A Rant on The State of the Middle Class and Retirement

I think it is common knowledge that many people are going to have a hard time affording a comfortable retirement, and we all know people who plan to work until they drop because they feel they have no other choice. Joel came across an article recently – Middle-Class Americans Living With Regret About Retirement Savings  One line jumped out at me

In a new survey question added this year, 22 percent said they would rather “die early” than live without enough money for a comfortable retirement. 

More than one in five people are afraid they will be so poor that the time will come when life isn’t worth living. What a sad statement.

I can quote more statistics and link to more articles but I don’t think we need convincing that many people are going to retire with less than they think they need, or won’t retire at all. What does this mean in terms of quality of life?

Quality of life is much more than a financial thing, and I’m afraid that in the US we are going about it all wrong. It wasn’t until I left that I fully realized how much we are brainwashed to buy more, to have better stuff, a better job, house, spouse, car, clothes, jewelry… on and on and all this will make you happy. Work hard, get an education, get the great job, work very hard, and you too can succeed. But, succeed at what? Being happy? Not necessarily.

Then, I come to Central America and meet a lot of very happy people. Many of them live in conditions we would find totally unacceptable. There are financially poor people here in David, and even more in the more rural areas. There are terribly poor people in Nicaragua with dirt floor houses. But, if you define success as happiness they are very successful and very rich.

The Gallup Poll on happiness that came out recently that says Panama is #1! The US didn’t make the top 10. The article states “Panama had the highest scores in the world in four of the five well-being elements — purpose, social, community, and physical well-being. Sixty-one percent of Panamanians were thriving in three or more elements, the survey found.” Notice they didn’t score well in the 5th element – feeling financially secure.

What does this have to do with all of us? I’m not sure, but it is pretty clear that most of us at or near retirement aren’t going to increase our financial net worth enough to make a bit of difference.  Besides working until we drop, it seems there are two things we can do though – decrease expenses and lower expectations.

Many of us are looking at other countries as a way to decrease expenses. For some of us it is working wonderfully. For others it doesn’t work, especially those who don’t love the experience but feel forced into it by finances. There are also ways to cut expenses in the US – live in a cheaper place, give up various things, etc. But, does this help if we are filled with resentment?

I think the biggest thing we can do is change expectations. Of course this is terribly difficult to do in the US where we are bombarded with expectations every day on all fronts, from TV to newspapers and other media to the attitudes of those around us. But when you think about it, we experience our world and our happiness in our heads, in our minds. If you want to change your world, change your mind (so say the Buddhist teachers). Turn off the TV. Throw away the magazines. Cultivate friends who are happy. Be grateful for what you have. Try to help others. Get outdoors and enjoy what nature provides.

I know we are very lucky to be surrounded by happy people who generally have their priorities straight. If you ask a Panamanian what is most important you will probably hear – family, friends, enjoying life. They work hard but they are less driven and more relaxed about work. There isn’t the constant striving and stress that is so familiar in the US. Days off are for enjoying family and friends and having fun. There is no stigma about lying around in a hammock, even if you don’t have money to put paint on your house.

I have learned so much from these happy people and it has made it a lot easier for me to keep my head on straight. I really feel for the people who feel trapped in the US, unable or unwilling to leave, dealing with retirement on little money, feeling forced to continue working, feeling forced to make changes they don’t want, feeling they deserve better after a lifetime of work. I hope that somehow they can manage to make some really nice lemonade from the sour lemons.


About Kris Cunningham

We live in David, Chiriqui Provence, Republic of Panama! This blog is about some of our experiences in our new country.
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53 Responses to A Rant on The State of the Middle Class and Retirement

  1. joeltc1 says:

    Reblogged this on FindingMySelfinPanama and commented:
    Kris (my wife) wrote a great piece about an article I saw that said that a percentage of folks polled said they would rather ” die early” than life through their retirement without enoug money for a comfortable retirement. I don’t know how “early” they wanted to die, but I was shocked to hear that sentiment expressed by so many. Kris wrote a thougtful post that I felt was worth putting on my blog.
    Peace, Joel


  2. oldsalt1942 says:

    So true. When pressed about why I live in Panama I have to simply say…”Because I can’t afford to live in my own country. If I was in the U.S. I’d have to work until the day I toppled over dead.” And that’s the sad truth of the situation, too. But fortunately I qualified for the Pensionado program here and I don’t regret a minute I’ve spent here. You, Joel, and many, many others know that Panamanians are warm, wonderful people. “Salt of the earth” as the saying goes.

