July 13, 2020

Retirement, Finances, & Covid-19

Watching the stock market for the past few months has helped strengthen my self-control. As I get the urge to call my financial advisor, I stop and remind myself whatever action I think I want to take, I will regret tomorrow. So, I put the phone back down and do nothing. The feeling passes.

Straight ahead will be a tremendous number of evictions because of missed rent payments. Small and medium businesses are struggling to hold on while others have likely closed for good. Travel remains risky or even impossible due to always-shifting restrictions from various states or cities. Who wants to fly somewhere only to be told you must spend 14 days in self-quarantine? Doesn't sitting next to anyone on a plane seem like a roll of the dice? Cruise ships...are you kidding?

While the economy remains royalty messed up, unemployment at recession-like levels, and coronavirus continuing to upend lives and the future, the investment numbers have rebounded from a disastrous drop in March to back within reach of the start of the year's mark. For a non-financial person like myself, this behavior seems counterintuitive; I would have expected the markets to tank right along with the overall mood in the country. But, apparently, the world, as seen through the eyes of Wall Street, is not all that bad. 

I know enough to grasp that financial markets often operate on emotion, anxiety, and what I will call future-sight. A day's bad news can hit them like a brick to the forehead....or be a financial non-event. I have been at this long enough to understand there is rarely a straight line between logic and the S&P 500.

So, that raises today's questions: how do we retired folks make financial plans for a future that is even more unpredictable and unknown than average? How bad do things have to get for us to make some serious moves of readjustment? Since interest rates barely break the surface anymore, how do we stay ahead of inflation? With governments using deficit spending as an everyday planning tool, how safe is anything? When the bill comes due, then what?

Do we make a connection between the inefficiency of the government to admit the seriousness of the situation and our financial stability? At what point does the overall market react to the short and long-term future in a way that harms our investments? 

And, if it does, then what? Personally, I don't have another 10 or 20 years to rebuild my financial foundation as it washes away. Natural up and downswings I handle; a Great Depression style scenario, not so much.

I am not looking for a hot tip, an easy answer, the throwing of a simple switch that calms the turbulent seas. I imagine I am asking questions that are more universal at the moment: what are we doing under the dual assault of Covid and an economy struggling to stay afloat? 

How have the events of the last five months affected your investments, your planning, your outlook? Have you started to think of cash stuffed in the mattress? Is a backyard about to become a large vegetable garden, with a few chickens thrown in to produce eggs and dinners?

Of, are you zen-like calm: "Been here before. It will sort itself out. Stay the course."

I am genuinely interested in whether the unique combination of events we find ourselves is affecting how you plan for your future. As the disease seems to be getting worse, we all could use a dose of neighborly help, sharing, and support right about now.

July 9, 2020

A Drawer Full of Rubber Bands

This post first appeared eight years ago. My mom had died two years earlier, and dad was in the process of moving from an independent living cottage to assisted living. The focus of this post was on getting control of our stuff, our clutter before others have to. It was about habit and change. So, these words still ring true today.

For the past two weeks, my wife and I have been going through the steps to move my dad from his home to an assisted living apartment. For various reasons, the time was right to make this move as well as sell his car and end his driving days. You can imagine it has not been the most relaxed few weeks, but as of Tuesday, he is safely in his new home. 

At 88 years of age, change in routine is difficult. In fact, one of Betty's greatest fears is he will go back to his old home by mistake and get befuddled when the key no longer works. In taking him from a doctor's appointment to his pharmacy last week, he became bewildered as to the location of the drug store he had driven to for years. Because we left from a place different than his long time house he couldn't tell me how to find it. I finally did,  but a simple turn left -turn right difference was too much for him.

While we sorted through his belongings to figure out what would fit into 500 sq. feet I received another lesson in downsizing and simple living. It is so easy to allow little things to build up over time. Out-of-sight-out of mind.

This photo is a great example. Dad saved rubber bands...apparently for years. He doesn't use them, but habit says to pull them off the newspaper and put them in a drawer. I couldn't say much: I got home and found...a drawer with hundreds of rubber bands! Like father, like son I guess.

In a hall closet, we found at least half a dozen different back braces. I assume that when my mom lost her sight and needed support for her lower back, dad just went to the store and bought one rather than check to see if there was already one in the house.

Guess what: home I go to discover four different knee braces, half a dozen elastic bandages, and two back supports. The excuse that they were in the back of a cabinet isn't good enough.

