October 30, 2011

What is Retirement?

I can assure you of one thing: retirement is not what it was for your parents, maybe even an older sibling. The environment that created the Sun City model of endless golf in a tract home under the desert or Florida sun is vanishing, or at least no longer the only option. Are there still folks who live like that and even aspire to that type of life? Absolutely, and there is nothing wrong with it if that is how you describe a satisfying retirement.

In large part that model for retirement depended on an employer who paid you a pension and took care of your medical bills in exchange for 30 or more years of loyalty. That model depended on a system of affordable housing that would increase in value, little by little, year after year. That model depended on a banking and investment system that believed in a fair profit but managed to keep the most greedy and immoral members of its community under check or quickly disposed of. That model depended on a government that worked, compromised as needed, and understood that we are all in this together. To create a nation of a few haves and a whole bunch of have-nots was in no one's long term interest.

That model has been severely damaged. Certainly, there will be an increasingly  large percentage of our citizens who have no real expectation of a standard retirement lifestyle. The financial meltdown of 2008 and the stagnation of wages for many destroyed too many nest eggs and shredded financial plans.  Working as long as possible will be essential, or even desired, by many. 

For those who do plan on retiring there has been a shift in expectations. With retirement now likely to stretch over 20 or even 30 years or more, roughly 25% or more of one's life span can occur after full time employment has ended. With better health, folks are likely to stay active and vital well into their 80's. Looking forward to just sitting in the recliner, watching TV, and puttering in the garden for two decades doesn't hold much attraction for many.

So, for those whose future holds a promise of retirement, what has it become? What is retirement now? What are the basic elements that build a satisfying retirement and are, at least to some degree, under your control?

Retirement is not the end of something. It is just a change in direction.

Originally, the concept of retirement was a vision of a life of leisure and a worry-free existence. After years of toil, it meant fulltime relaxing with some travel and time with the grandkids for the last decade or so of life. 

Many of us would not be satisfied with that retirement lifestyle today. Ending full time employment means we are simply entering the next stage of our life, a stage that offers as much fulfillment and excitement as we wish it to.

Our life is made up of different phases, or stages: youth and life with parents, going away to college or moving away from home and starting our own life, starting our own family while working to support that life, and now, retirement.

Retirement is more control of your most valuable asset: Time.

During the first few stages of life most of us spend time generating income, on relationships, social commitments, and to build a particular lifestyle that made us happy. Control of this resource was turned over to others much of the time.

When we enter the retirement stage, we are given the opportunity to grab much of that control back. As we get older, we become much more aware of the value of time, and its rapid passing. I wrote awhile back about the odd phenomenon of weeks, months, even whole years racing by much more quickly in my 60's than they did in my 40's. As I become more aware of its value, the more quickly I seem to spend it. But retirement does gives me the opportunity to be purposeful and diligent in how I spend my time. I am more likely to eliminate time wasters from my schedule.

Retirement is freedom to explore that unique creature: You

Parts of me that are uniquely me were kept under wraps in my working years. During that time I used certain gifts and talents I had been given to earn a living and help raise two incredible daughters. But, I felt there was more of me waiting to emerge, I just didn't know what.

When given the time and freedom of retirement I began to experiment. I tried new hobbies. I discovered the gym. I had a brief fling at bird-watching and hiking. I wrote a travel book about Arizona. But, I was still looking. I started playing the guitar. I became a lay counselor at our church with the Stephen Ministry program. All these activities were fun and fulfilling, but some part was still itching, waiting to be scratched.

For the last few years, those itches have been identified: prison ministry and writing this blog. When I retired 10 years ago I never would have  guessed either activity was in my future. But, today, they are my focus. Will they still be so at some point in the future? I have no idea. But, that is what makes retirement so satisfying and exciting: I don't know what lies ahead but I have the opportunity to find out.

What is retirement? It is a time of your life when you can take center stage. It is when you can explore all that makes you so special, a creature who will never be duplicated. Isn't that thought incredibly exciting?

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October 28, 2011

A Day Of My Retirement: How Has It Changed?

A little over a year ago I wrote a post asking, "So, What Do You Do All Day?" It generated enough comments to be in the top 10 most responded to posts of the satisfying retirement blog.. I think there is a natural fascination with how others spend their time. Especially if you are retired, or close to it, there is a real concern about how all that free time is going to be filled when work no longer takes care of 8 hours a day.

