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3 Couples Talk About Retiring While Black

3 different paths, all with plenty of resilience and hope

spinner image three couples first lisa swift young and antonio young secondd darnell and deborah pegues and last andrew and sheila cuffy
Photo credits left to right: William DeShazer, Frank Ishman, Maddie McGarvey

While saving for retirement can be a difficult path for anyone, Black Americans face unique challenges and often a bumpy road.

Not only are Black Americans less likely than whites to have a workplace retirement plan, but lower rates of homeownership and less generational wealth in the Black community can make it more difficult for Black families to save.

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The impact of those financial realities are far-reaching: Black Americans generally have less than half the retirement savings of white Americans, according to a 2022 study by the TIAA Institute.

Yet despite the increased challenges, there is no single retirement experience in the Black community. Some families leverage 401(k) savings while others cobble together income from multiple jobs. Many plan to augment their retirement savings with part-time work or other streams of income.

The road to retirement has its fair share of obstacles for everyone. Here, three Black families from different ends of the economic spectrum meet real-world challenges with practical solutions and plenty of resilience and hope.

spinner image andre and sheila cuffy stand outside their home
Andre and Sheila Cuffy
Maddie McGarvey

Andre and Sheila Cuffy: Making the best of a late start

Some people start putting aside money in a retirement plan in their 20s and 30s, but Andre and Sheila Cuffy of Fort Wayne, Indiana, didn’t have that luxury.

While growing up in Trinidad, Andre always dreamt of having a big family, and when he met Sheila he got his wish: The two raised nine loving children. 

But the day-to-day costs of feeding, clothing and providing for nine children meant there was little left at the end of the month to put away for retirement. Sheila wanted to be home during the days to care for the children when they were young, so she worked part-time midnight shifts as a medical lab technician. However, that flexibility came at a cost: The part-time work provided no retirement benefits.

Andre, 62, worked in construction. However, during the winters, work would dry up so “we had to save for the four or five months when you know you’re going to be out of work,” he says. That meant there was not much money coming from his checks that could be set aside for retirement either. Then he got hurt on the job and had to go on disability, which made money even tighter.

Today, the couple do what they can to catch up. After going back to school to get her master’s and Ph.D., Sheila, now 67, has been working full time as an assistant professor of communication at Galen College of Nursing based in Louisville, Kentucky, for the last three years. This time she has a retirement plan that she contributes to generously. “We increase my 401(k) amount every year,” she says. “When I receive my merit increase, I increase my 401(k) percentage.”

Having raised the family they always wanted, the Cuffys are OK with living frugally if they have to. “It’s the sacrifices you have to make for your family,” Sheila says.

But she sometimes feels a sense of anxiety. “The thing that gives you that stress is looking at the amount that everyone says that you need to have,” she says. “If you listen to all of that, it scares you because you’re like, I’m not going to be able to reach that.”

Also, retirement is not their only major financial goal. The couple still want to put aside money for college for their youngest child, 16-year-old Nyasia. “All the other kids are past that stage, but she isn’t. So that also makes it difficult, you know?” Sheila says.

The idea of retirement sounds nice, but the Cuffys know that for them it’s just not practical in the near future. “At 67, you stop to think, Well, when do I want to retire?” Sheila says. “And then I started adding up the fact that Nyasia won’t be 25 for the next nine years. So it’s like, OK, do I have to work until then so that I can keep her insured?”

The desire to see her youngest daughter graduate from college and make sure she has the option to be covered by her health insurance policy until she’s 25 isn’t the only reason Sheila sees herself working for the foreseeable future. Doing something to keep the money flowing in retirement is just what the people in her life have always done, she says.

“I’ve really not had anyone in my life fully retire,” she says. “My dad was a cement mason and every chance he got, he was like, ‘You need some cement work done? I’ll be over there.’ ” Her mother did work as a substitute teacher during her “retirement years.” “Even into her 80s, she was like, ‘I got a call last night and I’ve got to go in and teach at this school.’ ”

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The good news is Sheila’s job is remote, so she can do it from home. She can also work as the couple travel to see family or visit different states. Traveling is the one thing she would want to spend time doing in retirement, so being able to travel while she’s working makes her feel a little bit like she’s living a retired lifestyle, she says.

While the Cuffys’ savings have often taken a back seat to the financial toll of raising their children, they know that they can turn to their children once they retire if they have to — particularly if they experience future health challenges.

“We hope to be established enough that no debt is due and that the place we are living in can accommodate the children to come help take care of us,” Sheila says. “We will need assistance from the children — not financially, but physically, mentally and spiritually for our care.”

spinner image lisa sdwift young and antonio young walk in their neighborhood together
Lisa Swift-Young and Antonio Young
William DeShazer

Lisa Swift-Young and Antonio Young: From kitchen-table money conversations to retirement success

One of Lisa Swift-Young’s first observations about money is that her parents didn’t have much of it. Yet, they maximized what they had to create a better life for themselves. “They didn’t have a lot of resources, so it was really important for them to see a better opportunity,” she says.

One way they did that is by educating themselves about personal finance and making sure she learned good financial practices early on. They had kitchen-table conversations about managing finances and the importance of savings, recalls the 57-year-old. “And that’s not traditional for African-American families.”

When she married her husband, Antonio, 59, and the Nashville, Tennessee-based couple started building their life together, those conversations continued and covered more advanced financial topics such as investing.

