March 30, 2011

Those Blasted Stairs

Finished just in time for this post
I pretty much require neatness. If the house is the least bit unorganized I get testy. If a picture on the wall is crooked, I straighten it.  This can create a problem because my wife is someone who thrives on multiple projects, most of which require lots of space and lots of messes for various periods of time. In our retirement-sized smaller home this can be a challenge.

So, knowing that, explain to me why we decided to have our carpeted steps to the second floor replaced with wood steps this week? This process requires us to move most of the living room furniture into the family room. We can't use the stairs for 8 hours a day so we have to bring downstairs anything we might need for the day, including different clothes, wallets, books...anything that we would possibly need all day. The project covers things with dust and creates very strong odors.

While that is going on Betty is in the middle of sanding and re-staining all the cabinets in the upstairs guest bath and re-designing her office, also upstairs. Plus, she is working on a major project for the church that has half the garage filled with wood, cement, tools, fabric, and other odds and ends.

Also I should mention because it is spring in Phoenix that means major backyard cleanups, replanting, and  trimming are underway. It means removing a broken fountain and fixing a potting bench, plus trips to the garden center for more pots and plants for the porch and Ramada.

As I write this we are restricted to a couch in the family room, half the dinette table, and the backyard. I am going bonkers. It is my worst nightmare in triplicate. It is the perfect storm of domestic upheaval. Wait, there's more. My wife just informed me her eyeglasses snapped in half!

The joys of home ownership come with its constant upkeep and remodeling. A condo is starting to look pretty good. Someone else can fix and upgrade and repair. Someone else can replant and prune, re-roof and repaint.

Oh, I have to go. The lawn service apparently cut the head off a sprinkler and part of the yard is flooding.

March 27, 2011

We Cut The Cord

One of my publicly stated goals for the new year was to eliminate cable TV from our lives by April 1st. Frankly, it wasn't that big a deal. My wife and I were watching less than 2 hours a week by the end of last year so cutting the cord wouldn't be a major change in lifestyle for us. The cable company decided I should pay $15 a month more starting in mid-March. That was the perfect time to turn in the cable boxes and save $70 every month. For the first time in 35 years we are without cable TV.  My goal has been achieved. So, what is it like?

I must admit we are not completely without the ability to watch some TV channels. An antenna from Amazon, perched on top of the entertainment unit and hooked to the flat screen, allows us to receive about a dozen local channels. All the major networks and PBS are available. Actually, the quality of the HD picture is noticeably better than the HD pictures I got from the cable company. And, it is free.

I am getting a little nervous about the prospect of not being able to watch any Arizona Diamondbacks games this summer. All their games are only available on cable. But, as I think about the number of hours I have wasted watching a game I didn't really care about I feel better knowing I can't be tempted. Betty will miss HGTV and both of us wonder about staying in the loop without CNN or another news channel, especially since we canceled the daily paper three months ago.

The obvious answer is the Internet. Almost anything available on cable TV is available over the Internet, usually for free. Some of if it may be delayed for a day or two, but news that is happening now is right there, whenever we want it. Even hundreds of HGTV episodes are on-line and should keep Betty happy for quite awhile. Fire up the laptop, plug it into the TV, turn up the surround sound, and we are back in action.

Now, I have to begin to curb my Netflix addiction. Whenever I want I have the ability to stream tens of thousands of movies, old TV shows, and a tremendous selection of documentaries on every subject imaginable. Therein lies the problem: it is too easy to spend 2 or 3 hours every evening watching a movie and then an episode of Quantum Leap or the Rockford Files. How about a fascinating 2 hour documentary on how various cultures view the afterlife? Hiking the Rockies, living in New York City without electricity for a year...the choices would put even the Discovery Channel to shame.

Of course, I must remind myself we pulled the cable for economic reasons, not because the tube had us in its evil eye. We just couldn't justify $70 a month for a few hours a week. Netflix is only $10 (including actual DVDs through the mail). Even so, the instant availability of endless choices on Netflix will get out of hand if we are not careful. We may have to develop a Netflix "diet"  to be sure our evenings aren't wasted.

One of my daughters and her family have gone the same route. They use a small antenna to pick up the Phoenix channels and Netflix for movies and old TV shows. The kids are extremely creative, bright, able to read books by the age of 4, can converse with adults, and are respectful. How much of that is due to the lack of a TV "babysitter" on for hours during the day I don't know, but I'd guess quite a bit.