As someone who writes a lot about the importance of change in our lives, I decided to compare what I wrote 13 months ago to how I spend my time today. I would expect to notice some differences but I'm not sure what I will find. That's what makes it interesting. Let's start.

I begin with breakfast and then a quick read of two newspapers. I used to spend a full hour reading the papers but realized mornings is my peak productive time. Now, I scan the papers and am at the computer by 7:00 AM.   

OK, I'm off to a good start. I don't read newspapers anymore. That's not quite true. We get the Wednesday & Sunday papers after the company offered them for $50 a year. We use them for the coupons and grocery ads. But, I no longer start my day with two, or even one newspaper most days. Do I miss them? Absolutely not. The news was stale by the time it landed on my porch. The advertising content was far in excess of the editorial content. The weather was a joke. How someone can be so wrong with a 7 day forecast, every single day, is beyond me. The local news section was mostly obituaries. No, I don't miss the ritual of a morning paper. That part of my retirement lifestyle has changed for good.

From then until lunchtime I write, work on this blog, read other blogs, deal with e-mail, maintain my Twitter presence, and run any essential errands.

This is essentially the same for some days of the week. though the time I spent with the newspapers is now spent with a laptop. After a quick check of the news and stocks, I begin going through  e-mails. Several are the Groupon-type offers. Others are comments for the blog, requests to review a book, and, on average, 5 new Twitter followers. I must admit I am spending less time reading other blogs because this blog and writing my next book are taking up more time.

Two mornings are now taken over by out-of-the-house activities. On Mondays I volunteer at the prison ministry office for 4 hours. Wednesday morning begins with a Bible study at a friend's house with 8 other people. These commitments were not on my schedule a year ago.

After lunch is a 30 minute nap. That short break helps me maintain my energy for the rest of the afternoon. After the nap, three or four days a week I go to the gym. Like a nap, this is important to me. It helps me maintain my weight, gives me more energy, and helps keep my knees, hips, and back from causing me problems. Maintaining my health is worth this time and money investment.

This remain pretty accurate, though in all honesty three days a week is much more likely to happen than four. While my wife is often too busy for a nap, I will pay for it later in the day if I skip that 30 minutes of down time.

Then, back to the computer to answer e-mails and more writing. I try to quit by 4:00 PM. Guitar practice, a glass of wine, and it is time for an early dinner by 5:15 PM. My evenings usually include a movie, fiction reading, a little more computer work, and off to bed by 10:00 PM.

Now, afternoons tend to be when I am more likely to read other blogs I enjoy rather than in the morning. But, the writing is part of that time. I have also decided to complete household chores during the week so weekends are free for fun and family. I was finding Saturdays and Sundays were nothing but lawn work and other chores, so that changed a while ago.

I rarely do much writing or computer work at night any more. I am more likely to spend some time with the guitar, reading, and Bible study than I did a year ago. The amount of TV watching has dropped, though Netflix can be seriously addictive. Some readers have turned me on to British shows, like Doc Martin and Foley's War. I watch too many episodes in a row, I admit. Two nights a week I have commitments that take up most of the evening. Both are new to my schedule from last year.

Weekends are mainly reserved for family time and something special with my wife. I work as a mentor to recently released prisoners so some time each weekend is given over to that. I try to complete most of my chores during the week so Saturday & Sunday are kept as open as possible.

As I noted, this is more likely to be true now than it was 13 months ago. During certain times of the year, the amount of yard work, gardening, and maintenance can spill over into weekends. But, I'm making a concentrated effort to not let that happen. 

In summary, my overall daily schedule is pretty close to the one I followed 13 months ago. Frankly, I am a bit surprised. I thought I'd see more change. I am busier than I was one year ago after the growth of the blog and adding several volunteer and church commitments. Seeing my Dad once a week after Mom's death last December is part of my week, too. I think I am a bit more productive with my time. But, apparently, the pattern I have established is working well. My journey toward a satisfying retirement continues.

Whether you are retired or not, it is your turn. Think over the last year or so. Have you seen any major changes in your day-to-day schedule? Has something happened in your life that has turned out to be good, or bad to your productivity? Have you taken on new commitments? Has the economy altered your day? I'd appreciate your comments and thoughts. Like everyone else, I'm anxious to know, "what do you do all day?"

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October 26, 2011

Retirement Frugality: What Does That Mean?

