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No Surprises 

Poor? Move to some plastic hellhole, or manage things with these simple tips

Yet another issue of Money magazine arrived at my house (my dad means well). Once again, the fact that I am not their target demographic couldn't be more obvious. The cover story is "4 Steps to a Great Retirement." Without opening the magazine, I'll try to think of how they'll advise me to get from where I am now -- no savings, no investments, no material assets -- to a place where I can stop working at age 65 and have enough money to live, maybe travel on, bother to write a will for. Here goes: 1. Make way more money; 2. Invest wisely; 3. Save; 4. Expect to move to one of "The Top Retirement Communities in the U.S.!"

I was close. Mostly the advice revolves around the stock market and Social Security. Do you get those Social Security info sheets in the mail, the ones that tell how much your kids will get if you drop dead right now? Can't say my kids would land a windfall, but it might beat taking care of me in my old age. I'm pretty sure my (and their) best bet lies in a two-step retirement plan that goes something like this: 1. Work; 2. Die.

Morbid? Maybe. But it beats moving to Pinehurst, N.C. ("home of one of the country's most prestigious golf courses"). Or Surprise, Ariz. (where "nearly 20 percent of residents live in Sun City Grand, a resort-like retirement community that offers realms of activities").

While Surprise, Ariz. sounds like the makings of a great TV series, I hope to stick it out in Humboldt, even if my dad does equate living here with "taking a vow of poverty." (I'm pretty sure he would also disapprove of the one guaranteed way to make money around these parts.) After all, while my portfolio is empty, my days overflow with rewards that far outweigh a bump in the Dow Jones. Isn't that why we chose to live in this place where the salt air clears the head and the redwood sentinels keep SoCal at bay? I have friends who've moved away for cheaper housing, better jobs. While I understand the practicality of such moves, I cannot let go my love of this place any more than I can cease being my children's mother. Here, I can breathe. It's just sometimes, the money thing makes me hyperventilate.

So what's a person to do when she finds herself middle-aged, but not necessarily middle-class? Where's the steps to retirement, Humboldt-style? (Yes, I know that path exists, but that's a column for another time.)

When one's worth has skewed into the negative, imagining being financially whole is daydreaming about winning the lottery. I know I should be looking ahead -- we all should take the long view in our decision-making -- but I'm having enough trouble just shaking the past. Specifically, debt.

Smart advice from all sources: Avoid it or get out of it. My advice: Prioritize. Don't worry too much about the credit cards. So your credit'll go bad. So what? One of the pluses of bad credit is, no one will give you a loan, so your credit card debt won't increase. Ha! Take that, all you balance-carrying, high-FICO score suckers! Another happy side effect is that once your credit is shot, it doesn't matter if you wind up unable to pay. What are they going to do? "This will affect your credit score, ma'am," the voice on the line intones. "What else you got?" I answer. "Bring it on." Please note -- and this is extremely important -- I speak only of credit card companies and collection agencies, aka "predators." As prey, you must do what you can to defend yourself.

But when the money is owed to, God forbid, friends or family, you must pay it back and pay it back quickly and/or regularly. Same with local businesses -- I'm wincing as I type, thinking of the couple outstanding bills I still have. Because we all live here. We're in it together. You don't want to find yourself avoiding a checkout line at Wildberries because you're hoping your mechanic won't see you.

Student loans? Bane of my existence. Yes, the government enabled me to go to college -- rent would've gone unpaid without the loans -- but the accumulated debt exceeds any yearly salary I've had at any job since. Very depressing. If they're calling, remember, these folks can garnish your wages. Talk to them. Fill out the 15 dozen forms they need to defer or reduce your payments. These you cannot escape, so arm yourself with knowledge and deal with those loans head on. Medical bills? That's the killer, isn't it? I'm still paying off ER visits (aka "health care for the uninsured"). This one I don't have a solution for -- pray for a public option?

And then, win the lottery. Or hope your earthly exit predates your forced retirement. Or continue doing the best you can while focusing on family, friends and this amazing place we share. Maybe it'll all work out.

Last month, I invited readers to share spendthrift ideas. Gail Slaughter wrote in with the following:

"If I were to give advice to the average person who has too much month at the end of the money, the number one thing I'd say is to eat out only as an occasional social outing. People who claim it's just as cheap to eat at a restaurant as at home are full of, well, expensive vittles ... Also, I'd suggest, mainly to women, check out thrift stores for your clothes, especially jeans, which are not only very cheap but guaranteed to be preshrunk. Plus this is fun and you have little guilt."

Ann Bayer offered advice on keeping the I'm-so-tired-and-can't-stand-to-cook-tonight-pizza fund going: "Regarding what to do when you end up buying pizza when you hadn't budgeted for it -- I suppose you know that trick of saving all of your change in a jar, then every few months spending it on some little luxury? Or putting 10 dollars a week away and forgetting about it for a few months? Then when you can't bear to cook sometime, you'll have this 'found' little extra. My problem with that, when my kids were younger, was they'd get invited to one or two too many birthday parties one month, and my little fun emergency fund would get wiped out. I heard something funny that made me sad recently: 'Yeah, the best things in life are free, and all of them cost money.'"

Have other ideas? Need to rant? The inbox is always open.

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Jennifer Savage

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