As we continued to work through his cottage, we found at least 3 years' worth of sheet music from his church choir and 15 paperback books from the library that hadn't been returned. Since he no longer sings in that organization or goes to that library branch, one full drawer became clean, and two organizations had a welcome surprise.

Another drawer held at least 10 years' worth of expense journals. Dad had maintained records of every utility bill, vacation expense, magazine subscription, and credit card charge. That kind of financial awareness is one of the most important lessons I learned from him. But, at some point, the written records can go. Monday was the day.

As we continued through the downsizing process, he decided his days of ironing are over.  The two rather battered and well-traveled suitcases will never be used again, either. Out they went. Since he will be eating two meals a day at one of the center's dining choices, the stacks of day-to-day plates, cups, and silverware could be reduced. All of the fancy serving platters in the dining room hutch would never be needed. In fact, all the dining room furniture could be sold.

After having him decide which pieces of furniture, wall hangings, paintings, and knick-knacks he'd like to keep, we made arrangements for someone to sell everything else or donate the leftovers to a local charity. He will be surrounded by what is important to him; the furniture that was just taking up space in the cottage will find a new home.

As we went through all of this, I was reminded again how little most of us need to feel comfortable. It is much too easy to have stuff pile up around us, even after it's importance and usefulness to us is over. I am reading Sonia Marsh's new (when I originally wrote this post)  book, Freeways to Flip-Flops. She relates the story of moving her family from a large home in Southern California to a hut in Belize. All of the "stuff" that filled their home and life in the U.S. was left behind. Instead, she and her family filled their life with memories and experiences.

Moving my dad from a cottage to an apartment won't be quite as dramatic. But, the lesson is still there: being surrounded by unused stuff doesn't add to the quality of one's life or happiness. After all, it is just stuff.

As a 2020 update: the move was finished without mishap. Dad did well in his new surroundings for three more years until his death. Though small by his previous standards, the apartment felt comforting to him, with just enough "stuff' to make him feel secure and happy.

When it is time for Betty and me to move from our home to a small independent house, I will reread this post to remind me that we will really need very little to feel at home. Memories are the glue that helps hold life together, and they don't require much space to do their magic.

July 6, 2020

Self-Induced Isolation

All of a sudden, America has become persona non grata to parts of the world. The slogan of Making America Great now must include a second phrase: Making America Great but do it alone.

A brief recap: One of the first moves by the current administration was to close America off from parts of the world. The travel ban, which was ordered just seven days into the new presidency, barred citizens from seven predominately Muslim countries from entering the United States for 90 days. After several years of court cases and revisions to the original order, the Supreme Court has allowed a modified version of the ban to remain in effect.

Likewise, the president's desire to erect a wall between Mexico and The United States has seen a similarly tortured development. Where do we stand today? Well, a few hundred miles of replacement and new barricades have been erected. Texas landowners along the Rio Grande are reporting visits from federal officials who are preparing to seize private land to build more miles of the project. Occasionally, judges say stop, while others allow some progress. And, just in case you forgot, Mexico is not paying for any of this, parts of the Pentagon budget are.

Tariffs? Yep. They seem to come and go, stronger or weaker, depending on a tweet. Hundreds of millions of tax dollars go to farmers, while significant disruption in trade has not produced a flood of jobs coming back from overseas, just higher expenses for most of us.

OK, so now, in a perfect example of karma, Americans are finding we are not welcome in certain parts of the world. Planning on a trip to Europe? Not so fast. At least for now, you can't go to any of the EU countries, which includes the ones most of us would want to visit. OK, how about we head north? Nope. Canada is a no-go for Americans. 

The reasons are not political or tariff-related. Instead, it is that the U.S. has become the world's hot spot for Covid-19. We are #1 in the world in deaths from the disease. New cases are occurring at more than 50,000 a day. Someone from our balmy shores who enters another country has been determined to be a serious risk to life and limb.

But, wait, we are not done with this unusual twist. Three northeast states have told citizens of sixteen other locales they are not welcome unless the visitors are willing to submit to a 14-day quarantine. New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut bore the brunt of the initial outbreak of coronavirus. With over 50,000 deaths in just those three states, their government officials are not willing to put citizens through another round of infection and death. For those from states that believe this is all much to do about nothing, they are not permitted easy access. 

Update: As of July 7th New York State has expanded its list of states whose residents are not welcomed without a 2 week quarantine: Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.

