Lee Schafer
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Even before the COVID-19 pandemic pounded the economy, research had shown that maybe four out of 10 Americans retired before they had planned.

This fact comes from Scott Wardell, an Eden Prairie financial planner and adviser who in 2013 published “Retiring in Turbulent Times,” walking readers through the financial lives of nine families who had just come through the Great Recession.

As for why so many older people stop working before they had planned, the number one reason is that they lost their job and getting a comparable one seemed impossible at that stage of life, Wardell said. Others either confronted a health crisis of their own or needed to quit working to care for a family member.

The reason why there are so many books about retirement finance is because do-it-yourself money management and retirement planning are really hard tasks, even if a person easily has enough income to make a secure retirement possible.

Not always being able to pick your own retirement date is just one challenge.

Older workers generally have fared pretty well in recessions, with either formal or informal seniority working for them. And that’s been true so far in 2020, with younger and less educated workers accounting for the most job losses.

Yet it doesn’t take long for losses to spread to others. And a job loss or closing of a business in late career can lead a person into forced retirement.

Some of this shows up in the Social Security data, as periods of higher unemployment get people to file for benefits earlier, many as soon as eligible in their early 60s. Social Security claims jumped during the recession in 2009 before settling back down.

One thing Wardell stressed in a conversation this week is that people should stop connecting the end of full-time work or career with the start of Social Security.

Delaying Social Security benefits until later increases the monthly payment. His idea is for people to replace that expected Social Security income through part-time work, which may not be easy to find right now but is likely easier than securing a full-time job.

For others who may be forced by circumstances to retire before expected, he suggested looking closely at retirement savings for the right balance of assets now rather than a few years down the trail.

Wardell said he has also told people thrust into retiring earlier than expected to sell stocks and put that money in less volatile assets. “People have to exchange some growth for security in that situation,” he said.

Securing an income, he added, isn’t really the main challenge of retirement finance. Managing monthly cash flow is.

Wardell said he has tussled with clients over a $225 monthly cable-TV bill. That’s not because Wardell personally found it extravagant but because he said he wanted them to think through what TV programming they really valued and only pay for that.

And he also thinks people need to look for income options that had never occurred to them before. It might be that a person nearing retirement age who had been undergoing cancer treatment should now look into filing for disability payments.

Wardell began his career as a financial planner in the summer of 1982. He agreed when he published the first edition of his book in 2013 that it would not disclose his employer. But finding his affiliation with Minneapolis-based Thrivent Financial might have required the shortest Google search of my career.

Wardell decided that people learn really well from hearing the stories of other people. His book had nine stories, each with asides of advice offered by Wardell that illuminated the lessons taught by their experiences.

He had stories of frugal savers who emerged from that period just fine and stories of heartbreaking disaster as well.

One was of an entrepreneur and mortgage company owner who went from wealthy before the Great Recession to a string of losses. This person ultimately felt lucky to have dumped a dream house at a half-million-dollar loss to move on with life.

Another told of a couple in their 60s so battered by years of financial stumbles that they put their aging Ford Escort in storage, gathered their remaining possessions in a few suitcases and then left for teaching jobs in Kuwait.

One important point was that none of these people sounded unhappy.

“I can’t tell you how many people who’ve told me ‘You know, I got caught up with a lot of bigger and better things I really didn’t need, and didn’t really make me as happy as I thought they would. This whole thing, as terrible as it is, taught me a really important lesson,’” Wardell said.

“We are going to get the same kind of lessons out of this one,” he added.

Because Wardell likes stories, he wrapped up our conversation this week with another one, an old family story.

While still a teen, Wardell said, his dad overheard him retelling of the days following the horrific Armistice Day blizzard of 1940. Minnesota farm families, including his dad’s in Nicollet County, had to finish picking the corn by hand in brutally cold weather. They converted wagons into sleighs.

His dad then came into the room to explain to Scott that when he first told that story he must have left out an important detail.

“We were singing,” his dad told him. “You made it sound like we were miserable.”

lee.schafer@startribune.com • 612-673-4302