The post of a few weeks ago highlighted the concern many of us have about our ability to retire comfortably, or even at all. The news has not been encouraging for quite some time. Maybe you have decided that it is time you take a more active role in making the best of a troubling situation. Maybe you believe that the people in Washington are likely to continue putting their interests ahead of yours. Or, maybe you are simply tired of being the victim and want to have more control over your life.

A satisfying retirement is built on much more than money. But, let's not be naive. Without financial resources retirement could be anything but satisfying. At this stage of the game, whatever the reason for your situation is almost unimportant. What is crucial is what you are going to do about it. But,, if the forces of the financial world are aligned against you, what can you do?

There are a few things that make sense to me. You can control your spending by controlling your wants versus your needs. You can change your lifestyle to reflect the reality you find yourself in. You can adjust your attitude to become a positive force instead of a negative drag on your life.

I can't solve all the problems. If I had those answers I'd be running for President....no, wait. Who in their right mind would want that job? But, I have experience in being fired with two young children and a wife to take care of, having a company collapse from under me, living on mac and cheese for several months, losing 40% of my IRA  and 50% of my house value in a year, and being bled dry by health care costs. I've been there.

If you have been visiting this blog for a while, you know about some of the steps my wife and I have taken to adjust to our financial reality. Look under Related Posts below if you may have missed those ideas. This time I am writing more about an attitude change rather than a list of things you can do to get your budget under control.

Wikipedia defines frugality as " the quality of being frugal, sparing, thrifty, prudent or economical in the use of consumable resources such as food, time or money, and avoiding waste, lavishness or extravagance." Since few people would want to be known as wasteful or extravagant, why isn't frugality something everyone embraces? Why is it almost a dirty word to many folks?

Like anything else, there are different degrees of frugality that range from casual to extreme. For example, I can clip some coupons, look for price match opportunities, and stock up on something when it is on sale. Or, I can become an extreme couponer, getting massive amounts of products for free or low cost and spending hours on the computer to get 100 rolls of toilet paper for a few cents.

I think frugality may have become a captive of those who are extreme in their definition and pursuit. Using both sides of copy paper is fine; using it to wrap a present not so much. Taking handfuls of sugar packets home from Burger King, probably not. Keeping the air conditioner off all summer and heating the house to 55 degrees in the winter goes beyond what is reasonable for most of us. But, I would guess that the concept of frugality makes many think of those extreme examples.

As a teacher of mine used to say, "I beg to differ." Frugal living means keeping more of what is yours, yours. It means not spending money for things you don't need and don't enjoy. It means eliminating the habits and activities from your life that take your hard earned resources and gives them to someone else. Wikipedia goes on to say, "Common strategies of frugality include the reduction of waste, curbing costly habits, suppressing instant gratification by means of fiscal self-restraint, and seeking efficiency."  All that sounds good to me. Retirement and frugality seem made to go together well.

US News recently carried a story, "The Secret to Living Well on $11,000 a year." This man's approach isn't one many of us would follow, but it makes for interesting reading. It was a follow up to "The Secret to Living Well on $20,000 a year." This fellow's life is more mainstream. It is interesting to see how frugal others can be.

So, my simple question to you is are you frugal? Are you doing all you can to avoid waste and trim your expenses by eliminating things that no longer serve you well? Are you accepting whatever your financial reality is at the moment, regardless of why you are where you are, and controlling what you can control? Have you taken a hard look at everything in your life that costs you money, time, and effort and assured yourself that whatever it is passes the test?

If so, then I'd suggest you are frugal. Wear the badge proudly.

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October 24, 2011

Social Security: Help Me Decide!

A decision everyone faces at some point is when to start receiving monthly Social Security checks. Retirement experts do not agree. The government web site designed to help you also provides no definitive answer. Like so many other decisions involved in navigating the rocky road to a satisfying retirement, you will have to make the final call.

There are several factors to consider: your financial situation without Social Security, your health, other insurance you own like long term care coverage, even your family history in terms of longevity. Disclaimer: I am not a Social Security expert. In fact, I have yet to start getting my checks. I think I have made up my mind but the only thing I know for sure is I won't start at 62 because I passed that mark 6 months ago. So, what I am offering in this post is as much for me as you. If I misstate something, please let me know with a comment or e-mail. This subject confuses even the experts, so we can all learn.

Social Security Basics:

You can start receiving a check at 62. Yes, there are exceptions that allow an earlier start, but I don't want to confuse the subject any more than it already is. You have what is known as a full retirement age, which varies depending on your birth date, somewhere between 65 and 67. You may also delay taking checks until you are 70 to increase the size of the payment. You may wait later than 70, but the size of the monthly checks doesn't increase so there is no reason to do so.