Hawaii actually started the policy of required quarantines back in late March. Arrive on one of the islands after that date and spend 14 days in your hotel room or condo...no beach time, no shopping (even for food). Did it work? With less than 1,000 cases and only 18 fatalities, yes, it did.

As I was writing this post comes word that Chicago is taking the same steps: those inbound from states with rising infection rates must quarantine for 2 weeks if the Windy City is where you want to be.

Maybe my mind is a little fried from four months of all this, but a distressing thought occurred to me. What if the restriction on travel between states is seen as an excellent tool for all sorts of reasons. Could Republican-led states tell those from liberal, Democratic-controlled ones to stay away....and vice versa?

What if a state that relies on highly educated workers closed its borders to people with only a high school diploma? Or, if you don't have a particular net worth, stay away, so that state doesn't risk you needing welfare or housing help. Yes, these scenarios are far-fetched. But, much of the last few years would fit that definition.

Consider what these ad hoc decisions by states, and now cities, will do to our struggling economy. Business travel will become impossible if you happen to live in the wrong state. Airlines won't fly from the U.S. to Europe; the only people allowed on board are EU residents, or those willing to be quarantined for 14 days...longer than most vacations. 

Lest we forget our high school history, there is the 14th Amendment. It protects the freedom of interstate travel. However, in one rather important detail, the Federal Government cannot enforce this right. The Supreme Court has left that to the states to worry about. So, I assume that means the three states that are telling my fellow Arizonans and me to stay home or spend two weeks in a hotel room, have every right to do so.

Frankly, I support their choice. That part of the country has paid a very steep price to get a handle on the situation. Those from states that view mask-wearing or social distancing as an affront to their personal liberties are not welcome just now.

Likewise, parts of Europe have been severely harmed. While we went our merry way pretending it was a hoax, or would magically disappear, they did the hard work of getting the initial spread of coronavirus under control. Since the first reports of outbreaks, Canada has taken the steps necessary to keep the infection and death rates down.

In terms of travel, national isolation is something that I usually think of from a historical context: Eastern Europe during the Communist era, China during the Cultural Revolution, North Korea anytime, and Cuba.

At least for me, though, this is a first for our country, a first because we are close to last...in recognizing and diligently dealing with this pandemic. Will these isolation orders be lifted? Yes, in time. And, for now, I don't mind not traveling to some far off place.

But, I find it more than a little disturbing and embarrassing that this country's citizens are seen as a life-threatening risk to others because of an entirely preventable outcome. 

July 2, 2020

The Wave Theory of Retirement

"I just passed nineteen years of being away from the world of work. If there is one overriding lesson in the nearly two decades since June 2001, it is that this time of life is a series of waves, with both crests and troughs.

There are joyous periods when you feel so fully alive you wish for longer days. Your creativity is flowing, relationships feed your soul, and your health is not causing any problems worth mentioning, Your mind is full of good thoughts and new challenges.

Then, there are troughs. 2020 qualifies. Your world is rattled by things out of your control. You feel stagnant and unfulfilled, stale, and stuck in a rut. You are at a loss to see the best way forward. 
Then, just like the ocean, you are thrust upward onto the next crest of retirement. The bad stuff is behind you, and life is full.

My view of where we now, with all the problems we face, remains optimistic because I have seen enough crests to believe the next one isn't all that far away.

Sadly, there is no way to live with only the tops of the waves. But, I promise that the ocean is still moving, and you, along with a fresh perspective, are riding it."

This is a comment I left on Carie Risover's blog a few weeks ago in response to her post about retirement perspectives. It seems like a reasonable basis for a fresh look at retirement over time. 

A point that I have made many times is that retirement isn't all that different from life when you were receiving a paycheck. Many of the same responsibilities follow you into this stage of life. There are good days and bad. There are (occasionally) things like pandemics, economic reversals, relationship struggles, a leaking roof or broken furnace. The car needs new tires and then to be replaced. TV shows keep getting crasser, social media is out of control.....whatever the part of daily life you look at, there are similarities.

And, to use the simile of the waves (or is it a metaphor?), there are times when your life during retirement is a series of highs. Everything is going well, economically, creatively, relationally, health-wise. For now, you are on the crest of the wave. 

Which is a place you also found yourself while employed. For any number of reasons, you were hitting on all cylinders. You might not have been the king of the world, but you had no serious complaints. Life was good.