    Can you “live like a king” here on Social Security? Don’t be silly. You can’t even live like a prince here on Social Security. But what you CAN do, if you live like your Panamanian neighbors, is live a rather stress-free, comfortable life. As for myself, I get my SS direct deposit every month, and after paying my bills, buying good food and generally enjoying a life I couldn’t have in the States, I usually have more money in the bank each month than I started with.


  3. Yep, us too. We would either have to keep working or move to low income housing and scrape by. Live like a king? If success and living like a king is having a great life experience with some really good people, we are both living like kings. I really don’t want the palace and other trappings of kingdom anyway,


  4. Pathway To Portugal says:

    So sad that people would rather die! It’s almost like the more you have the more unhappy you are. I feel like I’ve been set free and liberated as I keep getting rid of more things. I’m so truly happy for you that you love your life there. Even though I was only there for two weeks, it gave me a small glimpse of how close the families are. How sweet and refreshing it was to see dads holding their son’s hand as they walked down the street. I don’t know where I will end up retiring yet but the people we met and experience we had changed us. And for the better. And I thank you and all the other bloggers for sharing your lives with us.


    • It is true about the more you have. As a community health nurse I was in all sorts of homes, and those with a lot were often more stressed and unhappy. I think as long as you have enough – food, shelter, clothing, etc a lot extra doesn’t really raise your happiness. I know what you mean about the liberation of getting rid of things too!


  5. Sunni Morris says:


    This is very sad about people and the attitude that they’d rather die than live comfortably. I agree there is more to life than money, but unfortunately you have to have some amount of money even if you live modestly. I won’t be forced to move out of my country just to survive. I don’t have to have the biggest and the best of anything. It would make me very unhappy to know that moving offshore was my only choice. I’m sure the Panamanians are great people, but I’m afraid I would feel resentful about the whole thing.

    I want to move closer to my family here, if I can, and downsize to a smaller house we can pay cash for. If necessary I’ll take on a PT job, but it would be because I want to, not because I have to, even though it would give us extra money if someone will hire an older person. Working is a great way to make new friends and meet new people when you move across the country where there will be no one you know but your spouse. (We can’t move that near my family because my husband thinks we’re all crazy and he doesn’t want to live that close). I think he figures I would be consumed by all the family drama. Long story.

    Plus, I don’t need anything but the basics. Growing up on a cotton farm, we were dirt poor and we made it to adulthood okay. So I know I can live with little. It’s the taxes and insurance that bother me more than the other expenses. Were keeping a close watch on that so we won’t be strapped once we sell the house. I do want an inside bathroom and running water and electricity because I guess I’m spoiled and think I deserve those things in my old age.

    What I do need too is a computer and internet connection. I can get by with basic TV because I seldom watch it. The only magazine I subscribe to is a writer’s trade magazine, otherwise I read books. This will be an issue for my husband though because he’s a big TV watcher and magazine reader.

    I have a sewing machine and sew most of my own clothes and have enough stocked fabric to last me my lifetime, so there won’t be any expense there, unless the machine needs maintenance.

    I walk around my neighborhood and meet fellow walkers so I intend to do the same after we get moved. We’ll also be taking up fishing so there’s an opportunity to meet more people and put food on the table.

    I’ll also be looking into joining a book club, writer’s group, and photography club so there will be new friends I have something in common with.

    It’s actually all about the attitude all of us have. We truly make our own happiness because we can choose to be happy or not. There’s always something wonderful out there if you take the time to realize how fortunate you are. I intend to be happy and live to a very old age. I wish more people would be positive because I know things seem bleak sometimes, but they too will pass. No one will get very far with a negative attitude. All you’ll do is make yourself and everyone around you miserable. Life has many blessings and we should be counting them everyday.

    I’m so glad you and your mate are happy where you are. You made the right choice for you. I hope I’m as smart when the time comes to move out of my house.



    • oldsalt1942 says:

      You’re right, Sunni, we each make our own personal heaven or hell. I know for myself moving to Panama was a wonderful decision. The adventure of adapting to a different culture and learning a new language help keep the synapses of the brain firing away. And I can tell you something about Kris and Joel. Those two are having more fun than any two people should be allowed to have since moving here.


    • You obviously have put a lot of thought into what you want to do and what makes YOU happy. That is so important, and I have a feeling you have your head on very straight and you will be just fine. You are right about the positive attitude which is good for you and everyone around you.