If you take your Social Security payment at 62, you will receive a monthly amount that is between 25-30% less than what you would get at your full retirement age (FRA). For each year you wait past 62 the monthly check goes up approximately 5%. If you wait until 70, your monthly check could be 75% higher than what you'd get at 62.

If you work after starting to collect Social Security and you are younger than your FRA your government check is reduced by $1 for every $2 or $3 (depending on various rules) you earn over an amount set by the government. In a rule only possibly thought up by a large bureaucracy, the money you lose isn't really lost. Starting at you FRA, your checks will be increased to make up for the money taken away during the earlier years. The exact point of this is not clear, it is just the way it is.

Spousal benefits:

Here is where things get a bit more confusing.  If both you and your spouse work, deciding when to start accepting checks takes on a new twist. You might assume it is simple: you get a check for what you are entitled and your spouse gets one to reflect his or her earnings and the age when the checks start.
No. There is a thing called the spousal benefit. If one spouse never worked he or she:

 •can begin collecting the benefits as early as age 62. However, if the benefit begins early, the amount will be permanently reduced by a percentage based on the number of months up to his or her full retirement age.

•can qualify based  on the working spouse's record for Medicare at age 65.

•can receive a benefit equal to one-half of your full retirement amount if they start receiving benefits at their full retirement age.

Wait, there's more. If you are full retirement age, you can apply for retirement benefits and then request to have payments suspended. That way, your spouse can receive a spouse's benefit and you can continue to earn delayed retirement credits until age 70.

If your spouse has reached full retirement age and is eligible for a spouse's benefit and his or her own retirement benefit, he or she has a choice. Your spouse can choose to receive only the spouse's benefit now and delay receiving retirement benefits until a later date. If retirement benefits are delayed, a higher benefit may be received at a later date based on the effect of delayed retirement credits.

And, the fun continues: If your spouse worked and is eligible for retirement benefits on his or her own record Social Security will pay that amount first. But if the benefit on your record is a higher amount, he or she will get a combination of benefits that equals that higher amount (reduced for age). It doesn't matter if your spouse starts getting benefits before, after, or at the same time you do--the government will check both records to make sure your spouse gets the higher amount.

And, finally: If one partner dies, the survivor can claim the deceased spouse’s check instead of his or her own, assuming the dead spouse’s check is bigger.

It is easy to see why this is not a simple decision, and I have left out several exemptions, clarifications, and exclusions that would only make your eyes glaze over. So, how does one decide when to take the checks? Various folks who make a living at unscrambling this stuff suggest:

If you’re still working, don’t claim benefits before your full retirement age.

If you delay taking your check until you turn 70, the break even point is roughly 6-8 years before you get back the money you didn't take in the earlier years.

 Consider your family genes and general health. How long do you think you will live?
You are better off to delay taking the checks unless you need to money to make ends meet or....

You have a solid retirement fund and the Social Security money would allow you to live a more enjoyable life by indulging in the extras of life: travel and vacations, giving money to your children or grandkids, helping a parent.

By now I assume you have figured out why the answer when to start taking Social Security is so confusing. Let me help a bit. Here is what I think I'm going to do:

Start taking payments at 64. Why? That is when I plan on starting to withdraw money from my retirement account. Social Security checks will allow me to withdraw no more than 4% year year from that account. While not everyone agrees, a 4%  annual withdrawal should mean my retirement money won't run out before I do. It will also give us extra money for what we expect to be substantial medical expenses until my wife is eligible for Medicare.

Without divulging the amount, the monthly Social Security check  is enough money that I'm not comfortable leaving it on the table every year. The difference in the size of the check between 64 and 66 isn't enough to delay the payout.

Betty's Social Security payment, even at her FRA, would be quite small. She will be better off waiting until her full retirement age, at which point she can get the spouse benefit of one-half my monthly amount.

My parent's estate is such that at some point in the future (no rush, Dad!) there will be a distribution sufficient to carry me to at least 100 years old.

I reserve the right to change the above financial plan. But, for the moment it appears to make the most sense for me to continue my satisfying retirement.

So, how about your plans?  Has this post helped you come closer to a decision? If you are already receiving Social Security, at what age did you start? Is it working out the way you thought it would?  Please share your insight, opinions, and ideas.

