This post has been mulled over for a long time, trying to discern and distil a direction. It began (as these trains of thought often do) with an idle r/financialindependence post. If you’re not familiar with that, it’s a subreddit for FI-types, predominantly populated by Yanks (Reddit being a sort of forum-cum-meta-aggregator of internet waffle). In this post a group of our ex-colonial cousins were discussing long-term costs (1):
So far, so not our problem. The UK may have significantly higher tax rates (ignoring ISAs etc), but it pays for (in theory) the NHS and social care, the cradle-to-grave support system for when times are bad. The NHS and social care system are what makes FIRE and any sort of fuck-you to working possible in the UK. Check out the video and post TEA and Rhik Samadder did on the matter (2).
National, personal cover
As we celebrate the NHS’ 70th birthday, it’s worth reflecting on where this all came from. Before the birth of the NHS all doctors services were private in the UK. If you needed something, you went to your local doctor, hoped they had been trained adequately, paid your money, got your treatment, hoped it worked. There were no guidelines. There was no standardisation. This worked fine for the wealthy, who could afford the best, but for the poor would die from an inability to pay the doctor. You can find plenty of stories from that time, but if you read one, I recommend the recollections of the wonderful Harry Leslie Smith (3). He remembers a doctors visit costing half-a-weeks wages, which they sadly did not have (3). This private price has scaled with inflation. A 15 minute private GP consultation will set you back £70 (4). As a profession we remain a rare commodity, and on an open market our hourly rate is such. The NHS affords the government a position of power and collective contractual employment which, despite press vilification, means we still come relatively cheap.
In the days before the NHS, workers would club together to pay for ‘self-help’ organisations, to provide medical care for one another. Beginning in the late 1800s, the Tredegar Workmen’s Medical Aid Society was one such successful organisation (5):
By the 1920s, the society employed the services of five doctors, one surgeon, two pharmacists, a physiotherapist, a dentist, and a district nurse. For an extra sum each week, members could also benefit from hospital treatment.
During the inter-war depression, the society continued to provide services to unemployed people, even though they could no longer afford to pay a subscription. By the mid-1940s, the society was providing medical care for 22,800 of the town’s 24,000 inhabitants.
Aneurin Bevan, who was born in Tredegar, took the Workmen’s Medical Aid Society as his inspiration for the NHS, saying: “All I am doing is extending to the entire population of Britain the benefits we had in Tredegar for a generation or more. We are going to ‘Tredegarise’ you.” (5)
The fragmentation of the NHS, gradual privatisation and reduction in care available deserves a separate post. For now, with a sense of perspective, we can look across the pond and be smug about our NHS (6). Cradle to grave cover, in our most frail years, maternity and care home. Isn’t it marvellous. Except… have you ever been in an NHS care home? And how much do you think that care home costs?
Who wants to live forever?
Time and again bloggers discuss their financial plans, how they’re 50 now, and they see themselves having 30 more good years. They fall into a common trap, recent research shows 8/10 of those over 50 underestimate their life expectancy (7). Most people guess they’ll live to 82-ish, whereas the data says more like 88 for men, and 90 for women*. We have got much better at keeping people alive for longer. Those aren’t necessarily going to be good years though, and so people trot out those bleak jokes; “oh just roll me off a cliff at 80”; “I’ll just head off to Switzerland”; “I’ll just pop my clogs then”. Except those are all to varying degrees illegal/ unethical. We doctors can’t just settle you off in a dignified way when you decide you’re not much use or aren’t enjoying things anymore. How do you decide when that is? Death is so very final. As a culture we have developed a fear of discussing or even considering our own mortality.
(*N.B. You can’t actually use ONS life expectancy at birth figures for this. Infancy through to teenage years (and early adulthood for young men) still have higher mortality. Once you pass your mid-20s your life expectancy actually statistically increases to accommodate for this.)
So for our friends the FIRE-savers, that’s an extra half decade of savings to account for. Suddenly retiring at 55 with a 4% SWR estimating a 30 year retirement isn’t quite enough (8). Life expectancy has increased in the 20 years since the Trinity study was published (9). A 45 year-old sitting down now and estimating for a 4% withdrawal starting at age 55 may well have a good 40 years ahead of them. It’s not just the %withdrawal that’s a variable in this calculation, it’s the duration too. For some really interesting drawdown calculations, check out RIT’s recent post (10).
The final splurge
How much do you think your living costs will be too? The common practice appears to be to take roughly your current living expenses, and times that out for the number of years you need. Some people estimate less, as they figure their homes will be paid off. An interesting piece of research by investment firm Schroders casts doubt on that. It found that savers underestimated their living costs in retirement by 15% (11). Only half of people surveyed had enough to live on comfortably (11).
Coming back to people facing their own mortality, and a decline into frailty, did you include the care home fees in that cost? The answer to the previous question is that the average care home price per year in the UK is £29,270 for a residential home, £39,300 for a nursing home (12). That’s average too, as with everything the South is more expensive, and we all like to imagine ourselves in our twilight years in a beautiful peaceful home, and not being roughly manhandled by someone on minimum-wage with no dignity or care, before being hauled up on a CQC newspaper expose (13). If you want to see what it’s like in your area, the UK Care Guide has a number cruncher and area analysis (14). You can decide to stay in your own home, but there the costs can mount up too. 24 hour care can be more than £150,000/year (13). And again for perspective, your life expectancy from a diagnosis of dementia in your 60s – 6.7 years, in your 90s – 1.9 years (15).
Where’s my cradle to grave?
Too right, where’s the NHS and social care system in all of this? Broke, that’s where. Historically there were jobs that provided care and nursing homes for their retired workers as part of their payment plan (although I can’t imagine anything worse). Now the burden falls on the social care system. The boomer population is ageing, and everyone is living longer. Social care reform remains a political football as no side wants to try to tell people that their lifetime of NI contributions and tax wasn’t enough to pay for their care (16). The “squeezed middle” baby boomers (le sigh) are already paying up to £10k a year to look after their ageing parents, and this will only get worse (17).
To try and at least partially cover care home fees, the central and local Govs have created an Orwellian masterpiece of committees with opaque criteria to make decisions about who gets support and who doesn’t. It’s called NHS Continuing Healthcare when the NHS is involved, i.e. if there is ‘sufficient medical need’ (17). If you can’t qualify for that you get means tested by the local social care trust/ provider (18). AgeUK make a fair stab at explaining it on their website (19). I’ve seen people die before any decision on who will pay has been reached.
The final stretch of this little essay is about the means testing that social care can use. It’s not actually free at point of care. The system used is fairly complicated in it’s own right, but the Money Advice Service has a good page breaking it down (18). Your income and capital are assessed. If you live alone, and in certain other circumstances, your home will be counted as part of your capital (18). The local authority can and will sell your home to pay for the fees, even if you don’t want them to (20, 21).
If the local authority deems you have deliberately disposed of assets, for example by gifting your child your home, to avoid paying means tested fees, it can claim them back. This quietly introduced piece of legislation is called Deprivation of Assets (22). The rules have subsequently got much tighter around gifting any asset; housing, jewellery, money, objects (23). As always, do your own research.
We can’t take it with us
To summarise, as a culture we fear death and avoid considering our own mortality or old age due to the association. This is a shame, as people are more active in their old age and living longer than ever before. We underestimate the costs and expenditure we will have in retirement. Old age will cost more than we collectively think. The last few years cost A LOT MORE. Don’t ignore your final years, embrace those calculations, and spend them in luxury if you can.
Have a morbid time!