Last week, my colleague Barbara Whelehan wrote about her 70-year-old friend who has suffered mental and financial hardships and is struggling to find her footing and create a retirement scenario that works for her.
Barbara's friend lives in Florida and so does my 64-year-old mentally handicapped sister-in-law. My husband and I do what we can to make sure his sister lives reasonably comfortably on her modest income, so I'm familiar with what government and social services have to offer in that part of the country.
Both Barbara's friend and my sister-in-law live on gross incomes of about $900 a month, which is $10,860 a year -- slightly below the federal poverty level, $11,170, for one person. Staying below the poverty level is important because earning more jeopardizes their eligibility for several state and federal poverty programs, including extra help with paying Medicare, which otherwise would be a big expense.
Note that there is no standard of eligibility. Some programs use a gross number, and others rely on a net number -- you can subtract out housing costs, for instance. But the federal poverty level, which is indexed to the cost of living, is always the base number.
Both Barbara's friend and my sister-in-law are eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which used to be known as food stamps. You can test for your own eligibility or that of others on the U.S. Department of Agriculture website, USDA.gov. My sister-in-law gets about $200 a month from SNAP, and I suspect Barbara's friend would as well if she were to apply.
The only catch is that a recipient can't have more than about $2,500 in savings. A kind state employee alerted my sister-in-law to that limit, and she found a way around the problem by spending the excess on food and paper products with a long shelf life.
Florida doesn't have much in the way of low-cost senior apartments like Michigan has. There's one near me where one-bedroom units rent for $350 a month, including utilities. So my Florida sister-in-law is a homeowner. She recently purchased a 37-year-old trailer in surprisingly good shape for $1,000 with the small amount of money her mother left her. We helped her paint, buy appliances and seal the roof so it won't leak.
It's in a well-maintained, safe mobile home park where the monthly lot rent is $400. That fee includes everything but electricity, which on a hot month can be nearly $100 because of air conditioning. The park has a clubhouse, swimming pool, shuffleboard courts and an active member association that looks out for people like my sister-in-law.
Unlike Barbara's friend, my sister-in-law doesn't drive, so she doesn't have that expense. The park is within a block or two of a couple of grocery stores, some fast-food restaurants and pizza places, a Salvation Army retail store, and a hardware store. That means my sister-in-law can shop for almost everything she needs. She's also close to the clinic that provides her health care until next fall, when she turns 65 and is eligible for Medicare. A free senior bus provides transportation.
Her remaining expenses are a cellphone for $50 a month and a fairly basic cable TV plan for $70.
Her basic bills add up to $620. That leaves her with $280 a month to cover her remaining costs, including some taxes on the phone and cable, things like soap, paper towels and toilet paper that aren't covered by food stamps, and an occasional dinner at the all-you-can eat buffet restaurant.
It's not a glamorous life, but my sister-in-law has known times that were much harder.
I think with a little help, Barbara's friend could figure out her own situation as well. As for the rest of us, if we do smart retirement planning, we should be able to afford something better.