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Fewer hot showers, less meat: How retirees on fixed incomes are dealing with inflation

Rising prices are squeezing older Americans.

“Just surviving day-to-day has become a big concern of mine — because, how in the world?” said Leslie Morgan, a retired teacher, at her home in Asheville, N.C. (Jacob Biba for The Washington Post)
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Leslie Morgan is doing everything she can to save money: She quit smoking, cut back on groceries and is rationing hot showers so she can keep her water heater off for days at a time.

But it hasn’t been enough, she says. Rent, food and utilities are all becoming more expensive, making it tough for the retired teacher to make ends meet on roughly $3,000 a month in pension and Social Security payments.

“Just surviving day to day has become a big concern of mine — because, how in the world?” said Morgan, 65, who lives in Asheville, N.C. “Yes, I can afford what I’m doing right now, but I’m starting to panic. I’m starting to think, ‘How am I going to keep paying for everything?’ ”

Rising prices are squeezing household budgets around the country and putting additional strain on its 56 million residents age 65 and up, many of whom rely on fixed incomes and limited savings to cover monthly costs for prolonged and unpredictable periods. Americans in that age range are more likely to live in poverty than younger adults are, Census Bureau data shows, with wide disparities by age, race and circumstance, including whether they rely solely on Social Security or have other sources of income.

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The burden on older Americans is the latest example of how inflation — at 40-year highs — is exacerbating inequalities across the economy. Higher prices on food, gas and housing are weighing heavily on those who can least afford the increases and are creating new challenges for a population that is also most vulnerable to the novel coronavirus. Adding to the strain, millions of older Americans have given up regular incomes to retire during the coronavirus pandemic.

Inflation is causing rising prices at the gas station and grocery store. Experts explain what is causing inflation and how long it might stick around. (Video: Sarah Hashemi, Hadley Green/The Washington Post)

Half of older people who live alone are struggling to get by on less than $27,000 a year — or the bare minimum for a single renter in good health to cover expenses, according to the Elder Index, a cost-of-living measure created by the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. The steady climb of inflation during the pandemic has put further stress on retirees.

“Any small change in circumstance — rising prices, a medical emergency — can throw an older person’s budget completely out of whack,” said Jan Mutchler, the institute’s director.

Lewis Faught was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer early in the pandemic, forcing him into early retirement from his job as a bowling alley supervisor in California. He used his stimulus money to prepay for his funeral and now lives on $1,205 a month in Social Security.

“I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel,” said Faught, 59, who recently moved in with friends to save money, as prices for everything went up. “I do most of my food shopping in markdown bins and don’t buy much else.”

About 12 percent of older adults live solely on Social Security, which pays an average $1,658 per month, a $93 increase from last year, according to the Social Security Administration.

And although Social Security payments have built in cost-of-living adjustments, economists say there tends to be a three- to 12-month lag between inflation and higher payments. This year, for example, Social Security recipients received a 5.9 percent bump in their monthly checks — this based on annual inflation calculations from July to September 2021 — even though overall prices have grown 7.9 percent in the past year, according the Labor Department’s latest reading.

So, while cost-of-living increases protect older Americans against medium- and long-term effects of inflation, they do little to shield them from shorter-term price hikes, said Gary Engelhardt, an economics professor at Syracuse University whose work focuses on Social Security, pensions and aging.

“The sting of rising prices for older Americans is real,” he said. “Sudden increases in prices, like the ones we’ve experienced with gas, food and housing, will erode the purchasing power of those on fixed incomes until those benefits get adjusted.”

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In interviews with more than a dozen retirees between the ages of 58 and 85, almost all said higher prices were forcing them to skimp on basics. They reported cutting back on meat and vegetables, driving less and trading in gym memberships for Jane Fonda workout videos. Many said they were buying cheaper, shelf-stable foods such as pasta and canned beans at dollar stores, and relying on chest freezers and food sealers to store away extras. All said they were living on significantly less money than when they were working, leaving them with a smaller cushion to guard against cost increases and unexpected medical emergencies.

Only one, a former loan officer who receives Social Security and a portion of her ex-husband’s state retirement payments, said she was not struggling financially or panicking about the future.

“In spite of the fact that things have gone up in price, I’m doing just fine,” said Arlene Thomas, 72, who lives in Elon, N.C., where she recently bought a new townhouse. “I do not dine out or travel, period, under covid, so I’m actually saving more.”

Back in Asheville, Morgan said she thought she’d planned well for retirement. She’d paid off her 2013 Chevrolet Sonic and gotten rid of her credit cards before leaving a 23-year career as a fifth-grade teacher in 2018. But rising prices and continued economic uncertainty have chipped away at any financial security she thought she’d had.

