January 25, 2021

Retirement's Biggest Surprises

Almost nine years ago, I wrote about what had surprised me about retirement. At that point, I had been away from the working world for almost 11 years. Now, I have called myself retired for almost two decades.

I thought it would be interesting to review what I thought I knew about this time of life, compared to what another nine years have done to my perspective. Here is the original post from 2012, along with my thoughts all these years later.

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June will mark 11 years of being without full-time work - by choice. My satisfying retiremenhas been even better than I imagined, but it isn't exactly what I imagined it would be. That shouldn't be a surprise. Life throws constant curve balls at us. Our job is to change our swing and make the best of what comes our way. Like a baseball player, if you can't hit a slider or curve, you'd had best learn or down to the minors you go. Retirement isn't all that different: adjust and learn or suffer the consequences.

So, after my journey, what are the biggest surprises I have encountered? I don't think I could have predicted any of them ahead of time, which is why they were surprises!

My financial planning has actually worked. I had a double-pronged approach to funding my retirement. I didn't want to start drawing down my IRA account until at least 64. Yes, I could have started earlier but wanted to allow it to compound as long as possible. I also wanted to not take Social Security checks until at least 63 or 64. So far, that is on track.

All that meant I had to have a money source to carry me from when I retired at 52 until 64. For that purpose, I developed a second investment account, consisting primarily of tax-free investments like muni bonds and other tax-exempt options. That money would grow but at the same time be available to fund my retirement mostly tax-free for 12 years. Even with a few recessions in the mix, that account that I started 25 years ago will be empty on my 64th birthday, right on schedule. 

Many things could have and did go wrong, but the account designed to carry me from full employment to my IRA account has performed exactly as projected a few decades ago. The most surprised person is me.

Update: The decision to have a separate account to carry me until Social Security was a lifesaver. When my business shut down in 2001, that was the money that kept us afloat. It was funded by saving close to 20% of my income each year and taking advantage of tax-free investments. And, yes, I started accepting Social Security at 64.

I have become deeply involved in something quite alien to me. If you remember the post, Pushing Back Against the Box, I detailed my involvement in prison ministry from just over a year ago. Until that point, I had no contact with prisons, prisoners, parole officers, or an entire subsection of society that wasn't part of my life. Like most of us, I had certain preconceived notions of the people and the system, none of which was pleasant. But, starting five years ago, through a combination of factors, I entered that world, first as a pen pal to incarcerated men, and later as a full-time mentor. 


That involvement is about to take another major step forward: I will be going into two state prisons regularly to meet with men and be involved in Bible studies. Taking up a few days a month and involving several hundred miles of driving, this will take a bite out of my schedule. But, it is something I feel driven to do and I will make whatever adjustments are required. If you had told me when my retirement began, I'd be so deeply involved in this world I would have scoffed. But, it has happened, and I feel my life is richer because of it.


Update: My involvement with this prison ministry organization ended about two years after this post was written. There was a change in top leadership, and the paperwork requirements began to replace the time I spent in compassionate care, so I figured it was time to move on.

Even so, this remains one of the most rewarding experiences of my retirement. To do something so different in both setting and involvement left a mark that continues to resonate with me. The fact that I remain in touch with one of the men I mentored is an added blessing. And, yes, he is doing very, very well.


One of my parents died. I know how life works: you are born and eventually die. Of course, I knew my mom and dad weren't likely to outlive me. But, when a parent does die, regardless of how ready you may believe you are, it is still a shock to the system. My mom died in December 2010 after a long and lingering slide that began with a broken leg and macular degeneration 18 months before her passing. So, death was not a surprise when it finally occurred.

Even so, to not show her my first e-book or know she'd never read this blog was a shock. To know I couldn't call her when I have a grammar question hit me hard. The permanency of the loss isn't something you can actually prepare yourself for until it happens. Intellectually I was ready for her death. Emotionally, I am still adjusting to her not being around to validate and comfort me. 

Update: My dad died five years after mom. He lived a full and happy life, leaving us at age 91. There are days, and especially events or memories I regret not being able to share with them. They were role models in their 63-year long marriage that Betty and I hold as our goal and guideposts.


