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Consumer Watch: Retire twice

Couple finds happiness through frugality

Jun. 23, 2011 - 03:23PM   |   Last Updated: Jun. 23, 2011 - 03:23PM  |  
(Marcia Staimer / Staff)
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Retired soldiers Hugh and Marie Tobin don't live like royalty, but they do things they enjoy without worrying about money thanks to their longtime saving and spending habits.

Hugh, 64, retired as a command sergeant major in 1991 and worked as a school bus driver until 1999, when an accident left him in using a wheelchair. Even in that job, he said, "I put money away because I could live on retirement plus a little extra."

Marie, who retired as a sergeant first class in 1993, is now 57. They live near Fort Rucker, Ala., where the cost of living is moderate. They have enough set aside that they're comfortable taking an occasional vacation and can still save money.

"We chose to retire here because we knew we could afford to live here," Marie said. "We bought a house we could afford. When you know what you're going to have when you retire, why not go the moderate route instead of being lavish?"

The Tobins' financial situation — especially retiring at a young age — is one that other military families can aspire to, but it takes planning.

Researchers note an upward trend in retirement savings among military families and that those with a financial plan have been more aggressive, doubling the median monthly savings over the past three years.

According to First Command's Financial Behaviors Index, about 41 percent of military families surveyed in March said they feel "extremely confident" or "very confident" in their ability to retire comfortably.

That compares with just 21 percent of the general population.

Surveys of military consumers ages 25 to 70 with household incomes of $50,000 or more are done twice a year. They're done monthly in the general population.

The surveys show military families are putting more money into retirement accounts as well as short- and long-term savings accounts and cutting back on spending.

About 63 percent of those surveyed plan to cut back on household spending for a year or more by lowering electric bills, shopping at discount stores, clipping coupons and spending less on holidays and travel.

"Frugal living is alive and well in America's military families," said Scott Spiker, chief executive officer of First Command Financial Services.

Middle-income consumers have changed their spending habits significantly, and this is particularly evident right now in the military, Spiker said, describing military families as "goal-oriented consumers," who are "responding to global financial turmoil by taking responsibility for their own finances."

The Tobins fit that mold. For both, saving began decades ago.

"When I was a young troop in 1973, I had a $30 allotment going to savings," Marie said. She increased that as she moved up in rank.

After she retired from the Army, Marie worked another 12 years as a tax preparer and then insurance agent to add to the couple's savings, retiring from her second career in 2005.

It hasn't always been easy — in 1989, for example, they lost everything in a flood.

During Hugh's years of advising younger troops about getting out of debt and saving money, he shared some of his primary financial building blocks:

• After you pay off a debt, the next month take that monthly payment and put half into an emergency fund and the other half back into your budget — possibly toward paying off another debt.

• When you get a raise, put half of that amount into the bank each month and half back into your household budget.

The Tobins pay cash for everything, then replenish their coffers. They paid cash for Marie's car in 2007.

"But I continue to make a car payment to a separate account to save up for the next time we need to buy a car," Hugh said.

The Tobins paid off their mortgage in 1993, but Hugh still deposits the equivalent of a mortgage payment into a savings account every month.

"You pay yourself first. This way, in case something critical comes up, you don't have to go bankrupt. If something major comes up, we know we can afford it," he said.

Paying off their mortgage going into retirement was wise, said John Gannon, senior vice president of investor education for the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.

"One of my biggest fears for baby boomers is that too many are entering retirement with a mortgage," he said. "I urge everyone, if they can afford it, to pay off their mortgage," which is generally the largest expense. And it's wise for everyone to be debt free, he said.

Making deposits to savings that are equivalent to the car and mortgage payments to replenish funds is an excellent way to gird for the future, he said.

And as for other purchases along the way, Marie said, "We pay as we go. If I can't pay for it in cash, I don't need it."

They've continued their frugal habits, using coupons and shopping at the commissary and exchange at Fort Rucker for almost everything. Marie buys her clothes on sale. They use the exchange Military Star card for gas on post because of the discount — and pay it off each month.

They also make sure they have adequate insurance coverage — life, car and home.

One thing they don't do is invest in the stock market or retirement accounts — a strategy most financial experts would disagree with. But the Tobins say it works for them.

Even with the current feeble interest rate bank deposits are paying, they're still ahead of where they were when Hugh retired in 1991. Because of careful spending and saving habits, their savings account has grown by about 60 percent, he said.

Given the Tobins' frugality, putting some money into retirement accounts would have been advisable, Gannon said, because the money could have grown tax-free until they pulled it out in retirement, rather than being taxed each year.

Certificates of deposit and other conservative investments can work as retirement accounts, Gannon noted.

With the volatility of the stock market, more people, including military families, are learning the importance of changing the allocation of their funds as they approach retirement to more conservative investments to protect their principle, Gannon said.

The Tobins are certainly optimistic about their future, which will include more frugal spending, more traveling and more time with their beloved pets.

And more saving.

"Because of our spending habits and our savings habits, we're able to enjoy life," Marie said.

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