  6. Charlene says:

    I loved your rant!! Here in Canada, we have similar attitudes about “success”…THINGS…POSSESSIONS. I don’t buy it any more, either. I plan on retiring from teaching at 55-just another year and a half and I intend to live somewhere warm, perhaps Mexico, maybe Panama, Belize. Quality of life so important and that to me means family, sunshine, beaches, friends….and wine:)


    • I am hearing from more Canadians that you all have the same stressful standards of “success” and that is so hard. 1 1/2 years more? Oh so close! It won’t be long before you are sitting in the sun, and wine is inexpensive in Panama 😉


  7. Dr. Annelise Driscoll says:

    Outstanding post about a thought-provoking topic!


  8. indacampo says:

    I think you hit on a key word “expectations”. Living well, no matter what your income is all about “expectations”. And it’s not necessarily about lowering them or increasing them but finding the perfect balance to find happiness and gratitude 🙂


  9. Agree with the article and all you said! My husband and I were just talking yesterday about American Consumerism and “Keeping up with the Joneses.” What’s the end-game here? Just goes to show that money really can’t buy happiness :).


    • There is no end game. That is the problem. Someone always has more, and there is always one more thing just out of reach. It is not only giving up the stuff, but giving up the striving for stuff that makes you feel so liberated.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Kris and Joel, I just found your blog and am enjoying it immensely. You have provided a lot of information for those considering the move, especially your expense breakdown. This post is very heartwarming and exactly how my husband and I feel about happiness and joy. It is not what you have but what is inside of you. We have been blessed to have traveled to Jamaica and Puerto Rico many times and have seen many people living simply and going without all the bells and whistles but are joyful and happy anyway. Now that we are retired, we’re considering moving out of the country. At this point, we are really looking into Puerto Rico but basic expenses are high, like electric/water and their economy isn’t all that stable at the moment.

    I’m reading more about Panama and I think we need to come for a visit, haha, to experience another country’s culture. I really love to get out and experience how others live. We are all just people around the world doing the same with our families, living, loving, and enjoying each moment. Many blessings to you, both!



    • We are all just people…. I love this! Yes, so true. Maybe you should visit Panama. I don’t know how it compares to Puerto Rico, but I think it has a lot of what you enjoy about that country.
      Thank you so much for your comments and I’m glad you enjoy the blog 🙂


  11. 4sarge says:

    So much has CHANGED, and NOT for the Better. WE live such more Complex (Costly) Lives than ever before, or so it seems. SS was a Scam from the get go, and Life Expectancy was only at 67+. Now, it’s not uncommon for 90’s & later. Congress Stole the SS Fund for the General Fund so that they could SPEND it ALL away to line their Own Pockets or to retain their elected position.

    Nursing Homes – Warehouses for Senior Citizens, most at Government Expense to house those who cannot care for themselves because of infirmity, Alzheimer’s or other physical ailments. I haven’t stepped foot in one for several years because Most are Traumatizing. Over Medicate until Dead. Depressing to say the least and NOT a place for Me.

    Baby Boomers are Retiring in Record Numbers (as they knew that WE would) in better Health and most wanting to Live Life to the Fullest but Funds are now Limited because of the Economy and non existent Interest rates. My Annuities LOST at least half. Most of Us lived way above Our means and Didn’t Save but had a New Fancy Car, that BIG screen TV and that Large house in the manicured Suburb’s. LIVE Now – Pay the Piper Later.

    Family Dynamics – Families once revered the Elderly and lived as a Unit providing that Housing and Care until Death. Funerals were a 3 day or so affair, now the Funeral Homes have priced it so maybe you have an Evening Showing with a Morning Burial. NO Respect for the Elderly, who Gave so much, to so many.

    Then WE GOT Socialized Medicine with Limitations on Care based on Age – Inhumane to say the Least. The Aged have been made into a Burden by the ever CHANGING Electorate who want more $$’s coming into their TAX Coffers and Not Payouts to those who made that Great Society. It’s Cheaper for them to see Our Demise instead of repayment for the 40+ years of Taxes and the GOOD that We Gave to the Community and our Peers.

    Sorry, it is Depressing to see Society Collapsing about, “It’s a wicked world that we live in. It’s cruel and unforgiving.” Rant Off

    To be Upbeat, NOT All Cultures have abandoned their Elders and that is a Positive Note, Panama being one of those. Hooray for Panamanian’s, a Simpler Life in a Beautiful Warm Country. I’d Love to make it to Panama while I still have my Health, Mental Capacity, and Funds.