October 21, 2011

Retirement and Health Care Costs: Brick Wall Dead Ahead

I saw a story in the New York Times while on vacation (I know, a vacation & the NY Times?) that highlighted the results of a study done by the Kaiser Family Foundation. No longer associated with the health insurance company, Kaiser Permanente, the foundation is developing a reputation for a non-partisan source of health-related research.

The study provided fresh insight into what has become a problem with no obvious solution: health care cost in this country. As someone striving for a satisfying retirement I keep looking for some light at the end of the tunnel. So far, all I see is a train heading straight for me, and the rest of us. Consider some of the the findings of this research report:
  • The average annual premium for family coverage through an employer is $15,000, or roughly double what it was 10 years ago. 
  • Half of workers in smaller firms now face “deductibles of at least $1,000, including 28 percent facing deductibles of $2,000 or more,” according to the study.
  • A growing number of business owners are delaying or eliminating hiring because of the cost of health coverage.
  • Some provisions of the new health care legislation have added to costs without controlling increases in premiums to cover those costs.

It seems to me the health care bill had several flaws, but one of the worst was the delay of full implementation for several years. All that did was give the insurance industry a green light to raise rates as high as possible prior to the law taking full effect. I know my rates have gone up an average of 17% for the last several years while benefits have decreased and my deductible is a whopping $5,000.

This outcome was as predictable as the bank bailout producing huge profits for that industry at the expense of the rest of us. Haven't we learned anything yet about the ability of large corporations to use any loophole or flaw in a law to maximize profits?

Interestingly, the study reports that the last two years have shown an apparent slowdown in the rate increases for some segments of the industry. There is no reason given but I can guarantee you it isn't because the insurance industry has developed a heart. It is more likely that people have stopped going to doctors and dentists as often, or even as needed, so the insurers' costs are not rising as rapidly.

It could also be that the industry realizes that eventually they will be selling a product not enough people can afford to purchase to keep them in business. With somewhere around 50 million Americans uninsured, the health industry is reaching the point of diminishing returns in driving away customers.

Obviously, I have no answer to this very serious problem. The health care legislation of 2010 had the intent of reigning in costs and providing coverage for those unable to afford the out-of-control increases from health insurers and hospitals. Unfortunately, except for a few benefits for a limited number of folks, the result has been an acceleration of the problem.

What is scary to me are the number of people trying to make it without going to doctors or clinics on a regular basis and waiting for an emergency to get treatment. Then, either the costs bankrupt them, or the charges eventually get passed on to those with coverage. Much like the financial mess we are in, health care and healthy living is becoming a case of the haves and have-nots.

I fully understand the increasing role of personal responsibility for health care. Eating well, exercising, not smoking.....those are steps that everyone can take, insured or not. But, the human body breaks down. I don't care how many servings of fruits and vegetables you have each day, at some point you will suffer from a medical problem that only a doctor and hospital can address. Without adequate insurance, your life will change forever.

I believe a satisfying retirement lifestyle is in large part a matter of personal choices. Your spending habits, your healthy living decisions, your attitude, your relationships, your passions, and your acceptance of responsibility for what you can control all are things you have a major role in determining.

But, in the area of health care insurance, we seem to be on an out-of-control train. I am beginning to wonder if it has to crash completely before we  develop the collective will to find a solution that protects us and still allows doctors, health care professionals and insurers to earn a decent profit.

For retirees, pre-retirees, and frankly anyone who is above ground and breathing, it feels as if we are reaching a breaking point.

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October 17, 2011

Average or Above Average: It's Your Choice

Being average means doing what is expected, following the ordinary path or making the usual choices.  Few people decide they'd like to grow up be be average. But average is what most of us become. Don’t rock the boat, don’t stand out, don’t make waves, reduce your risks.  It is the safe choice. It is the average choice. 

I’m guessing you want more. You want each day to be special, to mean something. You’d like your life to follow a path that you create. You aren't looking forward to an average retirement, you want a truly satisfying retirement. If so then here’s my answer: ignore common wisdom. Just forget it. Common is average. Your life can be more by being different. Here are 4 things to consider if you truly want to break from the pack and create a satisfying retirement lifestyle that is under your control.

Short cuts can will get you lost. Too many people think they have figured out how to get something for nothing. Hard work is for other people. The path to glory and greatness lies through other's efforts or money. Don’t bother perfecting your skills. Don’t waste time learning what you need to know. Look for the easy way to your goal. Look for the shortcut.

