Dori on the Dime

What Is a Wrinkle Worth?

This morning, while folding a half-dozen of Aunt Jo’s tops and pants, I notice a wrinkle in the seam of her new green-and-beige jersey knit T-shirt.

“Wrinkles!” I let out a loud laugh and head to the closet for my ironing board.

The only aspect of my aunt’s appearance she ever allowed to wrinkle was her nose. She was proud of her Roman nose and believed, in fact, that her distinctive proboscis linked our family back to Ancient Rome, not to the hardscrabble soil of Southern Italy.

Typically, Aunt Jo ironed her outfit for work the night before, but if a seam were out of order as she dressed, I would find her in the basement that morning, standing in her bra and slip in the dark. “Oh, Dori, how nice to see you,” she would say and smile, as I switched on the light.

Yesterday afternoon, she repeated her familiar greeting as I walked into her room at the nursing home. My aunt was put on hospice in early December, which is why I can visit her despite the restrictions imposed by Covid-19. “Oh, Dori, how nice to see you,” she says.

Today she is wearing one of her favorite sweaters from the ‘80s, a fluffy, cowl-necked sweater striped in lavender and gray. “Doesn’t she look nice?” says the CNA (Certified Nursing Aide), stepping back and beaming as she brushes a bit of blush and eyeshadow on her “fashion lady’s” cheeks and lids. “Are all these clothes for me?” Aunt Jo asks, as she watches me unpack, a delighted smile on her face.

My aunt sits in a wheelchair all day, captive to the end-stage dementia that has begun to erase her memory. Why bother with makeup and ironed clothes, when she cannot remember her own wardrobe from week to week?

Because hearing her say, “Oh, Dori, how nice to see you,” and catching a glimpse of her old self—just for a *moment—is enough. I cannot stop the process of her decline, but at least I can wash her weekly wardrobe and, for now, iron out the wrinkles in her clothes.

Did you know that hospice is available in cases other than when death is imminent? Or that your state may allow in-person visits under “compassionate care” guidelines?

The Show Must Go On Despite Covid-19

Today “Pink Bunny” bounces into my aunt’s room and hands her a fizzy pink “cocktail” (ginger ale with vanilla ice cream) to drink, while his assistant snaps a picture of Aunt Jo for the facility’s Facebook page.

On Monday, the activities director at the privately-owned and operated facility where my aunt lives appeared as “Big Penguin.” She laughed when he handed her a two-inch plastic replica of his penguin self. “What am I going to do with this?” my aunt asked him. She laughed and threw back the toy. At least she was not startled. My aunt’s roommate, who stays in bed all day behind a closed door, screamed when “Big Penguin” waddled unannounced into her room.

Most of the time, the activities director’s impressively creative, and inexhaustible, efforts to entertain residents leaves behind a trail of happy laughs. Until March 2020, when the Covid-19 virus began to spread and long-term care (LTC) facilities locked their doors to all visitors, volunteers, and vendors except essential medical personnel, residents had their choice of daily group activities.

That immediately took the air out of the activities director’s plans but sent his alter ego into overdrive. Residents cannot gather face-to-face, or elbow-to-elbow as they once did, but Pink Bunny” or “Big Penguin”—or whatever character the activities director decides to be today—brings the show to them. In between his performances, the small staff races up and down three flights of stairs to connect with each resident, in person, at least once a day, to offer a book, a puzzle, or a manicure, my aunt’s preferred choice.

“We have extra,” enthuses “Pink Bunny,” bowing and extending a cocktail to me before he turns and hops away. I take the drink and turn to my aunt, who raises her glass and laughs.

How do the activities offered at your loved one’s LTC facility compare with “Pink Bunny’s? And what creative extras have you added to help counter your loved one’s social isolation during Covid-19? I created a slideshow of photographs from my aunt’s life and uploaded to them to a digital photo frame that runs 24/7 in her room and helps trigger her memory.  

 

What Stage of Grief Am I in Today?

I am uncharacteristically brief as I state my prayer request as our women’s Bible study begins this morning on Zoom! My visit with my aunt yesterday upset both of us, I say. “I don’t know if I should visit as often as I do.”

