Mark Neil helps clients manage their retirement savings at his company, Northwest Wealth Advisors.
Mark Neil helps clients manage their retirement savings at his company, Northwest Wealth Advisors.

With encouragement like this, who needs discouragement?

“Experts typically recommend trying to accumulate at least $1 million,” noted a piece on CNBC about saving for retirement. The author shared that if you start saving at age 35 you’ll need to save about $30 a day to be a millionaire by age 67.

“Don’t get bogged down in that,” counters Molly O’Donnell, director of Save First Financial Wellness, a social enterprise of Catholic Charities. “People think, ‘I can’t do that, so why bother?’ But it’s never too late to start changing your future.”

O’Donnell and her team help people live differently and put savings plans into action. Clients often come to Save First because they’ve been faced with an emergency. They have a job but their car needed to be fixed and now they can’t pay the rent.

“We look at what led to the situation,” says O’Donnell. “We match them with financial coaches and help them look at their goals.”

O’Donnell recalls the 94-year-old woman facing eviction after a rent increase. Her health was in steep decline because she was so frightened of being homeless. O’Donnell and her team were able to help.

The first step was keeping a roof over the client’s head, but the next step was saving.

“Pay yourself first,” agrees Sonia Capece, a manager at NeighborImpact, a nonprofit that helps individuals and families access resources in times of need.

Rachel Haakenson, director of communications for NeighborImpact, says the group often sees seniors who only have enough to get by, month to month. When there’s an extra medical bill or the refrigerator or furnace dies, they go without food.

It’s not just seniors: A survey from Bankrate.com shows that only 37 percent of Americans have enough savings to pay for a $500 or $1,000 emergency.

Both Save First at Catholic Charities and NeighborImpact work with clients to help them build a savings account that would handle such an emergency.

Then comes saving for retirement.

Capece says savings can come from something as simple as connecting with the Senior Brown Bag program, an income-based food program for seniors, to cover part of their food budget. “People worry that someone else needs it more, but really, seniors need to have a little left over for savings,” she says.

Earlier this year, Kaiser Family Foundation released troubling statistics on the financial health of elders. They used the U.S. Census Bureau’s supplementary poverty measure, which includes safety net income (like food stamps, housing subsidies and tax credits), regional differences in the cost of living, and medical expenses.

They found 7.1 million Americans age 65 and older living in poverty in 2017; that’s 14.5 percent.

The researchers found that health had a large impact on how seniors were doing financially: The poverty rate was nearly three times as high among seniors who said their health was fair or poor compared to those who described their health as excellent or very good.

In Oregon, there are about 700,000 seniors; 45,000 live below the official poverty threshold; 76,000 live below the supplemental poverty threshold.

How much a retiree has saved is the significant driver of financial well-being — and people know it. Another survey shows 78 percent of Americans “extremely” or “somewhat” worried about not having enough for retirement.

Mark Neil, a principal at Northwest Wealth Advisors, regularly meets with clients who are worried about their future. He sounds a lot like O’Donnell and Capece regarding what people need to do. “It may not be a pretty picture, but what you have is your starting point,” he says. “Getting those assets on paper is a critical first step.”

Neil and other financial wealth advisers at his company don’t have the $200,000 — or $5 million — minimum that some financial advisers insist upon. “If you’re sincere about improving yourself we’ll help you,” he says.

Neil, a member of Resurrection Parish in Tualatin who has served as a board member of several organizations including Catholic Charities and has volunteered with many others, including LaSalle Prep, said he thinks his company may be unique in financial management groups in that they see people’s wealth as more than their financial assets. “It’s everything about them, their family, their hopes and dreams.”

He also knows wealth is a relative thing: Some people making six figures can’t write a check for that $1,000 emergency.

The solution begins with getting the numbers on paper, he says. One of his tools is to show people their optimal strategy, including the role Social Security will pay. “It’s sad to see, but a lot of people take their benefits at age 62,” he says. “That’s typically the worst decision they can make — although sometimes they have to, if there’s no other money coming in.”

Neil asks clients what their earliest memory of money is, and what money means to them. From this he helps people get a sense of how their relationship with money affects their everyday lives.

Next comes helping people get their finances corralled. “In some cases, people haven’t sat down and figured out their assets, their cashflow and budget,” he says. “It might not be pretty, and that can keep people from looking. But we don’t talk about what happened in the past.”

Getting their finances on paper comes next, along with clarifying what’s important to the person and their relationship with money. Are they someone for whom money comes and goes, or are they the frugal ant of Aesop’s Fables, always working and saving. “We’re not emotionally attached to your money; we’ll tell you about your spending habits and teach you to undo bad habits, create new habits,” Neil says.

Neil tells clients how long their savings will last under which circumstances. “That in itself can be comforting,” he says.

Part of Neil’s message to clients is rooted in his faith. He sees wealth as a gift — a temporary one. “We all need to take care of our gifts and to give abundantly back,” he says. “We don’t all have treasure, but we can also give talent and time.”

He praises O’Donnell’s work with the truly needy, and has offered his skills to her program.

O’Donnell may have the most inspiring advice of all for those saving for those wanting to better themselves financially for retirement — and to live more happily with retirement’s fixed income. “We have people on TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) who actually save money,” she says. “Saving is a habit — it’s about getting a buffer between you and life, because life happens.”

Doable steps to retirement

1. Build an emergency savings fund of $500 or $1,000.

2. Get everything down on paper. Know what you have.

3. Begin saving for retirement.

Eye on the prize

Are you contributing to an IRA?

How about a 401K?

Do you have a will?

Do you have an advance directive?

What about life insurance?

By the numbers

$12,140 — official 2018 annual poverty threshold for a single person

$14,460  — official 2018 annual poverty threshold for a couple

$16,960 — average 2018 Social Security income

$26,000 — more than half of Americans on Medicare have incomes less than this