Cutting the cable cord would probably have been more interesting if my wife and I were avid TV viewers. You may argue that we really gave up very little. I would probably agree. But, to be without what most people consider a necessity is a leap of faith on our part.

One immediate benefit: Betty used to watch HGTV while she had lunch. I preferred to sit at the dinette in the kitchen or outside on the patio and read. Now, we eat together and read or converse over our meal. That alone is worth the change.

How about you? Are you a cable subscriber that enjoys it and finds the investment worth the expense? Are you giving some thought to cutting back the number of channels you pay for, or even trying an antenna? Have you already eliminated TV from your daily routine and wondered what took me so long? There is no right answer in this situation. Each of us makes choices that are best for us. I have made one that may be completely wrong for you. I'd love to hear your thoughts and your experiences.

March 24, 2011

Apparently We Have Not Learned Our Lesson

Last week I received the results of two interesting studies. I am not vouching for the accuracy of either since they were both press releases from firms with a vested interest in the financial planning and investment industries. But that doesn't necessarily disqualify the data. I found the information worth reading and thinking about. I trust you will, too.

I found the first release startling. After all the problems of the last few years and all the bad press about Baby Boomers being unprepared to financially retire, this is the last thing I thought I'd read:

Younger workers continue to delay retirement savings

When it comes to saving for retirement, Generation Y is not taking a cue from their Boomer parents, many of whom are facing financial challenges as retirement looms. The majority (55 percent) of Gen Yers have not started to save for retirement, and fewer than a quarter (21 percent) are actively planning for retirement.

A new survey, commissioned by on line investing firm Scottrade, shows that 60 percent of Gen Yers (born 1983-1991) saved nothing toward retirement last year and 40 percent plan to save nothing in 2011. An additional 21 percent plan to save only one to two percent of their income this year.

“What Gen Y may not realize is that older generations based their retirement planning on the three-legged stool of Social Security, savings and employer pensions,” said Craig Hogan, director of customer intelligence at Scottrade.

“The approach their parents and grandparents took toward saving is no longer appropriate because the old model doesn’t exist. By the time Gen Y retires, they may have only one reliable leg to stand on – their own savings – and they need to plan accordingly.”

When asked what age they’d recommend people start saving for retirement, Gen Yers recommended a mean age of 29.2 years old, giving even the oldest of the group two more years before this generation thinks they need to start saving.
As the first class of Baby Boomers (born 1945-1966) turns 65 and evaluates whether they can retire, many have regrets that can provide an important lesson for Gen Y. Nearly half (46 percent) of Boomers didn’t start saving for retirement until age 35 or older. However, if given a second chance:
  • The majority of Boomers (58 percent) would have started saving at a younger age
  • Nearly half (45 percent) would have saved more
  • Fifty percent would recommend starting to save earlier than age 25
Gen Y need look no further than Boomers’ current retirement picture to see the effects of delaying saving for retirement. Almost half (47 percent) of Boomers have $100,000 or less saved, and more than a third (37 percent) are concerned that they will have to work in their retirement years. Almost a quarter (23 percent) think they’ll still be working at age 75 or older.

“Considering the Boomers’ plight and how easy it is to invest on your own in a very low-cost way, we would have expected to see Gen Y reacting by increasing its savings,” Hogan said. “But our data shows that the vast majority – 73 percent – currently has less than $25,000 saved for retirement. And that number has been about the same for the past three years.”

There is no shortage of lessons to be learned from the Boomers’ retirement planning experiences,” Hogan said. “The good news for Gen Y is that they have the advantage of Boomers’ hindsight, youth and enthusiasm. If Gen Yers focus their interest in investing toward their retirement portfolios, there is still plenty of time for them to get where they need to go.”

Gen Y’s lack of action doesn’t stem from lack of awareness or interest. Almost three-fourths of Gen Yers (73 percent) realize that they are not saving enough for retirement, and previous Scottrade survey data revealed that Gen Y finds investing fun and interesting. In addition, they are the most likely to manage their own investments.

The survey was commissioned by Scottrade and conducted on line  Fielded with a nationally representative sample of 1,000 respondents between January 13-18, 2011, the survey examined attitudes, behaviors and trends related to retirement. All participants were at least 18 years of age that were involved in making investment decisions in their households. Margin of error for the overall poll is +/- 3.1 percent at 95 percent confidence. (That last bit of statistical detail tells me the results are valid for the type of person surveyed).