Lisa looks at me. Well, not exactly: She stares at my image on the computer screen. “There are five stages of grief,” she says gently; eventually, I will get to the fifth—and last—stage: acceptance. I shake my head.

Aunt Jo stepped onboard the dementia rollercoaster in May 2014, when she moved into assisted living, and then into the nursing home in 2018. Since 2014, I have experienced each of the five stages several times, and out of order, as her condition shifts and changes. After yesterday’s visit, I am back to Stage 1: denial.

“Do I live here?” Aunt Jo asked as soon as I walked into her room at the nursing home. She leans back in her wheelchair and studies my face as I gaze around the room.

Room 221-A is not a room at all, but an open alcove located next to the bathroom and across from the nurse’s station on the second floor. Room 221-B was also available, but the bedroom had a door, and after repeated falls at the assisted living facility, Liz and I decided the open alcove was the safer choice.

My aunt’s green eyes flicker as she repeats the question again. Those eyes used to flash when I was a child, the pupils growing larger until they extracted the answer to her questions.

In early December, the nurse practitioner with my aunt’s Medigap provider recommended that Aunt Jo receive hospice care. The word alarmed me and my sister. Death does not have to be imminent for a loved one to receive hospice, we learned. Aunt Jo’s weight loss qualified her.

By mid-November, my aunt was eating only a fraction of her meals and losing a pound a week again after stopping Megace. For three months, the wonder drug had helped her gain a pound a week. (Three months is the maximum dosing schedule, because of the drug’s serious side effects.)

My aunt is silent for a moment, and then asks again, “Do I live here?” She studies my face carefully as she watches me repeat her own familiar words. “Yes,” I say, “it is a nice room, isn’t it?” A smile spreads slowly across her face. I relax and lean back in my grandfather’s chair.

“No, it isn’t,” she says suddenly. She kicks the small dresser with the toe of the black suede booties I bought her the winter before she had to move out of the house. “It isn’t our house.”

She glances over at the twin-sized hospital bed in the center of the room and wrinkles her nose. “That’s not my bed,” she says. “That bed is too small— “it must be yours.” “No, it isn’t,” I say. “I have a bigger bed in my apartment.”  “You don’t have an apartment,” she says, and laughs. “You live in the house, on the third floor.” She means, I realize, the bedroom where I slept before I left for college. I catch my breath. Her mind has strayed far from 2021, back to happier days.

I open my mouth to correct her, then shut it, recalling the social worker’s warning: You must remain calm with dementia patients. Do not argue.

My aunt looks around the room. “I don’t want to stay here,” she announces. “I want to go home with you.” She grasps the arms of her wheelchair and tries to push herself toward the door.

“I have only one bedroom at my place,” I say, “and only one bed.” I reach for the handles on the back of her wheelchair, grateful that she cannot see the tears sliding down my face. “I know,” she says, “I know, but I want to go home with you.”

As your loved one declines, do you experience repetitive stages of grief as their condition changes? What have you found helpful?

Goodbye, Aunt Jo: Covid-19’s Social Isolation Takes Hold

My aunt stares into space and smiles, but she is not smiling at me. She is smiling somewhere into the distance, over my head, at a place only she can see as the aide wheels her onto the nursing home’s patio for our outdoor visit.

The change in Aunt Jo on this October day startles me. “Why isn’t she talking?” I ask the aide. My eyes rest on my aunt’s hair, her crowning glory. The red in her hair has faded except for a few stray wisps, and her signature bouffant “bubble” has deflated and touches the collar of her jacket in long, white strands.

Growing up in the house with her, I never saw my aunt without every dyed red hair in place, the result of a weekly visit, and near-religious ritual, at Pellicone’s Beauty Parlor on Front Street in town. There she would have her hair washed, set, and then teased and sprayed with an entire can of hairspray, I think, so that it stayed perfectly in place until the following Thursday.

When Covid-19 began spreading in March 2020, the nursing home’s onsite beauty parlor closed, to comply with guidance issued by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and interpreted and enforced by state health departments. This rule, and the others that followed, fell especially hard on long-term care (LTC) facilities, and for good reason: A third of all deaths, in New Jersey and across the United States, have occurred in nursing homes and other LTC facilities.

