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Retirement Poverty

Q. As a 65 year-old retiree in poor health I am going to have to live on less than $14,000 per year during my retirement. Many of my friends face the same predicament. How can I survive on this? As a Christian how do I trust God for provisions when I can't even afford health insurance let alone basics such as food, medicine, transportation or a home?


Millions of baby boomers (many of us "ex-hippies") are in your predicament. Some are in even worse shape because they have so much debt and have lost their homes and jobs. For many it's too late to make-up for lost time and save enough to live on throughout retirement years. Regardless of health issues they will have to work until they die - assuming they can find work.

There is another solution - but we will build a foundation for understanding it first.

Average Retirement Savings

Here are some alarming stats. Something like 28% of those over age 55 have less than $10,000 in savings. Another 31% have less than $75,000 - $90,000 saved for a thirty year retirement period. If we calculate that one can only safely withdraw 4% of savings yearly to make their savings last for 25-30 years (assuming about a 5-6% growth rate) it's a dismal picture. Only 23% of current retirees have saved $250,000 or more. That's less than one-fourth of all retirees (Armstrong 2009, 15).

Social Security Income

Most will live on Social Security checks paying from $400 to $1500 monthly. In fact, according to SSA their monthly benefits make-up 90 percent of income for four out of every ten unmarried retirees and two of every ten married couples. The average payout is $1082 monthly - and that's before the Medicare part B payment of $96.40 monthly (Burns 2009, 1)

Savings for $20,000 Yearly Income

To understand why this is so alarming, consider that a retiree would need at least $1 million in assets to safely withdraw 4% yearly - or $40,000 per year. A retirement income of just $20,000 yearly would require $500,000 in savings - nothing to sneeze at! This is shocking - who can retire with numbers like these?

But, Don't Panic

Okay, so what should we do when faced with these uncomfortable facts? I don't think Christians should panic. Jesus said, "And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life?" (Matthew 6:27).

Keep Priorities Straight

Then Jesus went on to say, "Do not worry then, saying 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear for clothing?' For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things - for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you" (Matthew 6:31-33, NASB).

Change Rules&Reject Ideals

Instead of panicking over inadequate savings and the cost of retirement, we need to study our Bibles and begin to change the rules - get rid of misconceptions we have learned all of our lives. These include maxims such as:

Have it your way.

I need my own space.

You deserve the best.

Owning a home is the American dream.

Give yourself a break.

You need a vacation every year.

Capitalism, Private Property or Shared Realities?

I'm afraid we have been sold a bunch of lies and distortions in our culture. Even today we hear some Christian financial advisors state that early Judaism and Christianity thrived on "capitalism" and private property "rights." Yet, this isn't really so - not completely.

Capitalism Biblical?

Biblical standards for economic transactions and property ownership in ancient times are not necessarily equivalent to modern day capitalism or free enterprise as we define it today. In fact, capitalism as a system in 2009, for example, is completely different from capitalism even just fifty years ago. So we reject that capitalism as we experience it in 2009 is necessarily a "Biblical" concept.

For example in early Judaism no one completely owned their own properties. In a sense, the Lord "leased" land to His people for them to sow and harvest crops and to use for survival purposes. After 50 years the land was returned to the original tribal owners and all debts were cancelled.

Does this sound like modern day private-property rights and capitalism to you?

Year of Jubilee

In Leviticus 25:8-17 the Life Application Study Bible notes explain, "The Year of Jubilee was meant to be celebrated every 50 years. It included canceling all debts, freeing all slaves, and returning to its original owners all land that had been sold"

Continuing, the explanatory notes for chapter 25:23 teach that "The people would one day possess land in Canaan, but in God's plan, only God's ownership was absolute. He wanted his people to avoid greed and materialism. If you have the attitude that you are taking care of the Lord's property, you will make what you have more available to others. This is difficult to do if you have an attitude of ownership. Think of yourself as a manager of all that is under your care, not as an owner" (Life Application Study Bible 2004, 257-258).

Who Really Owns It?

In other words, Christians or Jews really own nothing! Nothing belongs exclusively to you or me in God's economy. Nothing. God owns all the silver and gold (Haggai 2:8) and everything else in the world that we usually think belongs to us. Obviously we do live in American and we do work and do business here, and we are to excel in all endeavors, but…

"The heavens are Yours, [God's]
the earth also is Yours.
The world and all it
contains, You have
founded them."

(Psalm 89:11)

Stewards - not Owners

We need to reassess our attitudes about our right to own things and recognize that we are just "stewards" or managers of God's resources - not the true owners. This is why we find so many parables having to do with proper management of the Master's riches or belongings. We are here to manage those things the Lord gave us. We have a temporary stewardship of His resources. We "own" nothing of our own - not even our very lives.

