Table of Contents | Published in July 1996

Portrait of a Retiree: Herbert Friedman

Retired field representative, Automobile Club of New York

By PS | July 1996

Retired field representative, Automobile Club of New York

Personal savings, Social Security, and some careful thinking about exactly how much he would need to retire on have provided Herbert Friedman with an income on which he lives modestly but contentedly in his senior years. When he went to work for the Automobile Club of New York in 1948, the age of ERISA protections was years away and the auto club offered only an unfunded pension plan, with retirement at 50% of the last year's salary after 20 years of service. But in 1966, just two years shy of Friedman's twentieth anniversary, the club terminated the plan and switched to a new one that is tax-exempt and fully funded.

After calculating down to the penny how much income he would need in retirement, Friedman elected to forfeit 6% of his pension benefits annually and take early retirement at 62. He gave up another 25% of those benefits in order to provide his wife Rita with 100% pension protection in the event of his death.

He and Rita now live on a fixed pension of $8,688 per year from the Automobile Club, a combined $15,446 in Social Security benefits, and about $3,000 from interest on certificates of deposit and a five-year annuity.

Friedman learned to count his pennies by example. He came of age in New York during the Depression. "I watched my father walk every morning about eight miles from our apartment on 184th Street in the Bronx to the garment district on 28th Street in Manhattan, and back again every evening, because he didn't want to waste a nickel on the subway," Friedman recalls with obvious pride and affection.

He graduated from Evander Childs High School in the Bronx in 1941, attended trade schools, and got a job as a sheet metal worker before joining the Air Force as an enlisted man at 21. With only a commercial high school diploma, he passed the rigorous exams and training to be a pilot. "I spent three wonderful years stateside," he recalls happily. "I got to fly, I didn't have to drop any bombs on anyone, and no one had to shoot at me."

After leaving the Air Force he worked in a gas station in the Bronx until his mother asked him one day, "When are you going to get a clean job?" So, in 1948, he took a job as a telephone receiver-dispatcher for the Automobile Club, where he stayed until 1983. In between he held 13 different positions, the last 10 years as a field representative in Brooklyn and Staten Island. Field reps handle complaints from service stations and from club members, identify new stations, and train their drivers.

The job was full of the unexpected. On one memorable night Friedman was called to help out at a station in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn that was overwhelmed with a heavy volume of emergency road service calls. At about 7 p.m. the owner emerged from his office dressed to the nines, and slipped away before Friedman could protest. "It turns out he was madly in love with a belly dancer at a Greek club down on the west side of Manhattan and no one could keep him away from her," Friedman relates. "The man was so crazy about her that he gave her a Mercedes. No one knows where he got the money."

Along the way, the Friedmans raised three sons, and are now grandparents. Living in retirement in Pearl River, New York, since quitting the Automobile Club, Herb retains both his New York City street smarts and his empathy for the "average working stiffs" of this world. Thanks to their careful planning, he and Rita, a Danish immigrant to whom he has now been married for 48 years, live more than contentedly on their modest $27,100 income.

That has been enough for them to manage two trips to Europe and numerous excursions around the US and Canada. How do they do it? Their mortgage is paid off, they own their own car, and they never pay interest on credit card debt. Beyond that, Friedman says, "We just watch what we spend. And if we don't need it, we don't buy it. I guess you could say our budget consciousness is deeply ingrained in our brain cells."

- Susan Arterian