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'Money is running out': Financial stress drives retirees back to work

“There are people that might retire, try that for a little while, but now the money is running out, and they're looking at their retirement savings and there's not enough there,” one expert said.
Illustration of an elderly man and woman looking at a rising sun with an office desk and stack of cash.
Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

After more than a decade in retirement, Gregory Boulware went back to work in 2020.

Boulware, 69, was a truck driver for about 30 years, spending long hours on the road, away from his Pennsylvania home and his wife and kids, to make a living and put away some savings. His body started to suffer the consequences of years on the road, and he began to worry that the continuous back pain and aches would worsen. So he went back to school and got his associate's degree in management and information technology in 2007 but could only find temporary work. He retired in 2008.

In retirement, he started writing books, "which make no money," he said with a laugh, but he had retirement savings, started collecting Social Security at 59, and had a plan. But then he and his wife bought a house.

Image: Greg Boulware
Greg Boulware.Courtesy Greg Boulware

"When we lived in an apartment, we were doing fine because we could easily afford it, but every year the rent would go up," Boulware said. "I woke up one day and said, 'You know, these people can tell us to leave, and the next hour, we would have nowhere to go.'"

The house bought with their life's savings led to fear of losing the house, every mortgage payment a challenge, sometimes pulling from other expenses such as food and gas to make ends meet. Boulware decided he needed to go back to work. He enrolled in a job training program for low-income adults through the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP), a community service and work based training program for older workers authorized by the Older Americans Act, and was hired last month into a clerical job.

"Retirement doesn't mean what it used to," said Nora Dowd Eisenhower, executive director at the Philadelphia Mayor's Commission on Aging.

Higher rent, higher food prices and longer lifespans often lead to financial challenges for many Americans, leading to post-retirement job searches. More people have returned to work after retirement, with a steady uptick happening over the last few months.

This is continuing the trend of older people considering retirement a temporary stage, lasting until a financial need arises, according to Emma Aguila, an economist and associate professor at the University of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy.

In October, the unretirement rate was 2.6 percent, above the 2.5 percent rate for September and 2.4 percent in August, a steady upward trajectory, according to an analysis of data from the Current Population Survey (a household survey from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics) by Nick Bunker, economic research director for North America at the job site Indeed.

Bunker said that his analysis does not look into the reasons for the increase and that survey data showed that pandemic job loss and a more viable job market might be a factor. But other experts said the uptick, driven partly by early pandemic job loss, might also be caused by financial need among older Americans.

Tracey Gronniger, the directing attorney for the nonprofit Justice in Aging's economic security team, said that many seniors who are not in poverty "on paper" might be struggling, especially if they find themselves in need of health care or support services.

"I think that older people are kind of forgotten sometimes," she said. "And some have to figure out how to use services that they didn't have to use before. And so that could be a drain on their income."

Even if people have access to pensions and other resources, their savings aren't always enough to make it 20, 30 or 40 years into the future as the cost of living continues to increase. The national median rent increased by 11.4 percent in 2021, compared to the 3.3 percent increase at the start of 2017, 2018 and 2019. The United Nations Food Price Index, which tracks prices of commodities in food-making, was up 30 percent this fall. While Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits will increase 5.9 percent in 2022, so will Medicare Plan B premiums, from $148.50 in 2021 to $170.10 in 2022.

And when savings aren't enough, Supplemental Security Income and Social Security aren't enough for most low-income people, Aguila said.

Image: Bob Krasner
Bob Krasner.Courtesy Bob Krasner

Bob Krasner retired in March from his job as a Bay Area Rapid Transit station agent. But less than a year into retirement, he went back to work driving for Independent Transportation Network, a driving service for seniors, to safeguard his future savings in case his health declines.

Krasner, 67, delivers meals for people who have trouble getting around. While a major factor in his decision to return to work he said was being “bored to tears” and missing regular interaction with people, he also said that earning the extra “grocery money” would help to maintain his savings.

"We can make it on my pension and Social Security, and my wife's Social Security and salary, but going back to work gives us that freedom of not having to look at the price tag of everything we buy," he said. "We can go to the store, and we can get what we want and not worry that it's going to bust the budget."

Unretiring to bridge the gaps left by retirement income and savings is not uncommon, Susan Weinstock, vice president of AARP’s financial resilience programming said.

“There are people that might retire, try that for a little while, but now the money is running out, and they're looking at their retirement savings and there's not enough there,” she said. “So folks need to go back to work just to make ends meet.”

Financial need is especially high among low-income workers and people of color, especially Black people and Latinos, who after retirement might not be able to make ends meet with just Social Security and savings. On top of that, big life events, such as buying a house or unforeseen medical expenses, can cause a person to return to work, according to Aguila.

"Low-income and minority populations don't reach retirement within the same conditions as those that are higher income," she said. "[Higher income people] have access to not only Social Security, but also to private pensions and other resources."

And planning for the future, Krasner said, is a wise move for anyone when unexpected misfortune can happen at any time. His children and grandchildren regularly gather over the holidays at the house he and his wife own, and he doesn't want to lose what he has now.

"Do I see a time when I'll no longer be able to maintain my own house? It could happen," he said. "That part of the future is kind of nebulous, you know. Age catches up with everyone even though we don't want to admit it or even think about it."