Employer Matching Contributions

In a glimmer of somewhat better news this survey notes that approximately 30% of employers plan on reinstating matching contributions this year. The relevant portions of that press release are as follows:

Despite high unemployment rates, signs of economic recovery are surfacing according to the 7th annual Retirement Plan Survey, conducted by Grant Thornton LLP, Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP and Plan Sponsor Advisors LLC. After significant cutbacks in employer matching contributions over the past few years, 30 percent are planning to reinstate previously eliminated or reduced matching contributions during 2011. Forty two percent do not have plans to reinstate their match this year.

It should be noted that when asked this question one year ago, over half (53%) of the employers had not decided whether to return to previous contribution levels and 33 percent had no plans to do so. This indicates a significant shift in plan sponsors’ outlook on matching contributions since a year ago.  Despite cutbacks by both plan sponsors and participants, 83 percent of plan sponsors reported that either very few or none of their employees had expressed concerns about their retirement readiness.

“Considering the issues facing participants, including reduced employer contributions, decreased plan balances, economic uncertainty and regulatory/administrative updates such as Roth conversions, participants may not be aware that they need to be concerned,” said Jennifer Flodin, Chief Operation Officer of Planned Sponsor Advisors LLC.

My initial reaction was 30% seems rather paltry. But, in retrospect, the economy is not out of the woods by any means. Japan and the Mideast problems will have consequences. Importantly, compared to a year ago positive movement is quite clear.

As regular readers know I usually don't delve very deeply into financial issues; there are plenty of blogs that specialize in that. But, these two studies seemed worth sharing. The first, frankly, baffles me. What Else has to happen for folks to understand their own responsibility to prepare for their future?

Any comments to what they say? Are we incapable of learning from past mistakes?

March 17, 2011

Until It is Gone

It may be a cliché but is quite true: you don't know what you have until it is gone. That can apply to health, or financial stability, or in this case, friendship. Within the last few weeks someone I considered one of my closest friends severed ties with me (and a lot of others). Due to circumstances that aren't important to this narrative, he and his wife felt compelled to make a rather abrupt change to major parts of their lives. In doing so, I have lost two of the more important people in my life.

It hurts and has left a large hole. At first I was stunned and quite upset, almost upset enough to do something rash on my part. A day or two later I knew the more appropriate response was to take a deep breath and move on. But, the events of this period have made it abundantly clear to me the importance of friendship and the impermanence of a human relationship.

What bothers me about the loss, I admit, are  selfish concerns.  I will miss seeing this fellow on a regular basis. We used to have contact at least twice a week, sometimes more. I looked forward to being with him, sharing time and thoughts, and having him as a springboard for ideas and concerns. We had different political views and some of our spiritual beliefs were not entirely in sync. But, we still enjoyed each other's company in spite of, or maybe because of, our differences.

If I needed help I knew with complete certainty he would be there for me, and me for him. A ride somewhere, a shared meal, a question about a subject one of us had some expertise in, moral and spiritual support....there was never any doubt that we would be there for each other. Watching movies, eating home cooked meals as two couples...we shared quite a bit. Now, that link has been cut.

There is certainly the chance that this friendship will restart though I'm beginning to have my doubts. For now, I must wait for him to signal that that he wants to make contact again.

While this has been a disappointing experience for me, there is a broader message. Change in life is what happens. Anything that you or I think is rock solid, predictable, and dependable is an illusion. There is nothing that stays the same. There is nothing that can't be shattered in an instant.

Friendship is one of those things that makes our life richer and fuller. It is to be treasured and savored. It is to be nurtured and protected and fought for. But, if something happens that brings it to an end then be thankful for the time you had to enjoy and enrich each other. Wish the other person the very best and keep the door open for a new chapter together.

Then, move forward. It does me no good to try to turn back the clock, wonder what I am missing, or think I could have changed what happened. Friendship is one of those things that can't be forced and can't be prolonged. It is a gift for the time it is available. I press on, better for the experience and stronger for the events of the past two weeks.

Have you had an important friendship end? Was it because you or the other person moved or was it simply a falling out? How did you react? I'd appreciate your sharing. It would help me understand what I have gone through.

March 10, 2011

Batter Up

It is that fabulous time of year when major league baseball teams are in the Phoenix area for Cactus League spring training. The weather is warm, the skies generally clear, and winds calm. Nearly 60% of those attending the 5 week long season are from out of town, giving the state a desperately needed shot of revenue.

Occasionally I will step away from the computer, the yard chores, and the other stuff that makes up my life, grab a hat, a wife, the sunscreen and go. It is just a game and sometimes with second string players. But, the experience is delightful and even contains some life lessons if one pays attention.

