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The Cost of Working

As you contribute every month to your 401(k), you've probably asked yourself, "Do I have enough to retire?" But perhaps you should be asking, "How much am I paying to work?" After all, maintaining a career -- and the lifestyle that often accompanies it -- isn't free.

How much is work costing you?
Housing, transportation, and taxes make up most of the expense of working. But there are other costs as well -- clothing, eating out, and a sizeable bite into your personal and family time, for starters.

Houses and rent in high-employment areas are more expensive than those in "depressed-employment" markets. So you need to live near job opportunities or be willing to make a long commute, the latter of which increases your gas bill and adds wear and tear to your vehicle, not to mention your psyche. Your spouse needs a car, too, to efficiently run the home and to haul the kids and pets around. If you're both pursuing careers, and you have children, you'll need to add day care expenses to your monthly bill.

Your second car could easily cost you $7,200 per year, considering gas, maintenance, insurance, and repairs. Assuming that state and federal taxes take 30% of your income, you'll need to earn $10,300 just to cover the costs of car ownership -- a daunting thought indeed.

Some professions require that you keep up an image, including any or all of the following: a house with the right address, a car that is suitable for a partner of a firm, impressive watches or jewelry, and professional clothing with the necessary dry-cleaning expenses. You're encouraged to represent the company itself with proper shoes, handbags, or briefcases, essential computer traveling cases, and cell phones. There are also pricey haircuts, manicures and nail buffings, hair coloring to look young and vigorous, or perhaps a membership to a country club or golf lessons so you can schmooze with potential clients.

Keeping fit can be expensive, too, with a gym membership or personal exercise equipment quickly racking up bills.

When we were working, we treasured our moments at home. We didn't want to spend our precious time cleaning it, so we employed a service. The same went for mowing the lawn, pruning the trees, or planting flowers each year.

There are social pressures, too. Working couples are often so busy that get-togethers with family and friends must be scheduled far in advance. Small yet significant moments with children can disappear before our eyes, and having unstructured time to simply unwind seems a distant luxury.

Home sweet home?
Houses themselves aren't free, either. They must be adequately insured, repainted, renovated, recarpeted, and otherwise maintained, with roof repairs or plumbing problems adding sizeable sums to the minus column. Don't forget the cost of utilities. The larger the home, the more space you must heat or cool. If people looked at owning their home in the same way as running a business -- tracking every dime they've invested, plus the hours of their labor to maintain it -- they would be shocked.

A 2006 Wall Street Journal study found that maintaining a home over 30 years can cost nearly four times what you paid for it. The sobering conclusion, according to the Journal: "Almost every house, no matter how recently or expertly built, is a money pit." It's enough to make the "Home Sweet Home" sign in the kitchen shudder right off the walls.

Moreover, the costs of home ownership are clearer in a challenging housing market. Reassessments have driven property taxes up, but property values are going down. That's no recipe for financial security.

These days, both partners want the chance to express themselves in a career, or to pursue a mental or creative challenge. Since each spouse is working, taking the time to cook at home is not always a convenient option. Constantly eating out, rushing to pick up something on the way home, or using packaged microwave products definitely ratchets up your food expenses.

And then there are the yearly vacations. You'll spend thousands of dollars to justify the enjoyment of a few weeks off so you can tell your co-workers what a fabulous time you had -- but those good feelings fade when your tan is gone and the credit card statement arrives.

This whole scenario is starting to add up. What can you do to keep down your costs in retirement?

1. Consider different housing options
Are you planning on staying put, or moving to a more economical location? Will you need the same amount of square footage?

And why not try someplace new? There are many ways to downsize your housing expenses. You could rent or purchase a condo, with amenities that management takes care of. You could move to a sailing vessel or houseboat, or maybe an RV. We know many RV and boat "full-timers" who long ago gave up the conventional house. It's not because they cannot afford one -- they simply prefer the unhampered lifestyle.

Or consider a move to a less expensive country. There are expats in just about every corner of the world, and this is the time of your life to live your dream. When we first retired 16 years ago, we shared a spectacular house with some others on the tiny island nation of Nevis, in the West Indies. Since our friends worked all day, we had a mansion with a spectacular view overlooking three islands all to ourselves. Upon returning to the U.S., we slowly traveled through the West full-time in a fifth-wheel trailer. We know others who have done house exchanges in return for living in a faraway land. There are so many options, you only have to use your imagination and look for opportunities. Besides, you can always buy a house whenever you want -- they're everywhere!

2. Rethink transportation
Will you continue to need two cars? Will you be able to get by with other choices, like public transport, a moped, a golf cart, or a bicycle?

Since we began traveling the world, we've driven our vehicle an average of only 1,500 miles a year. We live in a location that is within walking distance to grocery stores and restaurants, with shuttle service to the airport. Our entertainment options are also close by.

3. Focus on fitness
Exercise during retirement can be a daily part of life. Walking is free. Tennis, hiking, biking, rollerblading, tai chi, or yoga cost almost nothing.

4. Take control of your dining
Perhaps going out to lunch is a better value than meeting friends for dinner. Or better yet, learn to cook! Eat fresh! It's healthier and more economical. You won't be nearly as rushed as you were when you were working, and being smart in this one area can give you substantial savings.

5. Tend to your taxes
Don't forget the impact of lower taxes once you're retired. Having no earned income means you'll pay no more payroll taxes. Now is the time to simplify your tax structure, before you leave your job.

Upon retirement, you'll find that many of your expenses can be dramatically reduced. Once you understand your cost of working, and deduct this amount from your budget, you might find that you're much closer to your goal of financial independence than you realized.

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