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IT PAYS TO BE A SENIOR

Since retiring from the Prince George's County school system in Maryland as a guidance counselor and English teacher and moving to Florida, Bill Rogers has been enjoying life.

At 63, Rogers is a member of the fastest-growing segment of the American population. More than a quarter of the U.S. population is older than 50. By 2020, that figure is expected to jump to one-third, as members of the baby boom generation hit the retirement years in full force.

According to 1996 estimates by the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Florida, Rogers is one of the 4,785,570 Floridians who are 50 or older. They represent about one-third of Florida's population.

"Those of us over 50 control most of the nation's wealth, including half of the discretionary income _ that's the money that is left over after essentials have been taken care of _ and almost 80 percent of the country's financial assets," says author Joan Rattner Heilman.

Heilman is the author of more than a dozen books, and her work has appeared in newspapers and magazines across the country. In her prime herself, she's an experienced traveler and consumer who enjoys getting the most for her senior dollar.

In her book, Unbelievably Good Deals and Great Adventures That You Absolutely Can't Get Unless You Are Over 50, Heilman offers advice on how to get the most bang for your buck _ including getting a good buy on her book, which is published by Contemporary Books. It costs $10.95 if you are 50 or older; $12.95 for others. (Wireless Catalog, 1000 Westgate Drive, St. Paul, MN 55114-1631.)

"Seniors deserve these "deals,' " Heilman says, because "they have successfully negotiated their way through life's white waters."

Discounts for senior citizens are cropping up in unusual places as more and more businesses try to capture a bigger share of this growing market.

The net worth of older Americans continues to pull ahead of younger adults in the prime years of their earning power. The latest figures from a Federal Reserve survey show that in 1995, the average net worth of Americans ages 65 to 74 was $331,600, compared with $308,300 in 1992. The net worth of Americans ages 35 to 44, meanwhile, remained virtually unchanged at just more than $144,000.

This is a far cry from the 1960s, when senior citizen discounts originated as a form of corporate charity, "when older people were perceived as poor and needy," says George Moschis, director of the Center for Mature Consumer Studies at Georgia State University. "But when marketing firms began to look at the potential buying power, they started using discounts to get seniors to buy."

If you are 50 or older and like to travel, you'll find plenty of bargains to keep you flying or cruising in style.

"People over 50 are the most ardent travelers of all. They travel more often, farther, more extravagantly, and for longer periods of time than anybody else," Heilman says.

Airlines in particular have been going after seniors' dollars.

"There's one heck of a battle for seniors right now," says Tom Parsons, publisher of Best Fares Discount Travel Magazine in Dallas. "They have a lot of flexible time and a lot have discretionary income. The airlines are looking for everything they can to fill up their planes."

The senior fare is the latest way airlines have been boosting to record levels the percentage of seats filled with paying passengers. Some airline programs for seniors require annual dues; others do not. American Airlines' annual membership fee is $40 for an individual. For $60, the senior member can take along one companion per trip at the special fare. The companion can be any age.

Cruise ships also offer many discounts for seniors. (See story, Page XX).

If you're a person who likes to stick close to home, you will find plenty of bargains locally.

Rogers, who lives in a high-rise in downtown Clearwater, finds he can stretch his dollars by looking in the newspaper for specials on shows and meals.

"I go to the $1.50 movies at Countryside 4 and at Ulmerton 9, the early bird special at Sweetwaters in Clearwater (where he says he gets a "great meal' for $4.99) or, for a special evening for two for $24, dinner at Heilman's Beachcomber on Clearwater Beach," Rogers says.

The Tampa Bay area has a wealth of perks for its over-50 residents, but it is up to you to speak up to get the breaks to which you are entitled at museums, movies, concerts, theme parks and restaurants.

Rogers says he finds that the American Association of Retired Persons is one of the best resources for discounts.

With more than 35-million members, AARP is one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the country. You do not have to be retired to join. For an $8 annual membership fee, you get not only the AARP newsletter and Modern Maturity magazine but also the many benefits the group offers, including group health, life and auto insurance; discounts on hotels, motels, auto rentals and sightseeing; a mail-order pharmacy; a driving plan that includes emergency road and towing services; and special programs in such areas as consumer affairs, legal counseling, financial information, housing, health advocacy, voter education, employment planning, independent living, disability initiatives and grandparent information. (For information: AARP, 601 E St. NW, Washington, DC 20049. Or call: (800) 424-3410. To join AARP, write: 3200 E Carson St., Lakewood, CA 90712.)

Once you get into the mind-set of looking for senior deals, you will start to find them in a variety of places. For example, on Mondays, shoppers at T.J. Maxx stores in the Tampa Bay area receive a 10 percent discount on their purchases if they are 55 or older. Beall's Outlet stores offer 15 percent off to shoppers 50 or older on Mondays.

"Senior customers are our target customers, and giving them a discount is our way of showing them we appreciate their business," says Peggy Colburn, divisional vice president and director of advertising for Beall's Outlet, based in Bradenton.

If you are 65 or older, you can ride on Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority buses for 50 cents to a single destination or $1.25 for all day. You need a Medicare or PSTA ID card to qualify for the price. PSTA IDs cost $2.50 at transit stations or at ACE America's Cash Express stores.

Tampa's HARTline transit system charges seniors 65 and up 55 cents with the proper

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