Fifteen teams, ten stadiums, hundreds of thousands of people, unlimited quantities of  (over-priced) hot dogs and beer, and a few hours in the sun. Like all good things in life the season is much too short for the fans. It only lasts from the last few days of February through the end of  March. By then the players are ready to have the games count, and the owners are ready for 40,000 people per game instead of 8,000. But, the fans miss the lower cost and easier contact with the players.

In that sense spring training is like the rest of my life: some of the most enjoyable and memorable times are too short and not repeatable. The days my kids were born, the arrival of our grandchildren, a two week family Christmas vacation on Maui, scuba diving with my wife in Bermuda...the kind of things that form a life's scrapbook are quite finite and can never be reproduced. The exact combination of factors that make an event what it is only happens that one time. Sure, one can go back. But, whatever the original experience was, the second time will not be the same. it can't. The real trick is to take everything possible from each experience and not complain when it ends.

Baseball is an unusual sport. There is no clock. The game continues until there is a winner, though in spring training there are special rules that allow tie scores. But, during the regular season there is no quitting until one team prevails. In 1984 a game lasted over 8 hours and extended over parts of two days.

Shouldn't our approach to retirement be the same? There is no quitting until a goal is achieved. Too often someone abandons a project or a goal because it is taking longer than anticipated. Or, the amount of effort seems too great. But, I wonder how often something is halted just before a breakthrough. Thomas Edison is famous for inventing the light bulb. He stuck with it even after thousands of failed attempts. He knew what he wanted to accomplish; every failure put him one step closer to his goal.

In baseball if someone fails to get on base 70% of the time he will be rewarded with millions of dollars. In today's insane world of athletic salaries he can fail closer to 75% and still get the cash. You and I probably won't get millions of dollars, but like baseball life rewards effort. Sometimes fairly, sometimes not. But by stepping up to the plate we all have the chance to be successful in our own way. Like the lottery cliché, "You can't win if you don't play" the same can be said of life. Baseball rewards a particular skill set that still fails the majority of times. Life rewards you when you spend each day working as hard as you can to move forward in whatever way is important to you. You may fail more than you succeed; I contend you win just by trying.

A pitcher stands 60 feet 6 inches away from the batter and throws a small hard ball directly at that person. If the pitch is a curve or a sinker or a splitter it misses the batter and goes where it is supposed to - over the plate. Occasionally, a pitcher doesn't have perfect control (or maybe he does) and it strikes the batter if he can't duck quickly enough. It is very rare for the batter to be injured to the point where he doesn't walk to first base. Heavens, most of them won't even rub the spot that must ache like crazy.

Life throws hard pitches at us all day, everyday. Sometimes we dodge the ball and sometimes we get plunked, and it hurts. If that ball is thrown with enough force it can injure us. A serious health issue, being in an auto accident, losing a loved one, or being fired are life's pitches that can knock us out of the game for a time.

But, usually we get a slight bruise or a sore muscle. We shake it off and stand back in the batters box and wait for the next pitch...wait for the next chance to hit it out of the park. The human condition is one with a combination of joy and pain. You can't avoid the pain, you can only get back up and wait for the next pitch.

I could continue with baseball-life analogies but you see the point. Life is not that different from a sporting event. There are winners and losers, there are those who try to be their best everyday and those who don't. There are those who constantly want to improve some part of what they do or who they are, and then there are those who are content to be passed by. A satisfying retirement is defined by effort and attitude. Get in the game.

Your turn: make a comment, throw one at my head and see if I can duck out of the way!

"Building a Satisfying Retirement- How to Make the Most of This New Phase of Your Life" e-book is now available. Send an e-mail with "Free Book" in the subject line to satisfyingretirement for your copy. There is no cost or obligation.

Here is the image Keith sent with his comment below. It is worth sharing.

March 3, 2011

Retirement Productivity: an Oxymoron?

Productivity is an overused word in many circles. Some businesses use it to justify having fewer employee doing more work. Government loves to tout any increase in the overall productivity of the economy. Efficiency experts write books about it and conduct endless seminars.

But, what does productivity mean to someone who is retired or moving in that direction?  Aren't retirement and productivity polar opposites, an oxymoron?

No, not at all. Some of the words that are part of the definition of productivity include abundance, fetile, effective, prolific. Aren't those adjectives that help describe a satisfying retirement?

With that clarification, here are a series of things you can do to become more productive from a retirement persepctive. Pick and choose which ones work best for you. Some are polar opposites of each other, but each of us is productive in our ouwn unique way.