I have had a harder time with the easier stuff. Why can't I stay on a regular schedule of visiting the gym? Why have I started and stopped and starting again playing the guitar three different times? Why do I still watch too much TV at night when I know it isn't the best use of my time (blaming Netflix is a cop-out!)? Why can't I lose the last 5 pounds I've promised myself for over a year? Why do I feel guilty if I turn on my ham radios and spend an hour listening and talking to other amateur radio operators?

The big things have happened, and I have adjusted. But the little day-to-day stuff of living keeps tripping me up. Is that just the human condition? I don't know, but that is my excuse, and I'm sticking with it.

Update: This hasn't changed, and as I get older, it actually might be worse. My daily to-do list is now my daily "if-I-Get-to-it" list. I have learned to not get as upset when a day doesn't go quite like I planned or an unexpected minor hassle occurs (like waking up last week to a leaking faucet in the bathroom that flooded the floor and parts of the carpeting).

The big stuff of retirement is now into an "it's taken care of" mindset. The little things that add pleasure to the day or that may add years to my life still require extra concentration to accomplish.

January 22, 2021

Cynicism Gives Way To Hope

 


Not in my wildest dreams, or nightmares, would I have thought I'd witness the events of the last few weeks in my country. Sure, seeing mobs, riots, and armed police on every corner are not unfamiliar events in other places, in other countries.

Americans have marches, protests against racism or sexism or drunk drivers, or any of the dozens of injustices that exist. Waving flags, singing songs, chants, raised fists...that is part of America. We wear our emotions on our sleeves and have the right to protest against what we perceive to be wrong. 

Sometimes things are not peaceful: the 1965 Selma march, the over-the-top protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, the riots in Watts, protests in Furguson over the shooting of Michael Brown.....there are times when a lawful gathering became something much worse, or an obvious injustice spark an outpouring of rage that results in mayhem and death.

But, the swarming of the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6th created a whole new category. This was the first time since the Civil War that there was a mass of people angry enough at perceived slights to attempt to stop the government in its tracks, to kidnap and maybe even assassinate political leaders. "Hang Mike Pence" was particularly disturbing.

Promises of a repeat performance, with more weapons and worse consequences, was threatened for the period just before and during the inauguration of Joe Biden. Downtown Washington became an armed camp. Rings of blockades, layer upon layer of temporary fencing, upwards of 20,000 National Guard troops added to the Metropolitan Washington police force to create a literal armed wall around key buildings.

A crowd of spectators hoping to see this once every four-year swearing-in ceremony were kept so far away that watching television made much more sense. I must note, however, that the display of 200,000 flags was awe-inspiring and a perfect statement of national unity.

All the upheavals were because millions of us live in a world detached from reality. What is desired, wanted, expected, and hoped for, even when based on a completely fictional foundation, is plenty to trigger the worst in way too many people. The willingness to sacrifice both themselves and a society of laws was chillingly obvious.

To feel very nervous about our immediate future is not really cynicism; it is pragmatic. To ignore or downplay how seriously off track we are is to live with our collective head in the sand., The QAnon satanic pedophile-run cannibalistic government deep state and other conspiracy theories are no longer the stuff of horror movies or those who wear tinfoil on their head. They have moved from the shadows to the sunlight, though the lack of any dramatic event on January 20th has left many QAnoners dispirited. That is the tough part about believing gibberish.

Even so,  I sense a feeling of hope, not only in myself and Betty but in the folks who leave comments on this blog and those I interact with in other settings. We are not rose-colored-glasses kind of people. Making it to our age means we have seen and experienced enough to have a healthy dose of cynicism coursing through our veins.

The change of leadership in Washington feels so much more consequential. There is a real sense that the shift in attitude and programs are going to start to put the last four years behind us. There is a trust that the country will move back into the coalition of nations, no longer shunning our allies, and no longer ignoring or coddling our enemies.

A recognition of the seriousness of climate change, on a meaningful immigration policy that isn't built around the misery of others, a concerted effort to bring Covid under control, the protection of those damaged economically by the massive loss of jobs....all these things suddenly seem possible. 

