When Lynda and Don Perdew retired, they sold their home in Southern California and used the money to buy a 37-foot recreational vehicle. Then they set out to see the country.
That was 10 years ago, and the Perdews are still on the road. But now they're taking shorter trips and staying longer in each place. Now parked at a campground near Mount Rushmore, they'd like to visit Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah this summer. But with gas prices topping $4 a gallon, they aren't sure it's affordable anymore.
"We're sitting with a calculator in one hand and a map in the other, trying to figure out how far we're going to get when we get 7 miles a gallon," says Lynda Perdew, 61.
Like the Perdews, many older Americans had long envisioned retirement as a period of adventure — a time to indulge in leisurely lifestyles, with frequent trips out of town to see relatives and explore places they'd never seen. That was then. Now, with food and health care costs surging and fuel prices soaring, many retirees have been forced to downsize their dreams of travel.
An airline ticket to visit the grandchildren costs about twice as much as it did a year ago, with further price increases projected. And retirees who have saved for decades for the chance to travel overseas are finding that the anemic dollar has made Europe prohibitively expensive.
Lynda and Don have pensions from their former employers, so they're not likely to run out of money. But retirement is costing far more than they'd imagined.
"I see this everywhere and with everyone I talk to," says Lynda, who keeps up with other RV owners through Eons.com, a social-networking website for Baby Boomers. Several Eons members recently backed out of a get-together at a campground in Kansas because they couldn't afford to make the trip.
More than half of retirees cut spending during the first quarter of this year because of worsening economic conditions, up from less than one-third who did so in the fourth quarter of 2007, according to a survey conducted in May by Principal Financial Group.
A survey AARP conducted in April found that more than half of Americans 55-64 have postponed plans to travel because of the economic slowdown.
Even the well-off are scaling back. Twenty-one percent of affluent 60-year-olds are canceling, shortening or postponing a vacation because of the economy, and 22% said they're contributing less to charities, according to a survey conducted in April by Bell Investment Advisors, a financial services firm in Oakland. The 60-year-olds surveyed had at least $1 million in investment assets.
Many of today's retirees overlooked the risk of inflation when they were planning for retirement, in part because inflation had been so contained in recent years, says John Sestina, a financial planner in Columbus, Ohio.
What these retirees forgot, he says, is that even though inflation over the past 80 years has averaged about 3% a year, there have been prolonged periods when inflation averaged 6% or more a year. During such periods, Sestina says, retirees essentially have two options: Cut back on spending, or return to work.
Larry and Fran Page of Chattanooga, Tenn., are among many feeling the pressure. In the past, they used to visit their children and grandchildren in Dallas and Charleston, S.C., several times a year. Last year, they drove to Charleston four times to help their daughter set up a business.
But given the surging cost of gas, "there's no way" they can visit their children that often, says Larry Page, 68.
The Pages are cutting back on local trips, too. They've reduced their volunteer activities because of the cost of gas. They enjoy volunteering, Larry says, but "expenses are going up, so we're having to be more realistic about what we can do and can't do."
Looking for extra income
Some retirees are coping by returning to work or finding part-time jobs. Nearly one-quarter of adults 65-74 are in the workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, up from 19% in 2000. But in a tight economy, finding a job — or keeping the one you have — is hardly a certainty.
Joce Callegari, 56, of Mesa, Ariz., retired from her full-time job as a director of human resources in 2002 to spend more time with her husband, who has a long-term illness. A year later, she decided to start working again but had trouble finding a job that suited her age and experience. So she started a consulting company, working about 20 hours a week. Recently, though, her main client, a retail business, cut back on her services, citing the economic slowdown.
Callegari says she anticipated the furlough, because her client had recently laid off some of its employees. She put off her plans to buy a vacation home in Maine, where she has relatives, and has done no traveling or made any major purchases since October.
Fortunately, Callegari doesn't have any debt. And she remains confident that she'll be able to find work in the future, once the economy turns around.
"When I was over 50 and having trouble getting hired, I made up my mind that if Madonna and Cher can reinvent themselves, so could I," Callegari says. "I think the key to surviving these times is to reinvent yourself and become what you have to be."
Struggling to pay bills
Not surprisingly, businesses that cater to the leisure activities of retirees are hurting.
Winnebago Industries, a leading manufacturer of mobile homes, said its profits for the three months that ended May 31 plummeted 73% from the same quarter a year earlier. Bob Olson, the company's chief executive, said industry forecasts indicate that overall sales of motor homes will decline this year to the lowest level since 1991.
Elderhostel, a nonprofit that runs educational travel programs for retirees, expects enrollment to drop 7% this year, says President Jim Moses. Moses, who describes the typical Elderhostel member as "comfortable but not wealthy," says his organization has recently heard from members who were forced to back out of scheduled trips because they couldn't afford them.
"Our prices haven't increased significantly, except on the international side because of the weakened dollar," Moses says. But with people's everyday costs rising so much, he adds, members "are struggling to meet their monthly bills."
Much of the decline in enrollment, Moses says, is coming from retirees who used to take two or more trips a year and are now taking just one. The organization is trying to publicize its lower-cost programs for retirees squeezed by inflation.
Yet even in this tighter economy, Moses says, Elderhostel still manages to draw retirees who want to make the most of the years they have left.
That pretty much sums up Mary Small's attitude. Over the past 11 years, Small, 75, of River Forest, Ill., has taken part in more than 30 Elderhostel programs, including a trans-Atlantic crossing on the Queen Mary II. During the trip, she studied British theater.
Small is still an avid Elderhostel member, with three more trips planned this year. But she's been making some cost-saving changes in her travel plans. Because international travel has grown so expensive for Americans, she plans to stay in the USA. And though she loves to drive, she's decided not to rent a car when she flies to Portland, Ore., this summer for a trip through the Pacific Northwest. Instead of spending money on rental-car fees and gas, she'll take an Amtrak train to Seattle and a ferry to Victoria, British Columbia.
Small, who worked as a market researcher before retiring, considers herself fortunate to receive a monthly pension from her former employer. She doesn't regard herself as a particularly big spender, but adds, "As long as I don't bounce any checks, I truly am not worried about money."
Rising costs haven't sidelined Don Nylin, either. Nylin, 79, of Lincolnshire, Ill., went to San Diego in March, drove to Cape Cod, Mass., in May and plans to drive to Maine in September for a Windjammer cruise. Having recently reconnected with a high school sweetheart in Maine, Nylin is planning another trip East.
"When I was driving to Cape Cod, I thought, if I skip two cups of coffee in each day's travel, it will almost pay for the difference in the price of gasoline," he says. "You spend your time and money on what's important to you."
Meanwhile, Lynda Perdew says things will have to get much worse before she and her husband will park their motor home for good. "We haven't seen everything; there's still a lot to do," says Perdew, a three-time cancer survivor. "I don't want to be lying on my deathbed and saying, 'I wish I would have seen that.' "
Others feel they have no choice but to scale back travel plans. Larry and Fran Page say they'll take just one trip this summer. In July, they'll celebrate their 50th anniversary on an Alaskan cruise — a gift from their children.
But once they return, Larry Page plans to return to work. The additional income, he says, will help the couple cope with rising prices. He's been interviewing for a job in customer service and hopes to find a full-time position.
Page says it recently cost him $50 to fill up the couple's 2004 Saturn Vue, a sobering milestone he thought he'd never see.
"It's a different world than we ever anticipated," he says.