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'I'm Just Going To Keep Working': One American's Story Navigating A Broken Retirement System

In this June 15, 2018, photo a canning jar filled with currency sits on a shelf in East Derry, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
In this June 15, 2018, photo a canning jar filled with currency sits on a shelf in East Derry, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

This diary is part of our hour on solutions for the retirement savings gap. Listen here

Tens of millions of Americans struggle to save for retirement, for all sorts of reasons.

MEGHNA: And in order to save for a comfortable retirement, ideally beyond Social Security, the system as we have it now works best when you start saving early, so that you can take advantage of the magic of compounding interest. And then continue to save throughout your entire working life. But as you’re about to hear in this story, those two things do not always go together.

LISA GRANFIELD: When I was younger, I never thought I needed to think about retirement.

MEGHNA: This is Lisa Granfield. She lives in Walpole, Maine.

LISA: My father actually passed away when I was young, and I’ve always basically been on my own supporting myself. And just never really had that extra money, anybody to even advise me. I think that that was one of the things that he would have taught me about.

MEGHNA: Lisa was 19 when her father died. She dropped out of nursing school. But a decade later, she went back to school and has been in nursing ever since. Almost 30 years, though not consistently. Now, at age 58, Lisa works part-time at an assisted living facility.

LISA: And I’m so grateful that I have the job I have. I’m only able to work part time at this point and I try to pick up extra time. But I have some health issues that I’ve developed over the years. So I’ve had, you know, periods of unemployment, you know, surgeries. But the work is really physically demanding. I’m at a point where I’m having trouble meeting those physical demands.

MEGHNA: But for now, she still does her shifts and shows up for her patients, which earns her about $2,400 a month. It doesn’t last long.

LISA: Usually my debits are more than my credits. I have a little bit of a savings and I kind of like switch it back and forth to cover things. There’s the mortgage, the car payment, electricity, phone, computer. Food is outrageous.

MEGHNA: Lisa is single, and even though she’s a homeowner, she’s got years to go on her mortgage and has already had to rely on family to help hang on to her home.

LISA: I would have lost this house if not for my sister helping me and my brother helping me. And so I’m trying to figure everything out. And it literally keeps me awake at night thinking about, you know, what would happen if I lost my job.

MEGHNA: And as she lays awake at night, Lisa told me her mind obsesses over the litany of unforgiving options people face when they don’t have retirement security. Should she refinance her home? Will she even qualify for a new loan? Would it give her enough to live on if she loses her job? She’d be taking equity out, but it’ll give her cash for repairs if she has to sell. Would there be enough money left over to make rent on a new place?

LISA: I feel hopeful.

MEGHNA: Hopeful for what?

LISA: Hopeful that I’m going to make it.

MEGHNA: But what does that mean?

LISA: That I’m just going to keep working and trying to improve my situation. You know, who knows, I mean, maybe I will win the lottery.

MEGHNA: Lisa is anxious about her future, even though she does have some retirement savings. Years ago, she started a small Roth IRA, the health care company she works for now offers a retirement plan where she contributes 3% of her pay. So what has all that amounted to?

LISA: I can honestly say that I have probably less than $30,000, and I’m 58. I think I probably should be contributing more, but I’m one catastrophic event away from, you know, losing everything I’ve worked for.

MEGHNA: I keep coming back to this part of our conversation. You hear how much Lisa is wrestling with herself, and she did that almost the entire time we talked. Every time she talked about her financial fears, she’d catch herself.

LISA: You know, I feel fortunate in so many ways.

MEGHNA: Even as she talked about the real struggle to pay bills.

LISA: You know, I’m really not that bad off.

MEGHNA: As she talked about her health challenges.

LISA: There are so many people out in the world who are really struggling.

MEGHNA: Or when she put a brave face on what would happen if she had to stop working.

LISA: My life is good. It’s a beautiful day in Maine.

MEGHNA: Through it all, she kept chiding herself. That somehow it was her fault for not finding a way to save more for her retirement.

LISA: I think, oh, my. How could I have been so stupid, really. You know, I mean.

MEGHNA: The system is designed to make people feel bad about themselves. That’s how Monique Morrissey, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, described it to CNBC. And consider what that system is.

Almost 30% of Americans nearing retirement age have no access to a pension or employer retirement plan. 76% of all Americans fear they will not achieve a secure retirement. Everyone privately thinks that they’re screwing up, Morrissey added, and yet if everyone is screwing up, then it’s clearly a system flaw.

MEGHNA: Nurse Lisa Granfield is living in and trying to navigate that system. So I asked her, how long does she think she’ll have to do it? How long will she have to work?

LISA: You know, barring that, I’m disabled or mentally incapacitated, somehow, I’m just going to work as long as I can. I keep saying … I’m just going to, like, go from being a nurse there to being a patient. That’s what I tell the girls I work with. And we have some nurses at my facility that are 72 or 73 years old and they’re still coming in and taking shifts. God bless them.

In this diary … we hear from:

Lisa Granfield, of Walpole, Maine.

She’s one of the many Americans that we featured in our hour-long discussion about an innovative plan to help close the retirement gap. Listen to that discussion here.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.