An administration that goes about its sworn duty, without demeaning others, lying as a matter of course, embracing wild-eyed conspiracy theories, and announcing policies and airing grievances on Twitter. A government built on the basic premise that men, women, white, black, brown, Asian, and Native Americans are all equal in God's sight and deserve a meaningful seat at the table.

The road ahead will not be easy. We have decades, if not centuries of injustices to finally admit and find a way to move forward. The fractures in our sense of community and a shared future are deep, dangerous, and not going away quickly or without more pain and struggle.

Nevertheless, the cynicism, anger, even rage of the past four years is being replaced with hope. I am more than ready to endure whatever we must go through now that I can see a future that is better than our past.

Maybe Bon Dylan said it best almost 60 years ago:

And how many years can some people exist
Before they're allowed to be free?
Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn't see?

The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind


The wind I feel is the wind of change, and it feels good to me.



January 19, 2021

Making The Choices We Do

First written over six years ago, I have found new relevance in this post. Many of the problems we face today result from the same findings from my days in market research. The principles that radio stations used to build an audience back then are now used to create a narrative about what someone wants us to believe.

As the events of 2020 and the first few weeks of the new year make quite obvious, a properly targeted advertising, promotional, or marketing message still works. Whether on social media, television, print, or simply word of mouth, the psychological underpinnings are the same. 

See if you don't agree.




For many years before my satisfying journey through retirement began, I earned my living conducting market research for radio stations. The clients wanted to know which songs to play, what kind of contests would attract the most listeners, which advertising campaigns might be most effective, even whether a particular announcer should be hired or fired.

Over the course of hundreds of different studies all across the country, there were some obvious similarities in the results. It really didn't matter where the research was conducted; the key findings would be very much the same. Even knowing what the answers were likely to be, clients still believed their market and their situation would be different, they would be the exception to the rule. Of course, that didn't prove to be true. But, confirmation was important to them, so they still felt good about all the money being spent.

What does any of that have to do with retirement and the world we live in? Frankly, quite a lot.  Not surprisingly, the results gathered thirty years ago for radio stations apply to you and me today. Human psychology, our needs, and wants, and what motivates us hasn't changed.

One of the key findings remains the cornerstone of advertising today: Tell someone something often enough, and it is believed to be true. In radio, a station would simply declare itself #1, repeat the claim over and over for months and months, and then have listeners tell researchers like me that the station was #1.

Politicians are prime examples in today's world. Repeat a talking point or sound bite over and over until its truthfulness isn't even questioned. Repetition of an advertising message eventually convinces you that a certain laundry detergent really is better than all the others or that a brand of automobile is the one missing ingredient to make you happy and sexy.

This makes a difference to us in one significant way: it calls into question the validity of "experts" who tell you how to invest your money, what to do to protect your health, or how to be happy when you follow their five easy steps. The real answer is there is no simple answer. One size does not fit all. Saying it is so doesn't make it so. To build a satisfying retirement, you will ultimately be responsible for the decisions. You can't out-source your retirement and expect it to be a happy one.

That doesn't mean there isn't much to be learned from someone who has gathered experience along the way. After all, that is pretty much what this blog is all about: almost 15 years of retirement has taught me some things I'd like to share. But, it is important to understand that your life, your experiences, and your desires, are yours. Gather all in the input you can. Listen to what others say. Read extensively. Then make up your own plan. Take the road that is best for you.

The vast majority of us have no idea why we make the choices we do. No one really knew why they preferred a particular radio station over another that played the same music. They couldn't even remember which stations they listened to over a typical week. Something in the subconscious made one choice preferable over another, but verbalizing the reasons was often impossible.

For us, knowing that we operate on automatic pilot is important information. It is very easy to do something the same way without actually understanding why. It is challenging to break a bad habit for the same reason. You must recognize you live a certain way, not necessarily from a mindful choice, but from a lifetime of habit. When you understand that basic fact, it becomes easier to begin to change what you do.

Experience is a good teacher. Over time we learn some of the things that are best for us. The problem is we don't always follow those lessons, and we don't know why. That is OK. You will make mistakes. You will make choices that, when looking back, amaze you at their stupidity. All that proves is you are human. Accept that motivations are sometimes going to be unknown.

