‘A little to me, a little to them’An 87-year-old Croatian man uses his pension to feed the birds.
Mar 15, 2023
What’s your money worth? A series from the front line of the cost of living crisis, where people who have been hit hard share their monthly expenses.
Name: Ivan Capan
Occupation: Retired security guard
Lives with: Alone. Ivan was married for 33 years, but has lived alone since his wife died in 1994. He has no children.
Lives in: A 35 square metre basement apartment in a building built in 1933 in Zagreb, the Croatian capital. The small apartment, which Ivan owns, has a hallway, bathroom, toilet, kitchen and bedroom, which overlooks a neglected back yard with lots of pigeons and two cats.
Monthly household income: A pension of 504 euros ($540). He also has 1,320 euros ($1,415) in savings. This is the money he received as a retirement bonus in 1998. To this day, that money remains in his bank account and he has not withdrawn a cent. The average pension in Croatia in December 2022 was 351.36 euros ($376), while the average salary was 1,045.59 euros ($1,120).
Total expenses for the month: 495.68 euros ($531)
”There were two turtles in the back yard, I fed them. They came under my window. Now they’re gone,” says 87-year-old Ivan Capan. “I don’t know where they are.”
Since the turtles left, the pensioner has been feeding the neighbourhood birds and two cats instead.
He tears off a piece of bread, crumbles it up and throws it out of the window of his basement apartment. In no time a flock of birds appears. They eat the crumbs, which brings a smile to his face.
“A little to me, a little to them,” he says.
It was 1960 when Ivan first moved from his small hometown of Tounj, 50km (31 miles) away, to Zagreb for work.
“I found a job in Zagreb city markets and stayed there for 38 years as a guard,” he explains. “My wife used to work there, too.”
The couple, who were married for 33 years, did not have any children. “I accepted the fact that I have no children long ago. I don’t know if I could afford to give the children what they need,” he says.
In his apartment, the furniture is mostly old, dating back to the 1970s at least. The household appliances are old too, but they still work. There is a gas stove in the kitchen for cooking, but it doesn’t consume much gas. Ivan never had a car. He did not need one because he worked and lived in the city centre and he and his wife, who passed away in 1994, did not like travelling. Only in the summer would they spend a few days on the island of Mali Losinj, where Ivan’s brother lives.
When Ivan first started getting a pension, it was $448. He gets $532 now. The amount has increased by $84 in 25 years, but the cost of living has increased by much more. He does not get too upset about it.
“It’s important that they didn’t shrink it,” he says.
Of Croatia’s 3.9 million inhabitants, one-third or 1.2 million are pensioners. Among the elderly, 32 percent are at risk of poverty, but for single pensioners like Ivan – who are considered the most vulnerable social group – that rate is 55 percent.
Inflation, which gained momentum last year in the aftermath of the pandemic and the start of the Ukraine war, is hitting Croatia hard; almost everything has become more expensive.
Rising inflation also coincided with the introduction of the euro as a currency on January 1, 2023, instead of the previously used Croatian kuna.
Since then, prices of goods have risen as retailers adjust to the new currency. Food and non-alcoholic beverage prices are up 19.2 percent; restaurant and hotel services by 17 percent; housing, water, electricity, gas and other fuels by 16.5 percent; and transport costs are up 13.3 percent; these increased the most on average in 2022.
The Croatian government helps pensioners by subsidising the cost of utilities. Yet, more than 50 percent of pensioners still live on the brink of poverty.
Even though Ivan gets a slightly higher than average pension, he too must be careful about what he spends his money on.
“I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, and I don’t spend money unnecessarily,” he says.
Ivan is naturally disciplined and has always lived modestly.
He also sticks to a strict routine. He shops twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays, always at the same store, and pays all utility bills with a standing order through a bank account. ”That way I don’t have to worry. I pay for everything on time. I don’t owe anybody anything. I always pay with a debit card at the store.”
He wakes up and goes to sleep at the same time every day, and walks each morning and afternoon. For breakfast, he has a handful of oatmeal in half a litre of milk with some bread. For dinner, he eats the same meal: a large piece of cornbread with yoghurt, and before bed, a banana or an apple. And he drinks only water and two litres of chamomile tea every day. These are habits he has been following for decades.
Ivan leads an orderly life and believes it is the reason he is more vital than his peers, as well as some younger acquaintances. “Daily routine is very important. That’s how I learned, and I couldn’t have done it any other way.”
He is in good health considering his age, and does not need much medicine. He spends only $21 a month on them and undergoes a medical examination once a year.
He is always in a good mood, optimistic and has many friends, some of whom he plays boules with at a nearby playground.
“A few years ago, there were 30 of us or more who played boules every day,” he says. “Then little by little fewer and fewer of us were attending. Some got sick, some died. Two died last week. There are barely 10 of us left.”
Now he spends less time at the playground. His favourite pastime is riding around the city on the tram. For pensioners in Zagreb, city transport is free of charge if their pension is less than 500 euros ($536). Ivan’s is a little more than that, so he must buy a monthly ticket that costs 13.20 euros ($14). He makes the most of his ticket, and uses it every day. He likes to see how and where other people live. So he gets on the tram, rides it to the last stop, then walks to the stop of the next tram, hops on it, and rides it back home.
Ivan says there are two rituals he would never give up: playing the lottery and going out for coffee with an old friend.
“Every Monday, she and I go to a cafe for a double coffee. And so, for nine years, that’s four coffees. I pay the first round, then she pays the next one and so on,” he says. “Now that we have euro, I still don’t manage very well, so I let the waiter take as much as he needs from my hand. When he returns the rest, I don’t look at how much money he returned, I just put it in my pocket,” he laughs.
