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Clipping coupons and no debt led to a dream life in Manhattan

Sandra Baxter is enjoying a renaissance — at age 82.

The former homemaker has achieved what many of today's workers can only dream of in retirement: She's financially independent and living in her own apartment in New York City.

"I love being here by myself," Baxter said. "I don't think I've ever had the freedom to do what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it for my entire life."

Sandra Baxter displays a picture book of herself and her husband Marvin.
Qin Chen | CNBC
Sandra Baxter displays a picture book of herself and her husband Marvin.

Things weren't always so rosy for the great-grandmother of 13.

Her life hit a nadir around the time of Hurricane Sandy in 2012: She lost her husband, Marvin, of nearly six decades, and she sold the family home in Oceanside, New York, at a loss.

Since then, Baxter, a native of Brooklyn, New York, has worked with her daughter and a financial advisor to craft her new life: One in which she's independent and has enough cash to last through her 90s.

"I've had the best of life, and I've had the worst of life," said Baxter.

Here's how she did it.

A life of scrimping

Throughout her marriage, Baxter worked together on the family's finances with her husband.

They steered clear of debt and excessive spending, developing good habits that kept the family's finances in control.

"I was a coupon queen," she said. "I could get two shopping carts of food for $10."

The family saved a bundle on the children's college educations.

Sandra Baxter with her husband Marvin.
Sophie Bearman | CNBC
Sandra Baxter with her husband Marvin.

Baxter's husband was a professor at Columbia University's Teachers College, and tuition for their four kids at Columbia's colleges was fully covered.

As the main breadwinner, Baxter's husband was also responsible for the couple's retirement nest egg. He was invested in Columbia's retirement plan through TIAA, a plan service provider that specializes in academia.

Throughout his career, Baxter's husband kept his savings in the school's retirement plan. It remained there until he passed away.

A major change

Baxter's life turned 180 degrees when she suddenly found herself alone at age 77.

That was when her daughter guided her toward Stacy Francis, founder of Francis Financial, a New York City-based wealth management firm that specializes in working with women.

A photo of Sandra Baxter in her 20s.
Sophie Bearman | CNBC
A photo of Sandra Baxter in her 20s.

Francis wound up overseeing the Baxters' retirement savings and establishing a close relationship with her newly widowed client.

"It's personal," said Baxter. "Stacy really knows me. I feel she cares about me, and to her I'm a human with needs."

Francis estimates that a woman who's hoping to live independently in New York City, retire at age 70 and live to age 95 will need to have saved $1.5 million by the time she's left the workplace.

That assumes an annual inflation rate of 3 percent and a 7 percent return on investments.

Going it alone

Baxter was fortunate to have her husband's nest egg as a source of funds. She was ready for a change. She didn't want to return to the home she shared with her husband, so she sold it.

"Predictably, the sooner you start saving, the better." -Stacy Francis, founder and CEO, Francis Financial

The widow shied away from moving to a home for older people on Long Island, opting instead to live independently in the city. "I was born in Brooklyn, so you know Manhattan was always where I wanted to play," she said.

Though Baxter is paying $3,500 a month to live in her building, she's spared the labor and costs related to keeping a large house in the suburbs.

Everything she needs is accessible — from her weekly beauty salon appointments to her personal training sessions to any maintenance work she needs in her apartment.

"I'm happier in my little apartment than I was with five bedrooms and three bathrooms," said Baxter.

It's not impossible

Bread-and-butter financial planning made Baxter's retirement a success: Start saving early for retirement, and do it often.

Sandra Baxter in her Manhattan apartment.
Qin Chen | CNBC
Sandra Baxter in her Manhattan apartment.

Francis estimates that a woman who is 35 years old will need to have $476,000 invested and earning 7 percent returns so that she can accumulate $1.5 million by age 70.

If she doesn't start saving until age 50, she'll need to have more than $1 million deployed in the market by then in order to hit the same goal.

"Predictably, the sooner you start saving, the better," said Francis.

As for maintaining a fulfilling life before and through retirement, Baxter suggests avoiding excessive consumption: Be happy with having enough.

"I need enough money to pay my rent," she said. "Money has never ruled my life; everything about me is love and loyalty and being a good person."

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