Peer pressure affects everyone, not just kids. Advertising depends on peer pressure. "Keeping up with the Jones" motivates a lot of people to aspire to a lifestyle they can't afford and may not even like. In radio, listeners want to report they listen to the most popular or "hottest" station in town, even if they don't. There is pressure to be part of the majority.

Maybe you believe you must spend part of each year on a cruise ship or biking through Europe. Maybe the people you aspire to copy own a luxurious RV or a vacation home in Aspen. You drive a giant SUV even though you and your spouse rarely leave town. Others in your social circle drive one, so it must be the right choice. Your house has three flat-screen TVs that you rarely turn on.

It is quite possible that your life has been shaped by peer pressure and not by what you really want. There is nothing wrong with any of the things listed above as long as you truly want them, use them, and can afford them. It is when you possess something to be like others that you can encounter serious problems.

Familiar always beats unfamiliar. This simple fact makes developing a new product, or in my case, creating a new radio station so difficult. No matter how often people claim to want new and different, it simply isn't true. Safe and familiar almost always trumps new and untested. Part of this is peer pressure, part of this is fear of the unknown, and part of this is laziness. We know what we get from product A. It may not be perfect, but who knows what product B will be like. Why take the risk?

This is a major stumbling block to a satisfying retirement. Rather than try a new lifestyle, a new hobby, a trip to a foreign country, a new friendship, or even a new way to manage our time, human nature will attempt to revert to the familiar. We are programmed to default to the known. We hate uncertainty, which is odd when you realize life is constant uncertainty.

Your creativity, happiness, and entire retirement experience can depend on understanding this core fact of life and rejecting it. Something familiar isn't better unless it is. Living life fully is knowing what you don't know and finding out if that is a mistake.
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Above is exactly what I wrote in 2014. Yet, the key points are just as relevant, just as on target today, just as responsible for the state we find ourselves in at the moment. Maybe by being more aware of how our opinions, desires, and motivations are shaped, we can be a little more discerning in our choices and actions. 

January 15, 2021

Stolen From Me and Some Youngsters By Covid


One of the volunteer activities I truly enjoy has been stolen from me by the pandemic. I come from a long line of teachers and spent a good part of my career as a consultant (teacher). Engaging with young people is satisfying and, I hope, helpful, to them. My last in-class interaction was in January of 2020:


The hand in the very back of the room shot up. The boy was waving it vigorously back and forth to get my attention. "Mr. Lowry, Mr. Lowry," he almost shouted, " I know the answer!" Since this the first time in three weeks he had shown much interest, he was rewarded with my response to his plea.

What was going on? Where was I and who were these 26 children, none of whom knew me or I had even met them just three short weeks ago? 

For the last several years I have spent part of each Spring and Fall, teaching 5th graders about our economic system through the Junior Achievement program. 

More importantly, I was hoping to inspire each one of them to not see the limits that society may impose on them, but grasp the opportunities and a future they could craft.

The school is located in a  lower-middle-class neighborhood, about 5 miles from my home. The 10 and 11-year-old kids were clean and well-dressed, the teacher supportive and eager for this extra instruction for her kiddos.

Most came from homes where both parents worked, often in places like auto repair shops, neighborhood grocers, barbershops, or beauty salons. Older brothers and sisters held positions at McDonald's or Target stores. Most of the children were like sponges, looking to soak up whatever I could pass along to help them get a job and support themselves.

At first, each semester the children had the same reaction, sometimes unspoken, other times, not: "Who is the old man, and what is he doing here?" Old enough to be a grandfather or even great-father to a few, naturally they wondered about my appearance in their classroom. Yet, like most children, any interruption to the normal routine of math, English lessons, and quizzes was welcomed. 

I am provided with teaching lessons to help me stay on track and various supplies to keep the kids engaged. When I bring out giant game boards, a pair of dice, special take-home bookmarks, and flashcards all eyes are on me.

After several times through the material, I have learned how to skip some parts of the prepared lessons and bring something of my own into the lessons. For these kids, the key is to make what I have to share relevant to their real-world experience. Talking about college prep is important. Stressing the use of technology and keeping up with the latest trends is important. 

