Ruth Williams, 70, grew up with the simple financial philosophy handed down by her parents: Pay yourself first.
That meant pay the bills, avoid debt and put as much of her earnings into savings as she could during her 40 years as a registered nurse. It also meant sometimes hosting no-frills potluck barbecues with family instead of eating out, or prodding her two sons to find jobs as grocery store baggers in high school so they could contribute to their college education.
Now, five years into retirement, the Memphis resident is enjoying the payoff: She travels for pleasure and is passionately devoted to attending Tennessee Titans games. Many lifelong friends, however, have limited financial options.
"I have friends who are working at 70, not because they want to, but because they have to," said Williams. "If they didn't prepare themselves and they're relying only on Social Security, their situation is kind of difficult."
Retirement security is increasingly tenuous for all Americans, but in African American communities like the Memphis middle-class neighborhood where Williams grew up, her financial security stands in stark contrast to that of many of her peers.
African Americans who participate in 401(k) plans typically contribute 6 percent of their income compared with 6.3 percent for Hispanics and 7.9 percent for whites, according to a survey last year by the nonprofit Ariel Education Initiative and the consulting firm Hewitt Associates.
Those patterns have been exacerbated by the economic downturn. A third of African Americans over age 45 stopped investing money in retirement accounts, and more than a quarter withdrew funds from their nest eggs to pay basic bills during the recession, according to an AARP survey, titled "African American Experiences in the Economy: Recession Effects More Strongly Felt." It also found that African Americans over 45 were half as likely to consult a financial adviser for retirement planning.
To address those disparities in cities like Memphis, which is 63 percent black, AARP Tennessee sponsored an AARP Financial Freedom Tour workshop in September to link residents 40 and older with information about debt reduction, savings, investment strategies and protecting assets.
The half-day workshops included presentations by financial planners, information on online calculators that can aid in planning how much to save, and a clinic that paired people one-on-one with financial experts.
AARP Tennessee plans a follow-up tele-town hall financial event Dec. 9 with members in the Memphis area. Audio clips from the event will be posted on the AARP Tennessee website.
Tennessee is one of four states in which AARP will conduct Financial Freedom Tours aimed at Hispanics and African Americans, according to Andrea Neely, associate state director of multicultural outreach for AARP Tennessee. The others are New York, New Mexico and Pennsylvania.
"I'm definitely seeing more folks coming out of retirement and going back to work," Neely said. "There's a lot of credit card debt, and people working paycheck to paycheck with no planning. We think there's a lot of great information and advice that's out there. We just need to get it into people's hands."
Charles Sims Jr., a Memphis-based certified financial planner who conducted a workshop at the September Financial Freedom Tour event, said people at all economic levels can benefit from creating a plan to manage their money and scale down debt as the retirement years approach. "It's not so much the money you've accumulated, it's how much debt you have that is key to planning."
Also key is ensuring that people plan for adequate insurance coverage, including home, life and auto so that "all the good planning isn't washed away with one catastrophic event," he said.
Savings plans can begin small, but over time pay off big, he said. But it all starts with a plan.
Anita Wadhwani is a reporter based in Nashville.
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