In a recent moment of desperation, after her monthly electricity bill jumped 20 percent, she got rid of her front-loading dryer and replaced it with two wooden drying racks. She also started turning off the water heater after her morning shower.

“I feel like I’m going backward in time just to save $20 or $30 on my electric bill,” she said. “I take a very hot shower, but everything else — washing dishes, brushing my teeth — I do with cold water. And this time of year, it’s very cold.”

Morgan lives on a fixed income of about $35,000 a year, before taxes, roughly half of what she made when she was working. Her payments have been adjusted for inflation, she said, although the gains haven’t been enough to make up for actual costs, such as a 15 percent jump in monthly Medicare premiums that prompted her to opt out of the benefit altogether. She rarely buys meat anymore, and when she does, it’s canned chicken or a marked-down package of shrimp that she stretches into a week’s worth of stir-fry meals. Otherwise her meals are predictable: Oatmeal, eggs, pasta salad, toasted cheese sandwiches.

“I’ve become a very boring person,” she said. “Seriously, I have done everything imaginable to try to cut down every penny I can.”

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An estimated 9.5 percent of people over age 65 live below the poverty line, compared with 8.8 percent of younger adults, according to one measure by the Census Bureau. The situation, experts say, has become more dire with inflation.

Homelessness among seniors is rising rapidly and is expected to triple in the next decade, according to a recent study led by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, food banks are reporting increased demand from retirees, particularly grandparents raising grandchildren. And interest in reverse mortgages — which allow people over the age of 62 to borrow against their homes — has nearly doubled in the first two months of 2022 at GreenPath Financial Wellness, a nonprofit organization that provides financial counseling, according to chief executive Kristen Holt.

Experts also note that many pandemic-era programs, such as enhanced unemployment benefits and the expansion of the child tax credit, did little to relieve the concerns of older Americans.

“Those emergency relief measures were very effective in helping families with children but irrelevant for retirees,” said Helen Levy, a professor at the University of Michigan and associate director of the school’s Health and Retirement Study. “There isn’t an immediate mechanism to help seniors deal with real-time price increases. When inflation is rising rapidly, like it is now, people who rely on Social Security don’t have a whole lot of flexibility.”

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Edward Higuera, 74, puts $25 of gas into his 2010 Chrysler once a month and uses that half-tank to stop by three supermarkets and a local 99-cents store, where he stocks up on dry goods and packaged salads.

“I consolidate my trips so I can do them all at one time, and I never travel more than 15 miles,” said Higuera, a retired physician assistant who lives near San Diego in National City.

Higuera, who was homeless at the beginning of the pandemic, relies on government subsidies to cover his rent. He receives less than $1,000 a month in Social Security, which he uses to cover his other expenses.

“I’ve always been kind of frugal, but now it’s really important that I am,” Higuera said. “My monthly check has unfortunately been swallowed up by inflation.”

Inflation can also eat into seniors’ budgets in hidden ways. Older shoppers, for example, are less likely to purchase online, where prices tend to be more competitive. Online prices are up 3.6 percent from a year ago, according to Adobe’s digital price index, compared with a 7.9 percent jump in the overall consumer price index in the same period.

“Older people are less likely to be on the Internet, and the ones who are tend to be the highest-income seniors,” said Austan Goolsbee, an economics professor at the University of Chicago. “There is an unfortunate stratification and contribution to inequality in that way: If you’re a lower-income senior who doesn’t ever shop online, as inflation goes up, you just have to eat it.”

Alston Ingram, a retired real estate agent in Guthrie, Okla., recently changed car and home insurance providers to companies that gave him lower prices. He downsized from pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles to more fuel-efficient cars. And he has started shopping around for groceries after his local Walmart raised the price of eggs from $1.05 a dozen to $1.72, and canned Campbell’s tomato soup from $1.58 to $1.72.

“My hobby is not golf or fishing or anything like that; it’s finding the best deal,” the 71-year-old said. “Prices are rising so fast that I don’t really want to buy anything anymore.”

Jo Sunderlage, a retired paralegal in the Seattle suburbs, recently downsized to a smaller townhouse and dusted off her cookbooks from the 1970s so she could start making granola and casseroles to save money. Now that she’s living solely on Social Security, the 71-year-old says she’s had to cut back on many of the luxuries she once enjoyed, like trips to France and golfing with girlfriends.

“So many people have the vision that you retire and live the good life,” Sunderlage said. “But not so, because I’m not made of money. When you live on a fixed income, you really have to think about money because, bottom line, everything boils down to that.”

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