I understand that our federal health care agency initially could not consider beauty services an “essential service” initially, but after eight months? Why can’t the nursing home’s beauty parlor be redesigned, with social distancing like in my hair salon, so that the residents, who are mostly women, can get their hair done, for gosh sakes?

Then I glance down at the calf-length pants my aunt is inexplicably wearing her on this warm fall day and notice that her knee-high stockings are beginning to droop. I lean over to pull them up but catch myself. I cannot come within six feet of her because of the virus. I force myself to lean back in the bench and ask the aide to straighten my aunt’s stockings, when I notice the bandages wrapped around my aunt’s knees.

“What are those?” I ask, nearly choking on my words. “Your aunt can’t get to her feet,” said the aide. “She’s been in a wheelchair since last week.” The bandages help stabilize her, the aide said. More than my aunt’s knee highs have been unraveling in recent months.

During the first outdoor visit in June, my sister, Liz, and I remarked that our aunt seemed thin. We had not seen her for four months since the virus shut the facility’s doors. “How much weight has she lost?” my sister asked. “Eight pounds by April,” the nurse manager said. My sister and I looked at each other and shrugged. That did not seem too bad.

I asked the same question again during an outdoor visit on a Wednesday in early August, when the cuffs of my aunt’s black slacks dragged on the ground. While waiting for the nurse to answer me that weekend, Aunt Jo slipped out of bed twice. It was my pink satin pajamas, she said, laughing, when my sister and spoke with her.

But it was not the pink pajamas, Liz heard, after the night nurse called her early Monday morning; it was probably the anti-depressant she was prescribed on Friday.

That night, the answer I finally got to my repeated question shocked me. In the four months since April, my aunt had lost 16 pounds—a pound a week—and a total of 24 pounds since Christmas. She was hardly alone: After a few more calls, I learned that most LTC residents were losing weight as the social isolation imposed by COVID-19 accelerated its toll.

The doctor prescribed Megace to help her gain back weight, and for three months, the wonder drug helped her gain the pound a week she had lost. In the process, however, Megace, or my aunt’s dementia—or a combination of the two—also took away her ability to speak, to stand, to walk, and to sit on the toilet on her own.

Those are the four signs of end-stage dementia, I read later. I could not sleep that night, but not because the information upset me. The picture of my aunt sitting silent and disconnected in her wheelchair was enough to keep me awake for the rest of the night.

(N.B.: Just before Thanksgiving, Aunt Jo stopped taking Megace, because continued use has extremely negative side effects. That triggered the weight loss/gain rollercoaster to start up again—only it headed in the other direction. She began losing a pound a week, but with an inexplicably beneficial effect as the drug wore off:  A few weeks after stopping Megace, Aunt Jo grew more alert and regained her speech.)

What experience has your loved one had with Megace? Did the drug help them? Were they able to maintain a healthy weight?

Are You Ready for 2020?

Lately, I’ve been skipping Page One and heading straight to the editorial pages, where I’ve been stopping more frequently in an effort to make sense of the day’s news.

Was The New York Times making a case for credit card debt?

“Put the Next Recession on Your Card,” read the headline, but it was the graphic that got my immediate attention. Eight desperate consumers were barely hanging on to a zagged arrow that keeps ticking upwards. They were just about ready to lose their balance and fall. Only one lone figure wasn’t at risk of falling; in fact, his feet were steady, and his arms pumped ahead energetically, as he strode ahead. He was clearly able to manage the rocketing rise in interest rates indicated by the arrow.

As I studied the graphic more closely, I realized that he represents the wealthiest 10% of Americans who are profiting from the recent tax cuts legislation. These lucky few are not only unfazed by what’s going to happen by 2020 but, like the sole striver in the graphic, are going to profit over the next 18 months.

If you haven’t been paying attention, the Federal Reserve, the nation’s bank, has been steadily raising the federal funds rate, the rate at which banks and other financial institutions borrow money.  Currently, that rate is 1.9%, but it’s projected to increase to 3.4% by the end of 2020.

