In one town, troubled retirement accounts don't mean residents

Sunday, July 21, 2002

MACON, Mo. -- Bill Truitt has seen plenty of dark days before, and not just in the coal mines where he labored for nearly 50 years.

Truitt is 75, old enough to remember hard times during economic downturns over the decades. So when he structured his finances for retirement, he made sure he wouldn't have to depend on the nest egg he invested in various mutual funds.

That fund has shrunk by $60,000 in the latest stock market bust -- "I figure I'm in too deep, I can't pull it out now," Truitt said.

But he and his wife can still live and spend as they did before, relying on his pension from Associated Electric and the fruits of some annuities.

"I really didn't need it to live on," Truitt said. "But in case emergencies come up, you don't have that."

His frugal attitude is shared by many in Macon, which has a large older population and where officials once thought of trying to promote the town as an ideal retirement community. And that attitude may help to explain why, in towns like this and across the country, the economic downturn has yet to translate into a significant reduction in consumer spending.

For example, Monday nights at the local KFC restaurant find the tables and booths packed with senior citizens. It's half-price night for them.

"A lot of these people are pretty wealthy people," said Barry Shatcer. "But they're saving two dollars."

Shatcer, 49, owns and operates Barry's Carpets in Macon's struggling downtown district. His own business has remained steady -- maybe even improving over last year.

His older customers always have been penny-wise, he said, recarpeting a room here or there instead of the whole house.

"They're worried about hospital bills and everything else," Shatcer said. "I think they're just a little more conservative."

What he's seeing jibes with recent comments from Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, who said the sour market hasn't stopped Americans from opening their pocketbooks.

Losses on paper

While lots of people are complaining about taking hits on the market, Frank Withrow, Macon's economic development chief, said it isn't anything that's affected Macon -- at least not yet. In fact, sales tax collections have been up recently.

His own personal accounts? "I've lost a lot of money," Withrow, 60, said. "Well, I haven't lost it, because I haven't cashed it in. Most of that loss is on paper."

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