Never Stops Raining

Richard Quinn

SELLING A HOUSE should be easy. Hire a realtor, find a buyer, the realtor takes a percentage and it’s a done deal. If only.

Try this version instead. Before we could sell our house in 2020, we had to fix a list of defects, including power washing the roof, having a dead tree removed, digging up an already drained oil tank and tearing up the pavers in the driveway to get at the tank. I bet you wouldn’t have planned for those expenses. I sure didn’t, but they set me back around $13,000.

Shortly afterward, my wife’s car—for which she had great affection—developed electrical problems. No mechanic or dealer wanted to tackle the work, not even for the estimated payment of $10,000. The solution was obvious. Buy a new car.

What do these expenses have in common? They were all unplanned and they all happened to a retiree—me. It never ends.

My water heater just died. It was 12 years old and cost $10,000 to replace, in part because it’s in a closet and hence difficult to work on. Earlier this year, I had to replace the ignition coils on my car at 100,000 miles. I also had the parking brake repaired during the car’s routine annual service. It all came to around $3,000. What’s next?

My air-conditioning unit has been repaired twice for leaks in the past two years. Many of my condo neighbors have already replaced theirs and they’re all the same age, so the unit is living on borrowed time. Last year, I got an estimate that a replacement would cost around $15,000. Im waiting for a new one—an estimate, that is.

I seem to recall reading—or maybe even writing—that living in a condo saves you money on maintenance costs. I take it all back. The homeowners’ association fee is going up again, too.

Have I made the case for setting aside a pile of money for retirement’s rainy-day events? As you and everything you own gets older, the risk of the unexpected just gets worse. Keep in mind that financial emergencies have no respect. A water heater doesn’t care how much income you have or how old you happen to be.

I retired in January 2010. I live on my pension and Social Security. That income adequately covers my basic expenses, with some money left over for discretionary spending, but there it ends. I need to rely on savings for life’s emergencies.

According to a Bankrate survey, 36% of adults have more in credit card debt than emergency savings. Only 43% would pay a large emergency expense from savings. Should we assume retirees are in better shape than their working brethren?

Nobody saves in retirement, I’m told, because it’s time to spend. Good luck with that. If your retirement income doesn’t have room for savings—meaning some excess so you can keep refilling your emergency fund—then I’d say you aren’t ready to retire.

Can’t save in retirement? Consider one person’s comment from my blog: “Im able to save $1,000 per month out of my retirement income of $3,601. Social Security and U.S. Air Force inflation-adjusted retirement income have allowed me to save for the first time in my life. Never had a nest egg or emergency fund until age 65.” To top it off, this commenter lives in Montana, where the cost of living is higher than average. He’s sure got the right idea.

To my surprise, it turns out I’m not alone in thinking a rainy-day fund is necessary during retirement. One source says retirees may need three-to-six months’ worth of expenses in reserve. If your income significantly exceeds your spending needs, you may be the exception. But to pay for an emergency, I’d rather not sell investments or spend dividends that are designated for reinvestment. Above all, I don’t want to carry a credit card balance—although I’m happy to get the reward points when I do charge. I just pay the card off in full each month.

I used to maintain at least $25,000 in emergency funds. After my recent unexpected expenses, however, I now think that sum is insufficient. After all, the water heater replacement has run down the fund. Replacing the air-conditioning unit may wipe it out entirely.

Begin retirement with an emergency fund in place, and plan your retirement spending to include monthly contributions to it. Somewhere down the line, that fund will come in handy—and lower your stress level.

Richard Quinn blogs at Before retiring in 2010, Dick was a compensation and benefits executive. Follow him on Twitter @QuinnsComments and check out his earlier articles.

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