That means that the money you and I borrow over the next 18 months—for a mortgage, a car loan, and a revolving credit card—is going to cost more. “The Fed is picking our pockets because, to prevent the economy from overheating, it is legally required to keep inflation in check by raising rates,” the writer explained.

Is that fair? Of course not, but don’t focus on that headline. Start focusing on another story that has yet to come into view:

Your own story, of how you’re going to pay off your credit card debt.

Are you among those U.S. cardholders who carry a balance from month to month? You’ve got a lot of company: Two out of every three cardholders has an average balance of $5,700.

Have you ever thought about what it costs to pay the minimum? Up to 15 years. Yes, seriously. I just used the credit card calculators available from creditcards.com and bankrate.com. Keep paying the minimum payment, which is typically 3% of your balance, and you’ll eventually pay back close to $3,800 in interest.

As of July 2, when this editorial appeared, Chase was adding 11.74% to 20.49% to the prime rate, which nudges the rate to the brink of 30% (29.99%). Those rates are already high, but, over the next 18 months, they’ll be in the nosebleed zone when the prime rate hits 3.4%.

Financial reality is always a shock to absorb. Years ago, I thought I could use credit cards to stretch my budget, until I realized that I couldn’t pay the balance when the bill came due. I was living in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood, in a third-floor walkup studio that cost two-thirds of my monthly income to pay my mortgage. I had moved there in May 1987—six months before the stock market’s “Black October” cut the value of stocks and, subsequently, my 350-square-foot studio in half.

Then other factors piled on, as they inevitably do: I couldn’t refinance the adjustable rate on my mortgage, because New York’s co-op rules require that 50% of a co-op’s units have to be individually owned and occupied. The landlords who converted the building from rentals to co-op apartments had held onto 32 units out of the 60. For 12 of the 17 years I lived there, I paid interest rates averaging 10% to 12% on my mortgage after the end of the adjustable rate period.

I worked every freelance job I could, in addition to my day job, and, when all else failed, I tried to have a sense of humor about it: Just think of the exercise you’re getting, I told myself, as I skipped a subway ride and walked the 30 or so blocks back home before heading up those stairs.

My point is, there’s always something you can do. Pay attention now to the cold, hard facts laid out in The Times’ editorial and make a plan to get out of debt. You have 18 months to write a new headline for yourself.

So here are my questions to you this morning. Do you carry a balance on your credit card, or cards, from month to month? What is your plan for paying down your debt?

My First Financial Lesson

I’ve struggled with money my entire life. I just found the paperwork to prove it, after unpacking from a recent move. I’ve been digging into decades of cancelled checks and bank and brokerage statements looking for clues to the financial lessons I’ve learned.

Lesson #1:

You can’t trust even your own mother, when it comes to money.

The letter and cancelled check stamped with big red letters date back to my first semester in journalism school. She was so sorry, but my checking account was going to overdraw and probably trigger a big bank fee. My mother had already called long distance, but the words didn’t add up until I held the evidence in my hand.  My father’s first corporate client, a Fortune 100 pharmaceutical company whose commanding headquarters in Central New Jersey he had just finished painting, paid their bills 30 days after a job was done, so the money my mother promised would be deposited in my account—wasn’t. I heard a series of loud thumps in my head (or was that my stomach?) as I counted up the number of checks I had written over the past few days, bouncing all the way from my dorm room in Milwaukee, WI, back to New Jersey. I was now 13 cents in the red, instead of ahead by $5.68 ahead.

That was a tough lesson to learn, immediately followed by:

Lesson #2:

You have to make sure you there’s money in your account before you start writing checks.

But not too long after that, I enjoyed learning the next lesson:

Lesson #3:

Treat money with respect—and it will treat you well; in fact, it may even surprise you from time to time.

I paid for my first vacation by saving a quarter a week—every week—through eight years of Catholic grade school. I still consider that long discipline to be one of my biggest financial successes. It was exciting to watch those quarters (288, I estimate) add up, week by week by week, in one after another, after another, of those nifty cardboard holders that banks distributed at the time to encourage schoolchildren to save.

