Susie advises: “Fess up to the things you don’t know. Don’t let fear stop you just because you don’t think you’ll gain any ground.”
“Anytime I hear the word ‘money,’ I get nervous,” confides Susie Baer-Collins, 65. “I was always, for the longest time, going from paycheck to paycheck and trying to pay off credit debt. I’m not an example of smart financial thinking.”
The daughter of a military physician, Susie admits her childhood, at least, was spent with some measure of fiscal security. “We weren’t wealthy,” she remembers, “but we did okay. My dad always worked for government hospitals, so it was a different kind of life, and there was a lot of moving around.”
Beginning to think about retirement Susie herself was restless. In 1972, she dropped out of college, with only a year unfinished, to pursue the life of an actress. That meant dinner theatres and summer productions and travel — but it wouldn’t lend itself to the development of financial literacy. By the early 80s, Susie was a first-time mom, married to a fellow actor, and still uncertain about her economic future.
“Carl and I were paying high prices for childcare at the time,” Susie says. “We only put some money aside because a friend, who was an actor, had finally decided to follow his bliss and become a financial advisor. Ever since he was a young man, even when he made nothing, this guy put money away. A little bit at a time. And he had a lot to show for it.”
So Susie made a $50 investment with this friend’s fledgling advisory career—and then began thinking, for the first time, about the notion of her own retirement. In 1987, she was hired by the Omaha Community Playhouse (now the largest community theater in the country) as an acting instructor and on-stage performer. While there, working alongside her husband, Carl, Susie earned a salary of just $13,000.
“There was a mindset, and it was said out loud,” Susie says. “‘Your husband makes ‘x’ amount of money, so you don’t need that much.’ And there was really nothing at the Playhouse, when we started there. No 401(k) or insurance, and no real way to plan.”
**A maturing perspective, and the start of retirement **The importance of these sorts of assets, and of the long-term thinking they inspire, wouldn’t enter Susie’s life in full until her marriage, in 1998, to Dennis Collins, an estate attorney.
“Dennis would tell you he does ‘dead people stuff,’” Susie jokes. “What happens to your assets when you go? What happens to your farm? What do you want your kids to have when you’re gone? Important questions.”
These questions helped her think through her own financial plan. Now two years into her retirement from the Omaha Community Playhouse (where she rose to become Associate Artistic Director), Susie has benefited from a more nuanced way of looking at her resources.
“I invest the money I made at the Playhouse, and I handle a small investment through a couple of mutual funds,” Susie says. “Now, every six months, I get a call asking if I want to speak with my financial advisor. Like Blanche DuBois, I still depend on the kindness of strangers.”
Susie has also used retirement to tackle other important goals. In December of 2016, she finally finished a long-delayed bachelor’s degree.
“I’ve really enjoyed going back to school,” Susie says. “I phoned so much in [the first time]. But now I’m loving all the subjects I used to just endure. Money and numbers still make me want to crawl under the couch, sometimes, but to get this General Studies degree, I had to pass pre-algebra and then a college algebra class. I got an A+ in both. That’s the person I’ve become now.”
Whether squaring off against algebra textbooks or engaging with financial literacy, Susie says her advice remains the same: “Fess up to the things you don’t know. Don’t let fear stop you just because you don’t think you’ll gain any ground.”
About plynty Americans aren’t doing enough for retirement planning. Here’s one startling fact: the median retirement savings across all working-age families in the United States is just $5,000.
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