Just don’t be surprised if you find yourself in a forest with no easy  way out. I am afraid there are no shortcuts on the road to a non-average life. You have to want that life enough to be willing to work hard for it. There is no bypass on this road. You see the sign for the shortcut, and choose the other path.

Experts often know less than you. Our society worships experts. If someone is an expert, whatever he or she says must be right. It is certainly better than what you think or believe. You can save a lot of time and worry by just doing what they say, buy what they think is best, and live how they have determined is best.

Bunk. An expert is often self-identified. That label may not be backed up by a track record or experience. That person has no idea what works best for you in your unique set of circumstances. Is it possible that maybe you are the best expert in figuring what is right for you? Stop blindly listening to every "expert" talking head. Start listening to yourself more. After all, you are more than average.

Newer isn’t always better. Isn't it true that we sometimes upgrade, replace, or redo out of boredom with the old? Commercials have convinced us our life will be a whole lot better with the latest.... whatever. Newer is always better. Our clothes will be whiter, our teeth brighter, and our home life more pleasant if we just replace this with that.

I don't believe that. Today’s appliances are made to fail, whereas the stuff from 20 years ago would last forever. Getting most home appliances or electronic equipment is impossible. You will be told it would cost more to fix something to just replace it. 

But, guess what? Sometimes you can resist that siren call and be just fine. Computers will work years after Microsoft wants you to upgrade to Windows 10 or 11 or whatever. Often all those updates do is make your other equipment like printers or disc drives obsolete. With decent care, your car can easily go 125,000 miles or more and be fully paid for. But, to resist the constant call to buy what is new and improved takes above average will power.

You can’t spend your way out of debt. This is not what our consumer society wants you to do. In 2006, back before our last one (or is it now two) recession the average household spent 133% of what it earned. I haven't seen any more recent figures but I’d suggest there is a very direct correlation between that kind of mindset and the economic mess of of the last few years. Our entire average way of life is built on  credit for housing, cars, giant TVs, vacation, just about everything. Waiting is just so..... unnecessary. 

Sometimes credit is helpful and necessary. Few of us can buy a home with cash in our checking account. The problem arises when we attempt to fund our day-to-day lives with credit we can’t pay back. Suddenly your life is out of your control. Decisions you make are predicated on how you can balance this bill against that credit card, against that obligation. Your entire lifestyle can collapse in a week or two if you lose your job. The solution seems rather obvious. But, with the average American household having total credit card debt of $15,000, apparently not.  

Do you want to be more than than average?  Do you see the flaws in the 4 ways of thinking and acting listed above. Do you have the desire to excel and exceed expectations. It does take above average will power, determination, and a clear vision of what you want to accomplish. You will have to ban average from your vocabulary.  

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This post is supported in part by Reader's Digest Canada: 8 tips for saving money

October 16, 2011

Can You Go Home Again?

With apologies to author Thomas Wolfe, my question really is "will home still feel like home when I go back?" It has been 10 years since Betty and I have been to Hawaii, and probably 14 years since we have been to Maui, well before the beginning of my satisfying retirement. That is a long time between visits. It would be normal for there to be changes on Maui, and what my reaction might be. 

For over 20 years I had visited Hawaii at least a dozen times. Some trips were for business, some with family, and two of them alone to decompress from business. When our daughters were growing up we celebrated two fabulous Christmas holidays, learned to scuba dive together as a family, snorkeled, saw whales, and created lifelong memories. During every one of those visits I would step off the plane, feel the breezes and smell the flowers and scents in the air, and feel like I had arrived home. I can't tell you why Hawaii, and Maui in particular, felt so comforting. But, it did. During the long time between visits I occasionally felt the pull to go back. But, a few trips to Europe, two long driving excursions, and the addition of a son-in-law and grandkids kept my need for the islands at bay.

About 6 months ago, while planning another driving vacation, I suddenly realized I really needed to come back to Maui. I needed to find out if it was the place that had so engaged me. With Betty's quick agreement we had the planes, car, and condo booked in a few days. Time passed and in late September we were back "home." I was both apprehensive and eager to discover what had changed. Would I still feel that pull? Would the island magic grab me as strongly as it did when I was younger? Would Maui have changed enough over the intervening 14 years that I didn't bond to it like I once did.

For the first several days, it seemed as though things were different. It wasn't that Maui had changed much but apparently I had. The instant strong feeling of past visits wasn't there. It remains amazingly beautiful. True, the airport felt partly abandoned. At least half the 30 gates were no longer being used since Aloha Airlines went out of business several years ago. Some wind turbines had sprouted from a hillside to take advantage of the constant breezes. A new highway or two made travel a bit quicker. Food and gas prices were astonishingly high. But, the Maui of 1997 was little changed from what I found in 2011. 