After my freshman year at Marquette, I liberated those quarters from their stiff little holders and paid for my first plane ticket to the U.S. Virgin Islands, where Bobbi Miller lived.  After enduring one bitterly cold Wisconsin winter—along with the frosty attitude of Midwestern students who hadn’t seen too many people of color—Bobbi invited me and her roommate, Betty, to visit her and her parents. She didn’t tell us they owned a hotel in Charlotte Amalie. No trip since has come close yet to those eight days in paradise.

The memory of that payoff has also helped me weather the years since then, and eventually led to the next lesson, which took me years to face:

Lesson #4:

Take the fear out of managing your money.

I paid high fees for mutual funds—1 percent and more—ever since I started saving for retirement and 401(k) plans became available. I honestly believed that you get more by paying more. How could low-cost index funds compete, without active management? Many smart people, including my former boss, Jane Bryant Quinn, couldn’t convince me a, about the impact of high fees over the long term, because I was too focused, I realize now, on short-term results.

It took me nine months, beginning in September 2016, to make the decision to move my money to an index fund. I interviewed four—no, five—financial advisers, and three financial institutions, in dozens of calls and meetings, which often set me spinning in circles. But by June 2017, I made the decision to move my retirement savings. And by the end of the year, the “perfect storm” that hit—driven by high stock market returns, lower fees for financial advice, and an increased stock allocation—delivered stellar results and convinced me I had make the right decision after all.

But I haven’t arrived in my safe harbor yet. I know there are a lot more squalls on the horizon as I make my way forward.

And that put the wind in my sails (to continue the metaphor), as I began thinking about sharing what I learned. A growing body of research proves that women do better than men when they invest—but most of us just don’t invest. Now there’s an area that needs a #MeToo! movement.

I’ll be sharing what I learn every week with you, and hope you’ll send me your questions. Will you join me? Together I believe that we can find the answers to making more informed decisions. Send me your questions and news to share here.

Should You Switch to a Medicare Advantage Plan?

The screen on my digital calculator kept flashing and threatened to burn out as I added up the numbers again:

In 2018, by switching to an Aetna Medicare Advantage plan and staying within an approved network of doctors, I would pay $76 a month for my supplemental health coverage, instead of $141.44 for an Aetna Medigap policy, which covers 20% of the health care costs Medicare doesn’t, and an additional $18 for prescription drug coverage. Also, all of my doctors participated Aetna Medicare Advantage.

After getting giddy over the prospect of saving $996 in monthly premiums (actually more than that: these policies cover prescription drugs, $150 for both vision and dental services, and free classes at certain gyms), I realized that I would only save that much if I didn’t go to the doctor at all this year. So I did an estimate, revised according to the cost of my share of medical services for Aetna Medicare Advantage:

4 visits to the primary care doctor                             $15 x4=$60

2 visits to the eye doctor                                                 $45 x 2=$90

2 visits to the audiologist                                              $45 x 3=$135

4 visits to the ear, nose and throat doctor               $45 x 4=$180

2 visits to the foot doctor                                               $45 x 2=$90

That added up to more than I thought, $555, and only a savings of $441 every year, or $37 a month–money you can easily fritter away with a few fancy coffees or manicures. Still, “That’s not nothing,” as Aunt Josephine, who was born a few months before the Great Depression and knows how to squeeze a dime, likes to say.

Save that money every year, over 10, 20, and 30 years when you’re retired, and you’re talking about having some nice extra cash on hand to pay for health care costs in retirement.

Darn it, I thought, my brother, Tom, who lives in Illinois, was right when we talked last Thanksgiving Day: I could save a lot of money on health care costs in retirement in 2018–and beyond–by switching to a Medicare Advantage plan.

To be honest, I had never considered one of these plans when I signed up for Medicare a few years ago when I was evaluating Medigap policies; I simply thought an HMO-style Medigap plan was the better choice because I didn’t have to pay for any extra health care costs.

I’d save more, if I had access to a zero-based plan, but as it turns out, there are no zero-cost Medicare Advantage plans in the New Jersey county where I live. These plans are priced by the availability of the health insurance companies that offer these plans, and currently, only 11% of the retiree health population has access to these plans. They’re also affected by the cost of medical care in your zip code (which may be something to think about in the future in choosing an “ideal” place to retire).