One small pleasure he did give up was doughnuts. He used to buy them at a nearby store and until recently one cost $0.40; it has now gone up more than double – to $1.10.
”It’s expensive, very expensive. I’d rather buy bread.”
Ivan’s monthly expenses have increased by $52 over the past year. He spends the most on electricity, food and other utilities, like water and gas. At the end of the month, he has nothing left or at most $10-$20 if there are no unexpected costs.
One such cost this month was replacing his phone after it broke. It cost him $34. Last year, something similar happened with his TV, so he bought a new one for $158.
Ivan takes a disciplined, grateful and optimistic approach to life, and deals with problems in a calm way, never getting upset about anything or mentioning the things he may have to go without. Earlier in his life he learned to live modestly, which now helps him to survive with a small pension, he says. But he still makes space for some small pleasures, like the lottery, a friendly cup of coffee, or extra bread to feed the birds.
“People here say: A man covers with as many blankets as he has. That’s how I make ends meet with my pension.”
Over the course of a month, from January 25, 2022, to February 25, 2023, as part of a collaborative project, Ivan Capan tracked his expenses with reporter Miroslav Filipović.
Here are the expenses that tested his finances the most.
In 2022, Croatia was among the five European Union countries where the price of bread increased the most. Between December 2020 and December 2022, bread became 49 percent more expensive, according to Eurostat data.
Ivan buys three loaves of bread twice a week. One 800gm rye that stays fresh for a longer time, one 800gm corn – both that he keeps to eat – and one loaf of white bread to feed the pigeons in the back yard.
The price of bread has increased the most in the last year, he says.
Nevertheless, he still buys bread for the pigeons. “What can I do when I love animals?”
December 2021: $2*
January 2023: $3.20
Ivan needs a new heater. He has an old electric one which works well; however, it uses a lot of power, which increases his electricity costs.
“I turn it on to heat up all day and then irradiate heat for two days,” he says.
Although he does that so he can save money, electricity bills in the winter months are still high.
Luckily, the winters in recent years have not been very cold. After electricity costs went up sharply in June 2022, Ivan’s monthly electricity bill tripled from the year before.
December 2021: $15*
January 2023: $46
Because of inflation, Croatia’s government has frozen the costs of some foods to help citizens, limiting the price of sunflower oil, sugar, milk, pork shoulders and pork minced meat.
The most expensive groceries are bread, eggs and meat. The price of a 10-pack of eggs, for example, rose from $1.70 in December 2021 to $3.50 in January 2023.
Besides pork, meat is very expensive, especially beef and chicken. Ivan does not buy meat or eat it often.
“Sometimes I buy beef or pork, but I’d rather make pea and carrot or potato stew and put some bacon in there to taste it. I always cook enough to have for two or three days. I carefully distribute and watch what I eat,” he says.
A kilo of bacon also increased in a year from $14 to $19.
Ivan also has some “Bronhi” candies on a table in his flat, an extremely popular brand in Croatia. “I almost never eat them,” he says. “I divide those sweets. When I go to the bank, there are six women working at counters and I give each one three candies. I also give the tellers at the store and the woman where I play the lottery two or three candies. And the kids next door.”
The price of the sweets has also increased in the last year from $0.95 to $1.30 per 100gm. But it is a worthwhile expense for Ivan.
“I always have pockets full of those candies. That’s why I bought myself a jacket with big pockets. It’s a pleasure for me,” he says.
December 2021: $92.50*
January 2023: $113
“I don’t spend much and I have nothing to give up. I’m pleased with my life and the money I have. My only vice is a lottery,” Ivan says.
“I used to play the lottery once a week, and now I play twice a week and pay my lottery ticket $2.11 each time.”
The lottery costs him $17 a month, but he does not intend to give it up because it is fun to play.
A year ago, he won a lottery prize of $105. With that money, he bought a new pair of shoes, two shirts, and food for the cats in the yard. And with what was left, he took his nephew to a pizzeria.
“Since then, I haven’t won anything, but I keep playing. I won’t give it up,“ he says.
December 2021: $8.50*
January 2023: $17
Six quick questions for Ivan
1. What is one thing you had to forgo this month? I didn’t give up anything in particular. I always buy the same and I don’t have big needs. I don’t buy doughnuts any more because they have become extremely expensive. I’d better get another loaf of bread than an expensive doughnut.
2. What is the hardest financial decision you have had to make this month? One of my relatives died, so I bought a funeral wreath for $52. It wasn’t a difficult decision for me because of the money, but because the reason was sad.
3. Which is the most worthwhile expense from this month? I bought a new phone. The old one broke and I needed a new one. It’s the most cost-effective, I must have a phone. And I didn’t take the cheapest one so it wouldn’t break quickly again.
4. When finances get tough, what advice do you have? When times are difficult and a man does not have enough money, the most important thing is to remain honest and not envy the one who has more. Hate and envy are the worst for a person. I feel sorry for those who have much more than me and are unhappy because they don’t have even more. One should be modest in everything.
5. What is your biggest money worry? I’m worried that electricity [cost] will go up. I don’t eat much, and I’ll always have enough for food. I eat as much as I have, but I can’t control the cost of energy. The electricity bill is my biggest expense, and it may even be higher.
6. What is the saving hack you are proudest of? Payment by standing order. I pay all utilities that way because I don’t have to go anywhere or bother with whether I paid or not. And second, when I cook myself a meal, I always make enough to have for two or three days.