Retirees fret about their savings

There was laughter coming from a room at the Plantation Estates retirement community Tuesday, but what followed was a sobering concern: Will I outlive my retirement savings?

For the handful of retirees gathered there to talk investment strategy, it was a question that had taken on new urgency in the wake of the Wall Street meltdown this week. Stocks plunged Monday amid news of Lehman Brothers' collapse and questions about the future of insurance giant American International Group. And the market's small uptick Tuesday offered little comfort.

“Younger investors don't need to worry about this the way I do, because they can make it back,” said Tom Peacock, 88, a retired banker who lives at Plantation Estates. “We can't. There's no way for us to do it.”

Retirees across Charlotte on Tuesday used words like “scary” and “traumatic” to describe the times.

“I am concerned,” said Bea McCleary, 86, a retired university researcher who lives at The Haven retirement community in north Charlotte. “We saved all our lives to retire, to be independent, and then we see our investments go down.”

Some said they've lost tens of thousands of dollars as the economy has slowed. Plantation Estates resident George Mackie, 78, said his investments have dropped more than 20 percent in value over the last few months.

“The market has taken a tremendous hit,” he said. “I didn't even dare check my portfolio last night.”

Despite the market woes, retirees typically should stay the course, said Cheryl Sherrard, director of financial planning at Rinehart & Associates in Charlotte.

“One of the first things is not to panic,” she said. “Make sure you're well diversified.”

Retirees should invest in a good mix of stocks and bonds and, if they're worried about having enough, be more conservative with their spending, Sherrard said.

“At some point you realize, ‘This is all I have,' so they make it last,” she said.

Many older investors have weathered previous downturns and say the experience is helping them get through this one.

“I think those of us who have been through the Depression have been worried for a long time that we were headed for another one,” said Betty Steele, 90, a retired teacher who lives at Plantation Estates. “You have to go through that to learn the value of a dollar. Most of us have tried to be thrifty all our lives.”

Retirees on Tuesday said they're not making drastic changes to their portfolios.

“The market always seems to bounce back eventually,” said Hank Fenigen, 88, who lives at Plantation Estates.

Peacock was optimistic, too – sort of.

“You see,” he said with a laugh, “None of us are going to get out alive, so it's OK.”