But several months into 2018, I’m wondering if I made the right choice by switching to Medicare Advantage at all.

Shortly after I signed up for one of these plans, I rated my health as “excellent.” Then the arthritis in my right knee that I’ve managed on my own for the past decade flared up, which led to multiple visits to the orthopedic doctor ($45 a pop) and expensive gel injections. But that didn’t resolve the inflammation in my leg, so I had to follow up with a vascular surgeon, who said I had “venous insufficiency,” meaning the blood flow in my veins needed to be corrected. By the time I visit these two doctors for follow up appointments, and pay my share for the outpatient surgery I had last week ($300), I will spend $1,190 out of pocket, not including premiums. If I don’t go to the doctor anymore this year, I’ll spend just about the same money I spent on my Aetna Medigap policy in 2017.

So here’s question, or questions, as I look ahead to the Open Enrollment Period later this year, one to myself and one to you:

Should I switch back to a Medigap policy? Will I pay a penalty? Will Medigap coverage now cost me more?

And a second, to you: Did you switch to a Medicare Advantage plan like me in 2018 to save money? If so, what’s your experience been like so far? Do you plan to stick with your Medicare Advantage plan, or aare you thinking of switching later this year? And if you thought about one of these plans, but backed away, would you tell me why? You may have gleaned some insights that will help me, and others, make a more informed decision in 2018.

Listen to Your Brother—Switch to Medicare Advantage

To be honest, I had never considered one of these plans when I signed up for Medicare a few years ago. But I wanted to know how my brother, Tom, was paying nothing for his supplemental health coverage, while I was paying $141.44 for an Aetna Medigap policy and another $18 for a prescription drug plan.

He got to the point with his usual finesse. “Why did you wait so long to call me?” he asked.

This was back near the end of 2017. Open Enrollment, the six weeks at the end of the year when you can switch to another provider for your health coverage, was ending in less than 10 days. Tom, who sells health insurance policies in Illinois, said, “You really should check out Medicare Advantage plans. You have only until next Thursday to sign up.”

That got my attention. As a freelance writer and editor, I perk up whenever I hear the word “deadline.”

“I like the Medigap plan I have,” I replied, somewhat defensively. The truth is, I had never considered a Medicare Advantage plan; I just assumed that my Medigap policy, which pays 20% of the costs that aren’t covered by Medicare, was better, meaning, more cost effective, because I didn’t pay for co-payments and deductibles.

“What’s the company?” he asked. “I hope you checked their ratings.”

Fortunately, I had. “Aetna,” I replied.

“That’s a good company,” he said, “but why are you paying so much? I pay nothing–zero, nadda, zip.”

The short answer: Because I don’t want to be limited in my choice of doctors, and I want to keep seeing the doctors I currently see. Tom barreled on. “There may be a Medicare Advantage plan in your zip code that accepts your doctors,” he said before hanging up. “You should check it out.”

When I did, I couldn’t believe the numbers: I thought my digital calculator was going to burn out: I could save an eye-popping $996 a year if I switched t0 the Aetna Medicare Advantage plan, paying $76 a month instead of the combined $159 I was shelling out for Aetna Medigap coverage and a prescription drug plan.

Here’s what learned during my search that I hope will help you manage your health care costs, both now and in retirement:

1. Check credit ratings. There are four “don’ts” to pay attention to:

  • Don’t believe what a health insurer has to say about their credit rating, because they will likely choose the one that’s most favorable.
  • Don’t check just one rating; check at least two or three ratings, because each rating agency uses different criteria and methods to rate companies. Ratings from the five major agencies (A.M. Best and Kroll Bond Rating Agency, in addition to the three above) can vary.
  • Don’t assume the task of checking a health rating is easy–it’s a lot like managing your health; it takes some effort. Credit rating agencies can disagree with each other, because they follow different rating systems.
  • Don’t think your work is over once you choose a health provider. Check on the company’s health at least once a year, because agencies can announce ratings changes at any time. I’ll plan to write about this topic in a future blog.

2. Review your health care costs annually. Costs change from year to year because of regulations and marketplace competition. These days, you can’t afford to “lock and load” your health coverage; you need to review costs every year.