This is quite a shift in meaning from what we expect today. Most of us expect to own our own homes, have luxury furnishings, granite countertops in our kitchens, and drive snazzy cars. We want our personal meal selections, our own T.V. and cable service, cell phone, and an individual car. If you own a yacht you did well. Good for you! If you own a McMansion and take a yearly trip to Hawaii, then you are successful and living the "good life." We believe we worked for it so we deserve it - all of it.

Yet, do you really own all those things in the first place? Just try not paying your property taxes for one year! Ditto for the car. That act alone will demonstrate who really owns the house or the car. The same is true for many of our other so-called "belongings."

First-century Communal Sharing

In the first and early second-century new believers traveled to Jerusalem and found themselves in need of shelter, food and supplies. Additionally, some new believers were thrown out of their homes and were forced to live on their own. Some Jewish families considered Christianity a cult and wanted nothing to do with it. In many cases the situation Christian converts faced reached desperation levels. They had nothing left.

In light of this we find in the book of Acts that new converts "who had believed were together and had all things in common. And they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need" (Acts 2:44-45).

That's communal sharing, folks.

Communal Sharing Today?

This is a verse we may appropriately apply to many Christian retirees today. We are reaching desperation and poverty levels unheard of in modern America. So as Christians, we might want to embrace communal sharing and give up our "rights" to have or to own much of anything - once again - just like in the early church. Besides,it is much cheaper than living alone.

Economies of Shared Living

Although written from a secular point-of-view, financial advisor Scott Burns says, "The productive social alternative is sharing. Economists call it 'economies of shared living.' Most of us think about it in regard to marriage. While two people can't live for the price of one, the cost of living doesn't double when you get married. Divorce, on the other hand, involves returning to the dis-economies of non-shared living. That's why one spouse, or both, suffers a lower standard of living after divorce" (Burns 2009, 1).

Sharing with One

Burns goes on to suggest that a woman with a 1,400 square-foot doublewide, for example, share the costs with other roommates. If there are three bedrooms three or more people can share rent, food costs, utilities, the use of one or two cars, and so forth. He says, "Do that and the single person living alone goes from a deficit of about $400 a month to a surplus of $200 a month - just by sharing with one person."

Sharing with Four

"Build the community to four people and each will have a monthly cash surplus of $450 a month." …"These four retirees would have group income of $48,000 a year, on which they pay no taxes. While their individual income was at the poverty level, their collective income is about the median pre-tax income of all American households — $48,201 in 2006 (Burns 2009, 2).

Burns concludes, "Some readers will say that making such arrangements isn't that easy. They'd be right. But sharing offers a major 'return' for being creative and flexible. Cooperation is a wonderful but generally overlooked substitute for money."

The Waltons, Frasier&Golden Girls

Friends, we're Christians. We can do this, can't we? The secular hit-series Frasier and Golden Girls were built on a premise of shared living. The Waltons provide us with a model of generational families living together and surviving during the Great Depression era.

So surely we can learn how to share the expenses of everyday living with other believers whom we have perhaps "hand-picked" from our circle of church friends. Can't we? Maybe we can let our needs be known to the pastor and church elders for assistance in finding good roommates.

- The Apostle James says if we see a brother or sister in need we should provide for that need (James 2:15-16).

- Paul informs Timothy that families should take care of their own (1 Timothy 5:8).

- We need to learn to be more content with basics like food and covering (6:8).

- If we're rich then we should be prepared to share with those less fortunate (6:17).

This is a biblical way of living, a standard we should have met long ago.

Form a New Family

So in these trying times American Christians can learn to change our entitlement-attitudes and, like the early church, become families to one another as we share in the bounties the Lord has leased to us during our short lives.

There is hope for poverty-striken seniors. Yes, we can make do by learning to share with one another. "So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God…" (Ephesians 2:19, ESV).



Armstrong, Frank and Paul Brown. 2009. Save your retirement. New Jersey: FT Press.

Burns, Scott. 2009. How to survive on $15,000 a year. Available from: http://assetbuilder.com/blogs/scott_burns/archive/print/2008/05/16/how-to-survive-on-15-000-a-ye… (accessed on 9/8/2009).

Life Application Study Bible, New Living Translation. 2004. Carol Stream, ILL: Tyndale.

Author Valorie Emilio holds an M.A. in History from UCLA and a VOM Certificate in Persecuted Church Ministries from Oklahoma Wesleyan University.

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