But, the day-to-day reality of what these boys and girls face is more important to them, right now, at this moment, in their young lives. Learning about credit, how to get it, use it, and not abuse it is high on my list of lessons. Several had no idea that what is put on a credit card must be paid back. Checking accounts? Most had never seen a check or what it was for. 

How to get a job, whether it is at McDonald's, or eventually at Microsoft, is a skill they will need in just a few more years. Most of these children have teen-aged siblings who contribute to the family income; they expect to be in that position, too.

Understanding how to market oneself, stress skills, and aptitudes, what not to do during a job interview, like not responding to a text while seated in front of your potential employer - these are crucial to my kids and not given enough stress in my teacher's guide. So, I use my experiences and basic employment-oriented presentations to help equip them for something only a few years away.

One week is designed to focus on the global economy and how we are all interconnected. That is all true, but these kids were very much aware of the message coming from Washington over the past four years. So, they had all sorts of questions about what are trade tariffs and why should they care, what about the border wall and our country's position on immigration. Several of these children had relatives in Central America and were rightly concerned about ever seeing them again.

The time in the classroom allowed me to calm some of their fears, explain how world economies work, and the effect of politics on the present situation. Without taking any side, it was my desire to give them a glimpse of reality, a helping of hope, and enough information to begin to think about these issues on their own. 

At the end of the five weeks together, these young minds had the beginnings of an understanding of how the world and local economy works, how to get and keep a job, manage one's income and outgo, and glimpse a future that their hard work and dedication could create for them. 

For me, personal satisfaction was enormous. By the third week, I was greeted with smiles, handshakes, and (after I OK'd it with the teacher) the children coming to me for a hug. By the end of the last lesson, there were moans and displays of unhappiness that I would not be back. Our time together was much more than teacher and student: it had become more like friends sharing time together, a granddad teaching his kids something important, and the sharing of affection and concern from both the front and the back of the room.

As the last class came to an end, I gave the teacher a $100 gift card for her to use for class supplies or anything she felt her students would enjoy. In return, I was presented with a card signed by all the students, along with a framed picture of all of them.

Considering all of the horrible things we have had to endure because of Covid, my missing a chance to teach a few classes of 5th graders ranks quite low on the damage list. Even so, I am sorry for the opportunity both the kids and I have missed to learn from each other and prepare the next generation for some of what they will face in the near future.

Damn you, Covid.


January 11, 2021

Could You Live In a Tiny House?


Over the last few years, various TV home improvement channels have dedicated a fair amount of time to extolling the virtues of tiny house living. Young couples just starting a life together, retirees looking to simplify, a family that needs to cut expenses, a single who doesn't need much more than a roof over her head and a place for her hobbies and entertaining a few friends, are shown adjusting to a few hundred feet square feet and calling it home. 

A tiny home could be a small trailer or RV., a houseboat, even a treehouse. It might be manufactured by a company specializing in such things or built by hand by someone who wants everything to be just so. 

Space under the ladder to a sleeping loft becomes dresser drawers. A door slides out from the wall, with a compact clothing closet built-in. A kitchen contains everything from a simple hotplate and dorm room-sized refrigerator to a gourmet cook's dream.

The way every inch is used to make the space more livable and convenient is, frankly, amazing. For those who want to seriously down-size and make a much smaller footprint on the earth, tiny houses are quite attractive.

What size qualifies as tiny? The answer varies greatly. I have seen some people shoehorned into no more than a small RV, or as large as 700 squarer feet of living space. The average seems to be somewhere between 200 and 300 square feet...about the size of a larger master bedroom in a traditional home.  

With the number of possessions radically reduced, minimal utility costs, and usually no mortgage, tiny house living is a tight budget's best friend. The average cost is usually in the $30-$40,000 range but can be much more inexpensive or much higher, depending on the amount of customization desired.

Betty and I just met a couple who have sold their large home and virtually all their possessions. They are in the process of buying an RV that will become their full-time home for the next several years. 

So, that raises the question: Could you, or would you, live in a house or motorhome that small?

Could you be happy in a space about 85% smaller than the average American home? How about less than half a typical one-person apartment?

Is a tiny home a good choice for a single retiree or couple? Or, is that amount of closeness just a little too close for you?