1. Delete. Maybe a task or project should simply be eliminated. If it doesn’t need to be done or isn't pleasing to you, get it off your to do list. Too often we get stuck in a rut and repeat an unpleasant task over and over.

2.Daily goals. Without a clear focus, it’s too easy to succumb to distractions. Set targets in advance. Decide what you’ll do and then do it.

3.Worst first. Tackle your most unpleasant task first thing in the morning instead of delaying it until later. It is much too easy to run out of energy, interest, or will power by the end of the day. Sounds like a great idea. Too bad I have real problems implementing this one.

4.Peak times. This may be better for you than #3 just above. If your peak production time is something other than morning, your most difficult or unpleasant task should be done then. Identify when you are firing on all cylinders. Don't waste those moments on secondary stuff.

5.Closed Door Times. Set aside blocks of time for solo work where you must concentrate. That means no interruptions from people, computers, or text messages. Grandkids are exceptions.

6.Mini-milestones. When you begin something identify a target you must reach before you can stop working. For example, when working on a book, you could decide not to get up until you’ve written at least 500 words. Maybe, you want to get all thise new plants in the ground this afternoon. Hit your target no matter what.

7.Timeboxing. Another approach is to give yourself a fixed time period, like 30 minutes, to make a dent in a task. Don’t worry about how far you get, just put in the time.

8.Batching. Especially good for errands, bill paying, or phone calls. Batch similar tasks  into one time slot, and complete them in a single session.

9.Early bird. Get up early in the morning, like at 5AM, and go straight to work on your most important task. You can often get more done before 8am than most people do in a day. Another idea I like, but I have no prayer of implementing. Any more, anything before 6:30 seems like the middle of the night.

10. Cut the Cord. Take a laptop, and go to a place where you can work without WiFi access or distractions. A library, park, or your own backyard. Avoid coffee shops. The temptation to talk and check on-line is just too strong.

11.Up-Tempo-it. Deliberately pick up the pace, and try to move a little faster than usual. Speak faster. Walk faster. Type faster. Read faster. For a short period, like 30-45 minutes.

12. 80-20 rule, which states that 80% of the value of a task comes from 20% of the effort. Focus your energy on that critical 20%, and don’t spend much time on the the non-critical 80%.

13.Timer Time. Once you have the information you need to make a decision, start a timer and give yourself just 120 seconds to make the actual decision. Take two minutes to vacillate and second-guess yourself all you want, but come out the other end with a clear choice. Once your decision is made, take some kind of action to set it in motion.

14.Promise. Tell others of your commitments, since they’ll help hold you accountable.  This one works. I finished the e-book three days early to avoid public embarrasement!

15.Punctuality. Whatever it takes, show up on time. Arrive early and show respect for others. There is no such thing as being "fasionably late" except in the movies.

16. Fill reading. Use reading to fill in those odd periods like waiting for an appointment, standing in line, or while the coffee is brewing. In the doctor's office you can finish a good chunck of War and Peace.

17.Gold Star. Remember this from pre-school or kindergarten? Give yourself frequent rewards for achievement. See a movie, book a professional massage, or spend a day doing whatever makes you feel refreshed and rewarded. Do not feel any guilt on your Gold Star Day.

18.Continuum. At the end of your workday, identify the first task you’ll work on the next day, and set out the materials in advance. The next day begin working on that task immediately. That may mean you have to clean up your work space abit. That is a good thing.

19.Slice and dice. Break complex projects into smaller, well-defined tasks. Focus on completing just one of those tasks.

20.Randomize. Pick a totally random piece of a larger project, and complete it. Pay one random bill. Make one phone call. Write page 42 of your book.

21. One Month. Identify a new habit you’d like to form, and commit to sticking with it for just 30 days. A temporary commitment is much easier to keep than a permanent one. At the end of that month, your new habit will likely become.....a habit.

22.Intuition. Go with your gut instinct. It’s probably right.  Don't always wait for confirmation or validation.

23.Delegate. Convince someone else to do it for you. I saved the best for last

While i preach against simplistic, "top 10" list posts, I believe this one is different. The ideas aren't all common sense. Some of these would be good for me. My thanks to fellow blogger Steve Pavlina for the inspiration for this post from an article of his 4 years ago.

What do you do to make the most of each day? Share a tip or trick with us by leaving a comment. That would be a productive thing to do.

"Building a Satisfying Retirement- How to Make the Most of This New Phase of Your Life" e-book is now available. Send an e-mail with "Free Book" in the subject line to satisfyingretirement for your copy. There is no cost or obligation.