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The Bag Lady Syndrome

Updated: May 3, 2013 12:14PM



Originally published: May 1, 2006

It’s a fear that lurks in the back of every woman’s mind -- the fear of being a bag lady.

We don’t have to see an older woman pushing a shopping cart that contains all her belongings to summon up the worry about being older, alone and without enough money to stay in control of our own life.

Women worry with good reason. Women outlive men. At age 60, a man has a life expectancy of 18.9 years.

But a woman at age 60 now has a life expectancy of 23.1 years. Those four extra years of life will be expensive. And they’ll come when you might have the least ability to make good decisions.

That’s why it’s important to start planning while you’re in good health and time is on your side. Here’s what women must do as they approach retirement.

Do a reality check

Go to www.livingto100.com. Answer the questions about your eating and exercising habits, as well as genetic factors like your parents’ longevity. You’ll even be asked whether you floss your teeth every day! Then with a click of your mouse, this calculator will predict how long you’ll probably live -- and give you some advice for living longer. That’s a great place to start your reality check.

Get a good adviser (or two)

You need a professional adviser you can trust. Or perhaps you need a team of advisers to check and balance each other. Search for a planner at www.feeonly.org -- a site for financial planners who do not sell products to earn a commission.

You’ll also need an attorney who specializes in estate planning or elder law to create a will and revocable living trust, as well as a health care power of attorney and living will. (Search www.NAELA.org and www.ElderLawAnswers.com for qualified attorneys in your state.) Also, ask your own trusted tax preparer or accountant to review these decisions.

Ask questions. And don’t fear getting different answers from your experts. We never fear asking two friends about whether a dress or shoes look good on us. It’s really the same process with personal finances. So start asking questions about any advice you don’t understand and trust your own good judgment as well as your advisers.

Insurance, tax issues

I’m continually astounded and impressed that seniors can understand all the rules and regulations of Social Security and Medicare. It’s worth spending some time at www.SocialSecurity.gov and www.Medicare.gov to learn about the system.

You should automatically receive information about Medicare enrollment about 90 days before your 65th birthday -- even if your full retirement age for Social Security is not until some months later.

You’ll also need a Medicare supplement program to cover expenses that Medicare doesn’t pay for in full. Search for those at www.AARP.org or at www.Medicare.gov. Sign up for a supplement within the first six months of becoming eligible, so you can’t be turned down for the best and most inclusive Medigap supplement.

At the same time, sign up for Medicare Part D, the prescription drug program, which you’ll need unless you’re covered by a retiree prescription plan. Sign up immediately, even if you’re not currently taking expensive prescriptions, using the “plan finder” tool at www.Medicare.gov. Doing so will help you avoid expensive monthly penalties later.

Just because you’ve retired from full-time work doesn’t mean you’ve retired from the income tax system. Check with your accountant to see whether you must file quarterly estimated tax forms and make deposits to cover taxes owed on your retirement income, and possibly on your Social Security income. And don’t forget to check with retirement plan custodians for minimum withdrawal requirements which start at age 70.5.

Finally, consider long term care insurance because you don’t want to be at the mercy of state Medicaid programs, which only provide services in nursing homes. LTC insurance gives you the choice of home health care or assisted living if you need it, as well as providing a care coordinator who can help you make decisions.

Planning for retirement is scary -- especially for a woman who expects to live out her final years alone. The only thing scarier than planning is the consequences of not planning while you can. And that’s The Savage Truth.

Terry Savage is a registered investment adviser. Check out Terry’s answers to reader questions at suntimes.com, and click on Business. Distributed by Creators Syndicate.



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