    • Oh dear, I could go on a heck of a rant on all those subjects! I was a home health nurse so I saw the treatment of the elderly, the health care system from the inside and outside (though never saw limitations based on age), and I worked with many families. Unfortunately I didn’t have access to health care myself and a serious illness would have bankrupted us.
      I remember the US when I was young, the land of opportunity and beacon of hope around the world. Now it’s none of that and it’s really sad. But, there isn’t anything I can do about it except frustrate myself and rant, so I choose to leave it behind, turn off my TV, and live a much better life with these good people here.
      I never thought about respect for the elderly until we came here with my husband’s mom and saw how wonderfully everyone treated her. This is where I want to grow old. Everyone has access to health care here, even me, a non resident foreigner. What a huge relief.
      Get going, come to Panama. We decided we weren’t getting any further ahead by waiting. Maybe this is so for you too? You hardly realize how much you aren’t free until to live in a place where you are.


      • 4sarge says:

        I’d be there ‘in a New York Minute’ BUT the Wife, Grandkids, Kids and probably the ‘uncertainty’ of a different New life is Hesitant (putting it nicely). 🙂


        • Yes of course. It is scary and takes a big leap of faith. Maybe an extended vacation to actually see that it isn’t as scary as one might think? But, something like this isn’t for everyone and you won’t be happy if the wife and extended family is unhappy with such a move.


          • oldsalt1942 says:

            There’s great transportation service between Panama and the United States. . . you could easily visit the wife and grandkids just about any time you wanted to,..


  12. 4sarge says:

    Reblogged this on 4sarge and commented:
    GREAT, Informative, Thought Provoking Article – THANKS for the Insight and the Wonderful Panama Adventure


  13. tombseekers says:

    When our govt is elected by corporations and CEOs, not surprising they look out for those people. The tax code has allowed a few to become extremely wealthy by reducing their obligations. Just 5% of Americans own 69% of the wealth, the bottom 80% controls only 7%. That is the middle and lower class combined. The rhetoric against unions has allowed huge corporations to strip their workers of benefits, like retirement packages. Healthcare is a financial nightmare to anyone who has a major illness. Iinsurance costs are prohibitive and hospital stays can mean bankruptcy for many Americans. Thankfully their fight to privatize SS failed but they continue to fight over raising the minimum wage to a livable wage. They have been very successful pitting Americans against teachers, police officers and other government workers – they epitome of ‘middle class’. Neither political party wants to change the status quo and it seems like the redistribution of wealth will continue to flow up.


    • I know! The gap between the halves and have nots is growing by the day. The biggest cause of bankruptcy is health care costs, and most of them have insurance. The whole thing is just a big mess. I have worked for the candidates and political party of my choice. I’m not doing any more. I am still a voting citizen but the rest of the time I am ignoring the news and living a different life. What a pleasure and what a relief. It’s sad though to think of our kids, friends, and neighbors still dealing with it on a daily basis. but I am glad to be out.


    • susanpazera says:

      Wonderful summary – and all reasons that are feeding into our decision to move to Panama.


  14. Bravo!!! Nicely Said Mi Amiga!!! I love how you think!!! Life is Good!!! Cheers!!


  15. Excellent rant, Kris. You hit the nail on the head when you said, “For others it doesn’t work, especially those who don’t love the experience but feel forced into it by finances.” Retirees who move to a developing country expecting their same old consumerism wrapped in a McDonald’s bag will be very disappointed. They usually leave bitter because of their expectations of living the same lifestyle. Thanks for the insightful rant.


    • Yes indeed. We have seen these unhappy expats here, and I’m sure you have them there too. It’s not good for them or their adopted country. Consumerism wrapped in a McDonald’s bag. LOL Well put.
      Spending time in your home was such an experience. Many of your neighbors have so little but live such a joyful life, and we felt connected with them so quickly. We are so looking forward to coming back and seeing everyone again.


  16. Reblogged this on Let The Adventure Begin! and commented:
    My Good Friend Kris has some very sensible things to say about life and the choices we make. Living in a place like Panama has a way of changing the way I have defined what makes me happy. Living amongst people who live life with so much passion and so little material accumulation is just so inspiring. Not only inspiring but so very peaceful and pure! Life is good, if you choose to let it be so…


  17. Neva Miller says:

    Thanks, Kris, for the wonderful insights. We, too, have been tossing around our retirement options. Not only where to live, but HOW to live. My main interest is living in a real community. Where we are now, we have many wonderful neighbors but unless we make the effort to invite people to get together, it doesn’t seem to happen because everyone is so busy burning the candle on both ends. I’m ready to slow down and pay more attention to what’s going on inside of me and around me. Can’t wait to meet you soon and learn more.