The big difference, the one that makes most of us look forward to the retired time of life, is the increase in freedom...freedom to decide how to spend your time, what activities or passions, volunteer work or business venture you are going to invest yourself. 

Personally, as I noted in the comment for Carie, it took me a while to figure out this "wave" thing. Even now, I must remind myself of its reality every so often, particularly in times like now.

It is distressingly easy to assume we are all stuck in a trough, a deep, deep, endless down cycle. Disease, protests, crappy economic conditions for tens of millions, racism, a country like a house divided.....I cannot see the crest. It is too far away. All I see is a wall of water looming up ahead of me.

Then, I metaphorically slap myself on the head and, in very forceful terms, remind myself of the endless cycle of the waves and life.

June 28, 2020

On the Wrong Side of History

Some ideas belong in the trash

Staying on the Titanic but determined to create as many bubbles as possible, all the way down.

Sometimes this is the feeling I get as I read the newspaper, check online sources, or just listen to some people talk. It is as if there are a bunch of folks, crowded together on the upper deck of that failed ship, denying reality as long as possible and then shouting defiance as the waves close over their heads, sending a last blast of bubbles as the only reminder of their presence.

Being on the wrong side of history is not difficult. Most of us have been so at one time or another. We thought Beta tapes were the way to go. Apple will never compete with Windows. No one needs a phone small enough for a pocket. The Beatles won't sell many records. 

Those are the normal human guesses about the direction of history or at least the small parts that intrude into our life. But, I have been thinking about a much more consequential misreading of history. This is the one that attempts to take society back, back to what we misremember as a gentler, more predictable time. This is the history that wraps itself in a gauzy sheen of forgetfulness, of never really noticing what was wrong. The real problem comes when this warped recall of the way things were is used to justify some horrible behavior now.

I suggest we are seeing the consequences of this attempt to rewrite, or "clean up" parts of our history. Take the controversies over various statues or flags, for example. The Confederacy was an attempt to not only break apart the union of states but to enshrine slavery as a permanent part of the culture. One must be pretty obtuse to not understand the Confederate symbols, flags, and statues are symbols of a hateful system built on the misery of other humans. To claim it is part of someone's heritage isn't something to be celebrated or perpetuated, it is something to discard in the trash heap of bad ideas. 

In a hard-to-miss insult, U.S. military installations are named after Confederate Generals, men whose purpose was to defeat the U.S. military. What possible sense does it make to name a place after someone who wanted everyone wearing that uniform to die? Why would the current president fight so hard to keep these names? The answer is politically obvious.

There is a statue (just removed) of Teddy Roosevelt in the lobby of a New York City museum. Our 26th president is astride a horse, while a black man and native American (Indian at that time) are walking alongside the horse. The message of white superiority, of the horror of Manifest Destinty upon those who were here well before us,  of the conquering hero, is unmistakable. 

Of course, the protests and focus on racism continue. After 155 years, we continue to find ourselves confronting those who hate, oppress, denigrate, or simply ignore the concept that the Constitution makes rather clear: all men are created equal. And, yes, I haven't overlooked the irony of the "all men" phrasing that was a product of a male-dominated culture that kept women from full rights until almost 100 years ago. Equal pay? Sexism? Still a fight that continues today.

As I have mentioned in an earlier post, as an older white male I can't possibly understand the fear and intimidation that those with different skin color than mine endure every single day. Black children must be taught how to react when stopped by a policeman, react in ways that would never be part of a similar set of instructions for white kids. Being ignored, attacked, or otherwise made to feel less than human? Part of their life.

Yet, I do believe that this time, the obliviousness of too many of us is changing. In a nation that claims to be Christian, why has it taken this long to understand that Jesus was a dark-skinned man, likely Arab, and not a white man? That he meant it when he said to love your neighbor, all your neighbors, not just the ones that look and think like you. If that wasn't his message, then he is not speaking to contemporary white America.

God demands the poor and marginalized people of any society deserve our full support, love, and help. Proclaiming oneself to be Christian yet treating blacks as inferior, is pretty damning evidence that you have missed the point.

Those who continue to insist it is their "right" to wave a flag of hate, to want to hold down a race of human beings who are a different color and to insist that things were better in the "good old days"  are on the wrong side of history. If you want us to go back to when everyone knew the rules, stayed in their place, and accepted things the way they were, your days are past.

But, apparently, you are not going down without a last blast of bubbles.