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WASHINGTON — I met the woman after speaking at a recent Bible study at my church.

My pastor, John K. Jenkins Sr., has been doing a series of study sessions on personal finances. On this night, we were teaching together about getting out of debt.

“You don’t have a money problem, you have a management problem,” Jenkins told the congregation at First Baptist Church of Glenarden.

There usually aren’t as many “amens” when he tries to get folks to focus on their finances. He’s a hater of debt like me, but it’s a hard message to get across. Having a lot of debt robs you of the ability to save more.


After the session, a woman — 64 and single — was waiting in a long line of people who wanted to ask me financial questions. It was an hour after the Bible study was over, and she was shaking by the time I got to her. She teared up before she could even speak.

It’s a story I’ve heard before. She had planned on working for another several years to boost her retirement savings, but she got laid off. She’s a year away from being able to collect full retirement from Social Security. She wants to wait to collect until she’s 70, when her monthly payment will increase significantly. But she’s not sure she can afford to delay. She doesn’t have a pension.

As with many of these types of situations, I immediately started thinking about how we could help her get by. What community resources could she tap? I felt my heart racing, already worried about her.

“So, how much do you have saved for retirement?” I asked.

I braced myself for the answer. It’s usually not nearly enough.

A survey by GoBankingRates.com found that 42 percent of Americans have less than $10,000 saved for retirement. About 14 percent of the survey participants said they have absolutely nothing saved.


Based on this woman’s body language, I was prepared for the worst.

“I have just over $1 million,” she said, almost like an apology.

The tears really came then.

I was shocked — but not because of the amount.

I was taken aback that this woman thinks she’s going to be destitute and she has $1 million. Let that sink in.

“I’ve had to pull from my retirement since being laid off, and I’m worried about how long the money will last,” she said.

About now you’re probably thinking, “If she feels she won’t make it through retirement, I’m in deep trouble.”

“I’m not surprised she was shaking,” said Carolyn McClanahan, a certified financial planner who is also a physician. “If she’s in really good health and lives in a high-cost area, then $1 million might not be enough.”

McClanahan says that the longer you live, the more likely you’ll have high medical costs draining your retirement savings.

If this woman withdrew 4 percent of her investments every year for 30 years ($40,000 a year), she could live on the money in addition to her Social Security. But that’s assuming a lot, such as no big splurges or huge medical bills not covered by her health provider. Should she need long-term care because she’s unable to care for herself, she could run out of money, McClanahan said.

I can accept McClanahan’s conclusions, but it still blows my mind that a millionaire (minus taxes of course) would be feeling so poor.


I ask McClanahan, a fee-only planner, what she recommends for others who aren’t even close to having that much in retirement savings.

“People have to get over quitting work in their 60s,” she said.

If you’re healthy enough, find a job, she says. Even if you can earn $20,000 a year, it will help. Your biggest asset is your ability to keep working, she said.

“Can’t investing be the saving grace?” I asked McClanahan.

“The market wasn’t meant to take care of us for 30 years,” she replied. “Your job might not pay a lot, but it will keep you engaged. And it will take the pressure off how much you have to take out of your retirement portfolio.”

What if you can’t work longer?

“If you aren’t healthy enough to work, you have to look at your cash flow and do what you can to bring your spending under control,” McClanahan said.

Now I’m shaking. Here’s what I take away from my encounter with the weeping millionaire. Save for a time when you can’t work, but don’t retire if you don’t want to feel broke — even with $1 million in the bank.

Michelle Singletary can be reached at michelle.singletary@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter @SingletaryM.