could quickly eat up their retirement budget — or put themselves in a very dangerous position. Those years can feel long when Medicare eligibility doesn’t begin until age 65 for most Americans. And it also doesn’t account for long-term care, which is a whole other expense. Think of nursing homes, home health care and the necessary medical equipment for daily activities.

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Knowing how much is enough to have saved for retirement is very difficult. There is no one “safe” bet before retirement, but there are a few guidelines you can follow to find security in old age.

Part of this equation depends on personal circumstances: how much you typically spent in your pre-retirement life, how much you expect to spend in retirement, various financial factors such as taxes and housing and utility costs, and so on. And as you’ve learned – and to be a thoughtful reminder to others – major unexpected emergencies can absolutely derail any form of financial security.

Another factor is what will be available to you as you age. I’ll come back to this in a moment in hopes it may help you or others in similar situations.

Retirees tend to focus on short-term changes, which can leave them unprepared for the future, a recent survey found. According to a study by the Society of Actuaries, many retirees just deal with these emergencies as they come. The organization found that more than seven in 10 retirees have thought about how their lives will change in the coming decades, but only 27% feel financially prepared.

More than half of the retirees in the survey said they couldn’t afford more than $25,000 for an unexpected emergency without jeopardizing their retirement security. More than half of blacks and Hispanics surveyed said they could not afford to spend $10,000 on a financial shock.

“The world around you can change very quickly and you need to be prepared for and deal with change,” said Anna Rappaport, an actuary and fellow at the Society of Actuaries. Americans haven’t often planned for the shocks that life before the pandemic might bring, and that hasn’t necessarily changed since then, she said. “The tremors were there before and the landscape has changed just a little bit.”

Check out the MarketWatch column “Retirement Hacks” for actionable advice for your own retirement savings journey

But you are not alone. Many people have had difficult times before and during retirement, pandemic or not. You may have exhausted all options, but this one retiree shared the steps he took after losing his job at 58. He looked for another job for 18 months before taking one with a 40% pay cut and had to live a much slimmer lifestyle before officially retiring at the age of 64. This lifestyle included taking in a roommate, buying some household items at the dollar store, and extreme meal planning. Here’s what he says now about his retirement.

If your health allows, could you take a part-time job or find ways to make money while working from home? Or could you possibly downsize your location or take on a roommate?

I know you haven’t asked for any suggestions and I’m sure you’re already doing as much as you can to live comfortably, but there are many resources to consider if you haven’t already to have.

Have you found out about state benefits such as subsidies for housing, heating or food costs? There are many federal and state programs for seniors in need of financial assistance – not just supplemental insurance and Medicaid, although these are of course the most popular.

AARP has created a list of resources broken down by state and has its own services such as: GoFundMe also has a list of financial assistance for older Americans. It includes options for housing, nutrition, medication and re-entry into the labor market. States, and sometimes even individual cities, have departments and offices dedicated to aging issues that you may also want to call. There is help out there, although it may not feel easy to find.

I wish you the best.

Reader: Do you have any suggestions for this reader? Add them in the comments below.

Do you have questions about your own retirement provision? Email us at HelpMeRetire@marketwatch.com

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