Monday, January 13, 2014

Three Hundred Fifty Dollars and the Good Old Days

Back in 2001, when we first moved back to the Portland area from Eugene, the first job I landed  was for a company called “FiComm.”  The job was boring and mostly served to reinforce to me exactly how unsuited I am for office work.  I worked there for less than a month before I took a different position that involved neither sitting at a desk staring at a computer screen nor a thirty-mile daily commute.

The lady who ran the business was a total flake, as far as I was concerned.  But she did have a policy whereby the company put money into retirement accounts for employees as part of its compensation package.  In my less than thirty days with her company, I somehow amassed something between $350 and $400 in one of these accounts.

Now, I have been aware of this account for twelve years.  The powers that be have dutifully sent me quarterly statements detailing all account activity, which, since I have neither taken any of the money out nor added to it, has mostly amounted to the balance being steadily whittled away by service charges on the account.  I cannot recall if the balance EVER grew, between 2001 and 2007.  But when the stock market tanked in 2008, it began to shrink dramatically.  In fact, at one time, I considered contacting these folks and closing the account, because I was concerned that, at the rate they were charging fees, I would end up with a negative balance—and I did not want to OWE someone money for providing the outstanding service of…sucking up all my money.  Luckily, once the balance shrank to less than $50, the charges seemed to let up.

Today, I got a statement telling me they just charged the “annual plan fee” to the account, which has brought the balance down to $32.56.  Ninety percent of my original account balance has been eaten away by bank fees and charges.  I have not MADE one red cent on that three hundred bucks.  And after twelve years, it is almost gone.

I got to wondering, what would have happened if this was forty years ago, and I had $350 in a regular passbook account that I had just left sit and never touched for twelve years? 

Back in the Stone Age, a regular passbook account paid around 5% interest.  Some as high as 5 ¼%, or 5½%.  But let’s just use that 5% figure for purposes of this demonstration.  If I had left $350 in a plain old passbook account for 12 years and never touched it, I’d have $628.55 today.  Back in the nineties, Certificates of Deposit came into vogue, because banks wanted to keep your money for at least six months if you expected to get any kind of interest out of them at all.  Still, the rates back then were around 3%.  If I’d left that money sit for 12 years at 3%. I’d have $499.02 today. 

But that’s not what I have.  I have less than 33 bucks.  Less than 10% of my original balance is left.  In two more years, after those $15 annual “plan fees” are charged, I’ll have virtually nothing.

If I had pulled that money out of the “investment” account and stuck it in my mattress, I’d have $350.  Or at least, whatever portion of $350 I would have had left after paying the “plan” to let me have it.  Actually, I doubt that "my" money was ever likely to be somewhere that I could have gotten my hands on it, so I don’t think it could ever have made it into my mattress.  But if it had, I’d have more than $33 left.  Or I’d have $350 worth of something to show for it.

So, forgive me if I think that the whole “IRA, 401K” theory of “putting money away” for retirement is just one big, fat SCAM.  A way for Big Business to do away with employee pensions, without appearing to do away with employee pensions.  They hold a gun to our heads to sink our own money into retirement accounts—if we don’t, we are deadbeats!—and then they steal it.  They long ago succeeded in thoroughly commandeering private sector “retirement” money, and now they’re working on public employee pensions.  And at the same time, they’re working overtime to additionally rob us, of the only thing most of us will have any prayer of depending upon for retirement income—Social Security.  Big business, the “haves,” the one percent—call them what you will—will not rest until they get their hands on that money, too.  They want it all.  There is never any such thing as “enough” for those who already have 90%.

I know…the handwriting has been on that particular wall for quite awhile now.  Retirement perdition was already clearly on the horizon ten years ago.  But I didn’t worry much.  I still felt young and strong and able to bend at least some part of the future to my own will.  So what if I couldn’t retire at 65?  I’m fit, I’m healthy….I can work until I’m 70 or 75—no problem!  Who wants to retire, anyway?  Who wants to be bored and unchallenged for the last decades of her life?

But now…things have changed.  I’m 58 years old and “retired,” through no particular personal desire to be so.  I could still work.  I would like to work, as a matter of fact.  But in this job market, and in this American employment culture, where, inexplicably, hiring anyone over the age of 45 is a risk not worth taking; even if I HAD a sparkling resume, my chances of getting a job are slim to none.  And I would have no chance of choosing a good job, or even a suitable one.  ANY job would have to do, if I were desperate enough. 

And I am not that desperate. 

Plus, I just spent the last two weeks having the crap kicked out of me by a really nasty flu bug.  I still feel like hell, as a matter of fact, and I’m wondering when or if I’m ever going to get back to that, “Hell, I can work until I’m 70!” level of energy.  At this point, I’d be happy being able to get up and accomplish three hours of housework without developing a splitting headache or having to sit and recoup for a half hour.  When one is slapped in the face with this sort of reminder of one’s mortality, it makes one more than a tad nostalgic for the good old days.

The Good Old Days.  When ethical employers still compensated workers as if they might possibly be valuable assets.  When banks paid us for the privilege of using our money to prop up the stock market.  When retirement appeared as a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, rather than a beckoning specter across a bleak and barren landscape.

When $350 would nearly double if you left it alone for twelve years.

When hard work and “saving for a rainy day” actually meant something. 

1 comment:

  1. And they started charging "rent" on your bank account if the balance fell below a certain level. As if it took more "something" to manage your account at $999.99 than at $1,000.99. go figure.