That must have meant I had changed. Was it simply being older with deeper roots in Arizona? Was it a widened range of experiences collected during the trips to Ireland, England, and Italy? Was it the amazing hassle that airline travel has become? Was it not needing whatever Maui once supplied me with? Was it that since my last visit I had retired? I had no idea.

Then, on the 5th day, as Betty and I drove from our condo the old feeling returned. There wasn't any one thing that triggered it, just a sense of peace and relaxation that has always been at the core of my stays on this island. It was as if the intervening years had not passed. 

Things looked and felt familiar. Lahaina's Banyan tree is still the center of the town's life. The Saturday morning art festival under its shade continues in full swing. The harbor at Maalaea had added several new buildings, but Buzz's restaurant was right where I left it 14 years earlier. The windsurfers just past Pa'ia were busy defying gravity and waves, while the surfers cut through the water with tremendous grace. The road to Hana was every bit as twisty and upcountry every bit as beautiful. Tedeschi Winery remains one of the most peaceful places I have ever been.

Even after all the previous visits this special place held some surprises. For the first time we watched the Maui  Fair parade, all one hour of it, with floats, bands, fire engines, clowns, every Boy Scout and Girl Scout on the island, and amazing high school-aged acrobats. We sat for a delightful afternoon while watching the Maui Polo Club (seriously!) play dozens of chuckers (games). 

The sunsets at the beach park just across from the condo were as spectacular as any we have seen anywhere in the world. Because this time of year is off-season for Hawaii we were happy to find fewer cars on the road and fewer tourists on the beaches. We approached each day with no definite plan and no agenda. Time seemed to slow down and each day felt well-spent. Betty was content taking hundreds of photos each day while I read, relaxed, and kept an eye on the blog comments.

The only real change in my reaction to Maui was my long held desire to live here for three or four months each year. The distance from family and the sky high costs have made that dream not reasonable for now. Also, there is a definite feeling of disconnect being on a small island in the middle of the Pacific. By the time I woke up and had breakfast, the stock market was about to close for the day. Football games start at 8 AM Sunday morning and are all over by lunchtime. In talking with a few of the locals, it became obvious they have little interest in what is going on in the rest of the country or world. In fact, if surf is up, it seems as though virtually every person under 30 is on a board in the ocean. Their universe is this island. I can see how it would be too easy to slip into that mindset when you are 2,500 miles away from the nearest land. I need fresh challenges and to be part of the whole.

Can you go home again? Yes and no. I was happy Maui has remained the special place it is and I could feel comfortable being there after such a long absence. But, I had changed to the point where I treated it like a well-deserved vacation rather than a prelude to living there for part of each year. Will I ever go back? Probably. Two or three weeks seems just about right. But, if I don't go back I will have learned what I needed to know about this place and its part in my life. 

My satisfying retirement has completed another chapter.

October 13, 2011

Retirement Concerns: New Study Takes a Look

Having a Satisfying Retirement has never been easy. But, there is no argument that the last several years have made it even more of a challenge. It is hard to read anything about this stage of life that doesn't spell out all the difficulties are face. 

A week or so ago I was given the results of a bipartisan, national survey. Conducted by Lake Research Partners and Public Opinion Strategies, it shows widespread anxiety over having the means to maintain a comfortable standard of living throughout retirement. It shows that anxiety continues to grow, with near universal concern about having enough to make ends meet throughout retirement. The poll was commissioned by Americans for Secure Retirement (ASR), a broad-based coalition of more than 70 organizations committed to raising awareness of policy issues related to retirement security.

“What we’re seeing is significant, and increasing, concern from Americans of all political stripes about falling short financially during retirement,” said Bill McInturff, founder and partner of Public Opinion Strategies. “Not only are Americans concerned about their own financial health, but they also express widespread concern over how the continued contentious debate in Washington could further undermine what they are planning for in retirement. Even those who feel we must make dramatic cuts to deal with the debt think Congress needs to identify concrete ways to help Americans deal with further retirement instability.”

The survey reveals pervasive anxiety over how efforts to reduce our national debt may impact retirement security. Regardless of party affiliation, the majority of voters are concerned that cuts to Medicare or Social Security would have too significant an impact on retirement or that, if cuts are made, Congress must look for other ways to help Americans better plan for retirement. A majority of respondents also expressed support for proposals such as tax incentives to help save for retirement.