3. Pay attention to timing. You are going to pay if you miss a deadline for making changes to your insurance plan.

4. Review your health expenses. Pull together all your records for the last full year and add up what you spent. I used my 2017 health care costs as the basis of my health care estimate for 2018, adding in the copays and deductibles in the Medicare Advantage plan I was considering:

For now, I’m thinking of where to save that $37 a month, which will help pay some health care costs. If I’m going to live another 30 years in retirement, that money adds up. If I were younger, I would fund a Health Savings Account (H.S.A.), which is lot like an Individual Retirement Account, with one important exception: It allows you to use the money to pay for health care expenses in retirement–without paying any taxes when you withdraw it. Since healthcare costs in retirement are currently estimated to consume as much as 20% of your budget, that’s a smart move to think about making now, if you can.

What health changes did you make in 2018? Are you thinking of switching to a Medicare Advantage Plan to save money? What goals do you have for the money you’ll save?

Welcome to Dori on the Dime—Demystifying Personal Finance

In the summer of 2001, my former boss had to write me a letter of recommendation, after deciding to retire her long-running syndicated Washington Post column on personal finance. That was one of my favorite roles, reporting for Jane Bryant Quinn’s Post column, monthly for Good Housekeeping and as needed for Newsweek. I chased down information for two Post columns a week and figured my way out of one financial maze after another. During those critical years in the nation’s economy (1998-2001), I learned who to call and what to ask on a dizzying array of personal finance topics.

So I took it as a huge compliment when Jane called me “a pit bull in tracking down information.” That’s really when Dori on the Dime began, although I didn’t realize it at the time. The idea was introduced in July 2009, when I was celebrating over lunch with wealth manager Julie Jason, whose award-winning book on retirement income planning I helped edit.

That was shortly before the global financial crisis became a personal financial crisis for me, and I was forced to put aside Julie’s idea for a personal finance column. News assignments and book contracts had started to dry up, adding to the unpaid cost of helping loved ones that had drained me financially. After debating whether to use my money, or the government’s, to pay my bills, I decided to apply for early benefits from the Social Security Administration (SSA).

Eighteen months later, I was on the brink of landing a fulltime job at a national newswire service in Washington, D.C. I grew giddy at the thought of restarting my lagging retirement savings, after reading on the SSA’s website about the delayed retirement credit. The credit would allow me to suspend benefits, while growing at the annual rate of 8%. Even with paying income tax, I would come out ahead, because Social Security benefits would be growing by leaps and bounds and I could max out my retirement savings to the limit allowed by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Ecstatic, I grabbed a calculator and did a happy dance all the way to La La Land.

Then I called Social Security to double check what I had read. Alas, I was mistaken. You can’t qualify for the delayed retirement credit if you’ve been collecting for more than a year; I had been collecting for six months beyond the deadline.

Angry and upset, I called back to complain that the information on the website wasn’t all that clear. After holding on for an hour and eighteen minutes, and repeating the reason for my call, the representative, after the briefest of silences, said—in a voice that could freeze ice cubes in July—that the agency didn’t have the time to explain everything on its site. “That’s why you have to call us,” she said, before hanging up.

That call kicked Dori on the Dime into gear. I didn’t like the representative’s answer, or the tone of her voice.

Managing your financial life takes time. It takes time to get a straight answer about this month’s cable TV bill or a “surprise” medical bill or the reason for your shrinking 401(k) balance—time that busy consumers often don’t have.

That’s where I can help. I’ve written personal finance stories and edited books for years on saving, managing and investing your money, but I still have a personal finance question or two of my own every week to track down—and I like holding on the phone until I get an answer. As a self-employed freelance writer who’s paid for her own health care for years, and a single, never-married Boomer whose future isn’t padded with a million dollars or a comfortable pension, I have a lot of questions every week about these finance topics, and others.

I’m not a financial adviser, but I think that what I learn will help you with whatever personal finance question you’re trying to sort your way out of. So send me your questions—please! I’ll be sharing what I find out with you every Monday morning, so that you can make your way forward into the week—and on with the rest of your life.