Q: I am 97 years old, and I still manage my own finances (although there is considerably less to manage these days). I hear a lot of financial advice for those who have 20 or 30 years left until retirement, but not much for older people who are watching their investments dwindle and housing values sink. Time is not on my side. What are my options?
A: In one way, time is on your side: You don't have to strategize about how to make your money last 20, 30, or more years. Because you are approaching the century mark, it's reasonable for you to focus on just a ten-year horizon, and that makes things a bit easier.
If you were my mom—and by the way, my mom is 94—I would normally suggest that you tuck your money away in a federally insured bank or credit union. You should not spend one moment being concerned about money if you do not have to. But since you say you are watching your investments dwindle, it is clear that your money is already invested in stocks. If you have stock in dividend-paying companies that can weather this recession without having to slash their dividends, I am going to surprise you and tell you to sit tight. Try not to focus on the trading price of your stocks; as long as you keep pocketing the dividend, that price is not so important. Naturally, it's unnerving to see it decline, but at your age, your main goal should be taking care of your most pressing need—current income to cover living expenses—and dividends can do just that.
Selling the stocks at today's depressed prices and moving all that money into the bank may not generate the income you need. Right now, you would be lucky to earn much over 2 percent on a bank savings account or certificate of deposit. And that income is taxable, so after paying Uncle Sam, it's unlikely you'd earn even the 2 percent.
But I suspect that what may also be bothering you is the idea of leaving less to your loved ones, and I want you to stop your worrying. Your heirs have time to wait for stock prices and home values to recover. And they don't care if your home's value has declined; they are simply grateful you have a home you can afford. That home provides an invaluable payoff right now: shelter for you. Remember, your family loves you, not your money. What they most want is for you not to worry so much.