    • Yep, I understand that. We lived for many years in the same house in Florida and didn’t even know everyone on our block, and almost no one on the nearby streets. Here people tend to be outdoors more, and if you walk around the neighborhood and chat with people you will quickly have lots of friends. It is a very different feeling of community and it’s really nice.


  18. oldsalt1942 says:

    “…People are enmeshed in the cancerous discipline of ‘security.’ And in the worship of security we fling our lives beneath the wheels of routine–and before we know it our lives are gone.
    “What does a man need–really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in–and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment. That’s all–in the material sense. And we know it. But we are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up in a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention from the sheer idiocy of the charade.
    “The years thunder by. The dreams of youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience. Before we know it the tomb is sealed.”
    Sterling Hayden


  19. Sunnymikkel says:

    Great article Kris. We made choices when came to live in Panama. We may pay more for housing than others with our same income, but that cost is still almost half of what a small studio apartment would cost in California, where we came from, and we have a large 3 bedroom home, fully furnished, with a veranda around 3 sides, lovely tropical garden in the back, a garage with automated door and gate and much more. Sure we could live in a less expensive place, but this is our choice. We still live a life that we could not have in the U.S. Our groceries consist of fresh not frozen, our entertainment is what we choose, with no commercials, we travel when we want, we live a life that we could never afford in the U.S. and will until we can no longer. We have become part of the community, giving back where we can. We love our life in Panama because we have choices. Is this for everyone, no, but it is for us!


    • Yes exactly, here you have the ability to make choices, where in the US you would be forced to live in greatly reduced circumstances and it would be much harder to be happy. I think we are all so fortunate to be here, and that making a move like this does work well for us.


  20. Anonymous says:

    Amen to all of you. I’m coming back for Thanksgiving (Independence Day) after 34 anos. I didn’t want to leave then. Since then earned my dos degees . Married/Divorced. Successful business. I COULD work into my 80’s GOD willing. But that’s not for me. Mi corazone es en Panama. Abrazo fuerte. David. Charleston S.C.


    • Wow, that will be here before you know it! It will be interesting to hear how you feel about Panama now vs when you were here before. I’ll bet a lot has really changed, but the good people and beauty of the country are still here.


  21. heartlightdg says:

    Hit the nail on the head. I have nothing to add to all these comments!


  22. Edie says:

    Hi Kris!

    A slightly different perspective:

    My mom was born and raised in Colon province and grew up quite poor but was able to immigrate to New York City, where she saw she myriad changes in American society- civil rights being the huge one. Growing up as a child she would tell us about how hearing about the American Civil Rights movement pushed her to working and saving and coming to America. And that America, for all it’s stupidity,viciousness, and greed also had given her an education (as an RN) and made her materially well to do ( she and dad bought a brownstone in Brooklyn). She is now retired and living with my sister in PA.

    What you are ranting about is nothing new. American materialism has always found a way to crush people living in the USA- I just think that you and your fellow retirees just got to an age of wisdom where you could see it. And there has been an “American lifestyle creep” in Panama, don’t you worry, complete with ridiculous shopping malls, A/C, import cars,all the luxury brands, fake hair and far too much makeup.

    Having said ALL that, I am so happy you are enjoying the life in David province. The weather there is truly lovely and honestly the best fun is tennis, bird watchinig, bathing in the hot springs, eating delicious local jam on Jamaican style bread and having the best coffee in the world right there. I am in my 30s now and I am thinking LONG TERM now, and I am looking to buy a small plot or farm to build a small home as a retirement/escape hedge.


    • Hi Edie 🙂

      I agree, the US has made huge changes and accomplished so many wonderful things. It seems now though that we have lost our way, and we are being taken over by greed, big business, and worthless politicians. Maybe I have finally reached the age when I can see it. I don’t know. I just know that I do see it.
      I also see the American lifestyle creep in Panama and I’m not sure that is a good thing. I would hate for people here to be caught up in all that and lose their happiness by looking for it in all the wrong places.
      Yes I love living here! Good for you thinking long term, and wish you much happiness now as well as in your retirement. Thank you so much for your very thoughtful comments.


  23. Edie says:

    Gracias, Kris!

    Despite being pretty much a colony and protectorate of the USA, there is a LOT in terms of relationships and values that I think Panama could teach the USA. And I also wish you all the wonderful enjoyment of life in Panama, especially in beautiful David. Enjoy a saril con seco, listen to some excellent music, learn to dance and know that you are so rich and fortunate where it counts. Con mucho gusto y la felicidad, Edie!


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