Living the Good Life


In last week’s comments to my post about college vs retirement, one commenter couldn’t seem to decide whether we were rich, hiding our wealth in retirement funds so we would appear “poor” in order to qualify for federal financial aid for our daughters, or whether we were actually poor, living “on the dole” and struggling through each month, doomed to a life of poverty.

We definitely are not wealthy, and there is no fortune hidden away or waiting in the wings. We don’t own property. We’ve never received an inheritance other than the few thousand dollars I received over 20 years ago from my dad’s life insurance policy, which we used to pay the closing costs on our first home. The small amount of money that’s sitting in our IRAs now is only there because both Brett and I had small 401(k)s that we rolled over when we retired. And, when I say small I mean small. We spent our earlier savings bringing our girls home, and never earned enough after we adopted them, even when we were both working, to put much of anything aside but the minimum.

So, maybe we are poor.

I sure don’t feel poor though. We have a more-than-sufficient monthly income from Brett’s military retirement, Social Security, and the pensions we each receive. Put together, and with no FICA or other employment taxes coming out; no health insurance premiums thanks to Tricare eligibility; and no Hawai’i state tax liability, our monthly income is enough that we have a nice amount every month for groceries, and we can easily cover our rent, as well as gasoline, cable, phones, insurance, and other monthly expenses including my never-ending student loan payment, our only debt. We are able to put a little aside every month for travel and to pay for the seemingly non-stop expenses of two girls in high school (I just finished ordering graduation robes and regalia, and coming right behind is the cross country banquet for two, two new custom swimsuits and swim caps for the swim team, and grad night fees). We will be able to pay the fees for WenYu’s college applications (at $60 each). We bought plane tickets for Meiling to come home at Christmas, and Brett’s ticket to the mainland on our credit card for the cash back rewards, and then paid it off immediately. I can occasionally splurge on things like a spa day with a friend, and we go out to eat now and again. We maintain an emergency fund. There’s money in the checking account at the end of each month.

Even though it’s more than adequate for our needs these days, our adjusted gross income is still low enough that our family qualifies for federal financial aid including Pell Grants, work study and subsidized Stafford loans, the kind of aid that’s there to help poor or low-income families afford a college education. We’ve perennially been that family earning just enough to disqualify us from assistance for something, but not enough to afford it otherwise, but when it comes to financial aid we qualify and gladly accept it. Like millions of other lower-income families, we need financial aid to send our daughters to college; there is no way we can afford what a college education costs these days without help. Giving up a few things out of our monthly budget, or stripping our retirement accounts, wouldn’t change anything.

Although we may be considered low income on paper, I still feel very rich. Brett and I have a long, loving and happy marriage; we have three wonderful daughters, a successful, generous son and beautiful daughter-in-law, and an adorable grandson. We’re all in excellent health. Our income and benefits are lifetime, and are solid. Other than my student loan, we have no debt. We are able to live in an incredibly beautiful place, and can afford to rent a nice house and pay our bills without a struggle. With planning and careful saving we can occasionally travel. None of us feels like we need more or that we don’t have enough or that we’re missing out on anything. We eat well, and get to do what we enjoy. We are careful and thrifty with our money and know how to get the most out of it.

Poor? Rich? Those are labels. All I know is that we are living a very good life . . . on not very much.


11 thoughts on “Living the Good Life

    • Laura says:

      That’s what matters to me, that our years together be happy and healthy. Without those, all the money in the world is meaningless. We enjoy each day as it comes, and are grateful for all we have and all that’s been given to us.


  1. Rowena says:

    Very well said! My father always found it amusing when folks would assume that just because his house is beachfront property, that meant he was rich. He always like to say “Rich? Yes I’m rich. I’m always reach-ing!” And immediately he would demonstrate this by stretching his 5′ 5″ frame and stand on tip-toe while pretending to rich for some imaginary thing high up in the air.


    • Laura says:

      People assume that you have to be rich to live in Hawai’i. But not every local is rich – how do they manage? Yes, the cost of living is higher here, but strategies are different here as well, and while there are things that cost more here, there are other things that don’t (we don’t need to buy winter clothing, or pay for heat, for example). It currently costs more to live in California. You need to be willing to change your lifestyle and your mindset. For retirees, if you are smart with your money, and have no debt, Hawai’i can be surprisingly affordable. But, you don’t need to be rich.

      What seems rich to one might seem like nothing to someone else and vice versa. Everyone has their own comfort zone, and knows their own situation better than anyone else.


    • Laura says:

      Precisely! What seems woefully inadequate and foolhardy to one person may be more than adequate for someone else. No one else gets to decide for you what’s right or enough.


  2. Tahoe girl says:

    I agree. We are retirement age, but my husband can’t retire till 69 when his social security will be adequate. I’m still not sure ,even with crunching numbers, whether it’ll be enough. No pensions, no inheritance nada. We have a mortgage and it won’t be paid off. BUT, we have been married 45 wonderful years. We have 2 terrific kids that are finding their way in the world, even thougnt hey still live with us. I had my son at 42 so he’s only 21. But we are rich in spirit and whatever we decide in the next few years, I know we’ll be okay.
    I live with a serious health issue ( Cancer) and can’t really work. But I feel good even on treatments. So, hurray for you guys!!! It’s a wonderful life😊


    • Laura says:

      I honestly think that there is so much conflicting financial information out there that people don’t know what to think any more. And, much of that information is geared to people who already have money or are already making a nice income; there is very little advice out there for people who have never had the chance to earn one of those “big incomes,” or who never received an inheritance. There are millions and millions of hardworking people who will never earn enough to have a big savings account, or own a home – those days are gone. You put together what you can, and you live the best and happiest life you can. No one is going to care in 100 years that I had $$$$$$ in the bank. What will be remembered is that I was generous, that I was a good wife and mother, that I was happy and that I lived the best life I could with what I had.


  3. Jen says:

    You are rich in life. I don’t think many people can claim to be debt free and also able to say they have enough monthly income to pay their bills for like.


    • Laura says:

      Brett and I never thought we’d arrive here – we call ourselves the “accidental retirees.” But, we were mostly careful with our money, Brett stayed for 20+ years in the navy to receive the retirement benefits, and we managed our income better than we thought. We certainly didn’t do things according to the book, but it turned out we did the right things. We feel very blessed, and very rich to be where we are now.


      • Joy Franks says:

        I’ve tended to describe myself as a person with lower expectations in life, at least for the material things. We are content in our small apartment, less to clean, and the simple pleasure of sitting at the beach. Growing up on Long Island, I got to enjoy NYC and experience all the museums, Broadway plays, good restaurants, etc. Now my happiness is found on the beach and our little, used kayak. We want for nothing and have what we need. Not everyone would be content with a simple life, but we sure are!


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