“We talked at dinnertime, at lunchtime, just about any opportunity where we would sit at the kitchen table,” Antonio recalls. They even talked about the Rule of 72, a formula where you divide the number 72 by your interest rate of return to determine how long it will take to double your investment.

Lisa recalls that one of her father’s biggest pieces of advice was to take advantage of the 401(k) match at work. “ ‘Always take the free money,’ ” he would say.

In their 20s, the couple started their corporate sales careers by saving 4 to 6 percent of their salaries into their company retirement plans. As they moved into better-paying positions, they increased the percentage they saved until they were investing about 10 to 15 percent of their salaries. They always bought used cars, and “when we purchased a home, we didn’t buy the most expensive one,” Antonio says. That left them with more money to stash away in a Roth IRA and for investing in two annuities.

Having money from their paychecks directly deposited into retirement accounts was key to their diligent saving, Lisa says. “We would not have saved or be in a good position had we not done that.” 

The couple also learned financial lessons from Antonio’s parents. For example, his parents owned a rental property, which showed them the value of additional streams of income.

But the couple will be the first to say that it wasn’t always easy. “Our kids were very much into athletics and all the different programs at school, so there was always money going out the door,” Lisa says. Like many families, they also experienced layoffs and relocations and other financial setbacks. In addition, it was important to them to set aside money for their son and daughter to attend college.

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One way they’ve weathered the storms is by always maintaining an emergency fund stocked with enough to cover three to six months of expenses. During down times they downsized their living expenses, perhaps doing a staycation rather than traveling for a family vacation. At times, they sold things they no longer needed for extra money.

“We just made those adjustments, knowing that we had a limited amount of money through our emergency fund,” Lisa says. They considered their retirement funds untouchable. They’ve also made it a priority to avoid debt so they need less money to live on during retirement.

The sacrifices have been worthwhile. The couple have paid off student loans for their children’s college educations, and today Antonio has retired from corporate America and Lisa plans to do so within the next 18 months. Both of them anticipate earning an income after they retire through consulting work as well as rental properties. They also intend to spend two to three months a year traveling, with one goal of traveling to every country on the African continent.

spinner image darnell and deborah pegues
Darnell and Deborah Smith Pegues
Frank Ishman

“People ask us, ‘How can you retire before 65?’ ” Lisa says. She thinks back to those early money conversations around the kitchen table.

“Being privy to those conversations has been invaluable,” she says.

Darnell and Deborah Smith Pegues: Using equity to fund their ideal retirement lifestyle

For Darnell and Deborah Smith Pegues of Rancho Cucamonga, California, the ideal retirement is not only having enough money to last a lifetime. It also includes traveling and living a life of leisure while they have the good health and ability to appreciate it.

“You see people on bus tours and they can barely get on and off the buses, and I’m thinking, I don’t want to get to some goal and not be able to enjoy the things that we made the sacrifices to be able to do,” says Darnell, 72.

That’s why it was important that they build a big enough nest egg to support their needs — and many of their wants.

The couple both retired from jobs as accountants — Deborah first in 2006 and Darnell in 2014 — but not without a bit of sacrifice and a plan.

As the couple approached their 60s, they began looking at which aspects of their life would potentially keep them from having the retirement they longed for. They had amassed a sizable retirement fund by regularly contributing to retirement plans at work, even when they had employers that did not offer a match.

However, they felt that one aspect of their lives was not in their favor: They still owed $400,000 on their house. “We knew it wouldn’t be possible to actually pay that mortgage off with the remaining years that we had,” Darnell says.

They also wanted their home to help them buffer up their retirement savings, so they looked for a new house in a lower price range and a less expensive location than the pricey neighborhood in Los Angeles that they were currently living in. “It’s hard to get something in Los Angeles for under a million dollars that looks good and you like it,” says Deborah, 73. “We knew if we looked for a house in a lower range, this would give us hundreds of thousands of dollars in excess funds.”

Finding the ideal place to relocate wasn’t just a matter of dollars and cents. The couple learned the hard way that being happy in a community is just as important as saving money. When they moved, they ultimately ended up selling that house and buying another because they didn’t feel like the first neighborhood was an emotional fit. They also looked at other factors, such as how close they would be to good hospitals.

“We understood that if we had moved to certain other states, they may not have had the best health care,” Deborah says.

Another reason they felt ready for retirement: They had set up a plan to eliminate their other debts. “You don’t need the pressure of fixed debt when you’re retired and you’re going to have limited income,” says Deborah. In their quest to become debt-free, the couple paid off their car loans and credit cards. Today, they only use the credit cards to make purchases and earn rewards. They pay the balances in full each month so they don’t have to pay any interest.

They’re still looking for ways to make their money last — and even grow — in retirement. For example, “CD rates right now are very high,” Darnell points out. If you have money sitting in an account that you don’t need for the next six to 12 months, you could get 3, 4 or 5 percent interest, he says.

They’re also both bringing in some income through accounting and consulting work, and Deborah has written 18 books selling more than 2.5 million copies.

For them, retirement isn’t a destination but rather an evolving lifestyle that allows them to pursue their interests for as long as they are physically able to do so. “We have some things on our bucket list that we haven’t done quite yet, but we are planning for them,” Deborah says. “So that’s important.”

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