After job loss, a couple's new road to retirement

For many middle-class families, scaling back on expenses means fewer restaurant meals, a less expensive car, and the elimination of satellite television.

But for Bob and Janis Piland, the decision to economize meant giving up their house, their fishing boat, and a host of other creature comforts.

Despite that, they don't mind much at all. That's because they've discovered a different lifestyle.

At the end of April, Bob lost his job as a union plumber in Hillsboro, Ore., west of Portland. With their planned retirement only five years away, the Pilands had to take drastic measures to stay afloat financially. After weighing their options, they sold almost all of their possessions and in June moved into a brand-new home - a fifth-wheel recreational vehicle. The 29-foot travel trailer is towed behind Bob's diesel truck.

"Once I got laid off, we were realizing that we [had] just lived way too close to the edge," Bob says. "We decided that the best thing we could do was sell the house, get an RV, get out of debt, and go where there's work."

Going where the jobs are

With Oregon's economy in a major slump - the unemployment rate reached 8.5 percent in June - companies that once saw the state as an ideal location for new construction are abandoning their plans to build. This is bad news for workers like Bob and those in the building trades.

However, jobs are still available in other states, and the RV gives the Pilands freedom to move on a moment's notice. Bob hopes to find regular work outside Oregon, but if he has to go a week or even a month without employment, they can still live comfortably and meet their goal of a 2008 retirement.

"We can draw unemployment in between jobs, and with our reduced expenses we can live on unemployment if we have to," Bob says.

Their monthly payment on the RV is only about 18 percent of their former mortgage payment. Their only other major expense is renting space at Pheasant Ridge Recreational Vehicle Park in Wilsonville, Ore., for $390 per month while Bob finishes a short-term assignment at an Intel job site in Hillsboro. They expect monthly bills for electricity to be minuscule compared with what the typical homeowner pays. A phone line is an option in many parks, but the Pilands have opted for a cellphone instead.

These changes in expenses "will allow us to save as much as $1,500 a month," says Janis. If things continue this way until 2008, they expect to have the cash to build a new home and buy a new boat to replace the one they gave up.

The Pilands are not alone in their quest for a lifestyle that will keep them out of the red during lean economic times. At the RV park, they have met a few other couples in similar situations, including the family in the space adjacent to theirs.

"We have lots of members traveling right now," says Michael Callahan, business agent/ organizer with Local 290 Plumbers, Steamfitters, and Marine Fitters Union, of which Bob is a member. "We have them all over - in Iowa, Pennsylvania, Nevada, California - all following work." They have learned to adjust their living expenses to take into account occasional periods of unemployment.

While age doesn't affect whether a plumber decides to travel for work, historically it has been a determining factor in RV ownership. Once it seemed reserved mostly for the 60-plus crowd. Not anymore. A 2002 study commissioned by the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) indicates that fellow baby boomers of the Pilands are the fastest growing segment of RV owners.

Those considering full-time RV living should do their homework, advises David Humphreys, RVIA president.

"Try to get an RV park that matches your lifestyle," he says. "If a person is employed, they will want it to be convenient to work. They will have to find something that matches their preference and their pocketbook."

Instead of setting up a mobile household, plenty of Bob's unemployed colleagues have chosen to keep their homes and travel to jobs by car when necessary.

A slower lifestyle

The Pilands didn't consider this an option. "I know guys who travel, keep a home, and their wives stay behind," he says. "But I didn't marry Janis to be apart from her."

While Bob is at work, Janis spends her days reading, exercising, and getting to know her neighbors. Their new lifestyle has cut their expenses enough that she could afford to quit her job as an administrative assistant with a local church, a position she had held for six years.

"It gives us a sense of freedom and relief, knowing that neither of us has to work so much," Janis says.

So far, Bob and Janis are at ease in their RV. They have comfortable furniture, a television, a stereo system, ample closet space, an oven, a microwave, and air conditioning.

Janis kept her car, so she can easily go shopping or take the grandchildren on outings.

"It is just like being in a home, but you don't have a yard and you are a little close to your neighbors," she says.

Nonetheless, Janis and Bob admit they have had some adjusting to do.

Because the RV has less storage space than their former home, Bob had to sell all his personal tools, his golf equipment, and some of his fishing gear. He anticipates he'll miss the ability to dally in his garage, doing woodworking on weekend afternoons.

Janis, a natural-born hostess, says she will miss having family gatherings at their house (she has turned this responsibility over to their daughter, Kim). "I won't miss the housework, though," she adds.

To avoid overcrowding her new cabinets, Janis dumped the majority of their kitchen items, keeping only things she needs to prepare meals for the two of them. She also gave away piles of clothes and books. Anything of sentimental value was boxed up and sent to her daughter's home for safekeeping.

"We really had to simplify and downsize," Janis says. "But we'll do whatever it takes to make it work."

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