Long before Michele Obama planted a garden on the White House Lawn, Dan and Barbara Hoffa were digging up their own Portland, Oregon backyard to seed an ever-expanding plot of vegetables, fruit trees and flowers. For the next 20 years, the couple, now in their 60s, nurtured their plants and reared three children while Dan built on his experience as a cryptographic technician in the Army Reserves to forge a successful career in IT. Barbara, who had taught home economics before the kids were born, took over the thriving garden, and began tending a community plot as well. "The community garden has been a great place to learn more and to share ideas," says Barbara. "The extra produce is collected weekly to share with the community in a program called Produce for People, so we feel we are helping the hungry by providing healthy organic food." The couple nurtured their finances with equal care, and a healthy dose of frugality: "We don't drive fancy cars, take exotic vacations, or have a second home," offers Dan, who prepaid principal on their home's mortgage, and made sure credit cards were paid off every month. The bounteous results: self-funded college educations for each of their three children (Geoff, 30, works for a renewable energy marketing company; Danielle, 34, works as a marketing manager and Brad, 24, leaves in September to teach microfinance in Uganda) a paid-off mortgage on a $1.2 million house; and, by 2007, year nearly $2 million in savings and retirement funds.
But like millions of older baby boomers blindsided by the real estate market bust, stock market declines, and when-will-it-end recession, the Hoffas are facing a crop of setbacks just as they near retirement. The stock market dive clobbered their savings, cutting their nest egg by half. In January, Dan, 64, lost his $125,000-a-year sales job. Barbara, 62, who runs Quick Energy Foods, a home-based specialty food business they acquired in 2000, saw her 2008 revenues fall by 50 percent. This year she'll take a salary cut of about $10,000 off the $25,000 she earned last year. On top of those setbacks, Dan's father, who lives 190 miles away in Seattle, became gravely ill and may in time need the younger Hoffas' financial help. And their plan to free up cash by selling their 5,000-square-foot home and downsizing? Kaput, for the time-being. It seems the gardens alone continue to provide reliable returns, with this season's bumper crop of strawberries and squash. Says Barbara: "Both gardens have definitely helped with food bills."
"I don't find a lot of good answers out there, just ones with the least amount of angst attached to them," says Dan. He's talking about caring for his ailing father, but he could easily be speaking about the less than optimal decisions confronting us all in this menacing economy. A few months ago he took a commission-only position, after sending out more than 75 resumes, and receiving few responses. But that may not work out. He says that his sales haven't even covered his expenses, so "my guess is I will resume looking for another fulltime commission-only position." With Oregon's unemployment rate above 12 percent—twice that if you include the underemployed—he ruefully notes that "in this neck of the woods, there's not much out there for someone in my age group."
For now, he believes that the couple's 25-year plan for retiring has been "totally upended." And, of course, as an only child, Dan—who has made 14 trips to Seattle from Portland so far this year--has to figure out how best to help his dad.