Additionally, the poll findings include:

88 percent of voters expressed concern about “being able to maintain a comfortable standard of living throughout retirement,” with 52 percent of those individuals indicating they are “very concerned.” This is up 15 percent from just last year.Concerns about being able to maintain a standard of living in retirement are extremely high across very diverse demographic groups: 

White (86%)
African-American (88%)
Hispanic (96%)
Those without any investments (93%)
Those with over $100,000 in investments (84%)
Financial elites (81%)
Retired (81%)
Not-retired (89%)

A full 50 percent of voters believe lawmakers should not cut Medicare or Social Security because it would have too significant an impact on retirement.  A plurality of Republicans and Tea Party supporters (34 percent of self-identified Tea Party supporters, 39 percent of Republicans) and the majority of Democrats (62 percent) express this viewpoint.

88 percent of voters view tax incentives to help save for retirement as important. This includes 81 percent of Tea Party supporters, 83 percent of Republicans, 86 percent of Independents and 94 percent of Democrats.

“Continued economic uncertainty, high unemployment and instability in the stock market have placed a growing concern on retirement security, and it’s an issue that transcends party affiliation,” said Celinda Lake, President of Lake Research Partners. “As all eyes turn toward the 2012 election cycle, it’s clear that fears regarding retirement security will play out big not only for Democratic voters, but even the most conservative of Republicans as well.”

“We commissioned this poll to illustrate the overwhelming anxiety that exists about having the means to live comfortably in retirement,” said Shannon Hunt, Executive Director of Americans for Secure Retirement. “As policymakers look for ways to address our national debt, they must find ways to generate peace of mind among Americans as they look toward retirement. Promoting solutions that provide guaranteed lifetime income – for example, annuities –would go a long way toward balancing these concerns.”

The poll was conducted as part of a national omnibus survey of 800 registered voters. The survey took place from September 10-13, 2011. More information, including a detailed breakdown of the poll results, can be found by clicking on this link.

What I find important about this survey is the broad-based, non-partisan approach to data gathering. Frankly, I had never heard of the Americans for Secure Retirement before, but am  impressed with the diversity of groups it represents. If you are interested, a list of the groups included is available here.  The only obvious caveat: the life insurance industry is well represented in ASR. Therefore the recommendations for annuities is to be expected. But, to their credit, all sorts of folks were interviewed, including those with no history of investments or ownership of insurance industry products. 

Over the past 17 months I have written thousands of words that the path to a satisfying retirement lifestyle is based on so much more than just solid financial planning. I continue to firmly believe that to be true. Strong relationships, focusing on your health, feeding your passions and creative side, travel, even working after retirement are part of the package.

But, for many the effect of the economic mess we are in is beginning to drown out some of that message. While I am not sure what the new reality of retirement should mean to this blog. be aware I understand we are seeing a shift in attitudes and it is important that I reflect it.

At the same time,I am encouraged when I read stories like this one. A lady suffered substantial losses, tried to be upset and bemoan her fate, but couldn't do it for more than 6 hours! She has done what she needed to do, has adjusted and moved on. It is an affirming story that I urge you to read.

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October 9, 2011

Be Careful: It's a Scary World On-Line

The Internet is probably an important part of your life. It is quite possible you pay some of your bills on-line. You certainly visit blogs or you wouldn't be reading this. You may stream movies and TV shows over your laptop. In all likelihood you look at pictures of your children or grandkids on line.

Believe it or not, close to 50% of all those over the age of 50 are involved in some form of social media, with Facebook being the clear leader. Over 70% of adults between 50-64 and over 40% of 65+ folks use the Internet on a regular basis. The average Internet user spends a whopping average of 37 hours a month logged on.

So, all that use means we all feel comfortable with the Internet. Not by a long shot.The Internet may have become a part of our daily life, but many of us are worried about the dangers that seemingly lurk everywhere. The top worries are actually quite similar across most ages, Only children show a different set of concerns, mainly centered on those who prey on kids, or cyber bullying. But for the rest of us, see how many of these worries make your list. Don't completely despair. I'll give you some basic steps to help protect yourself.

Fraud. This can cover lots of territory. You order something that never comes and you can't contact the seller because they have disappeared. Maybe you sign up for what you think is a legitimate credit card offer only to discover the whole thing is a scam to steal your important information. Lotteries are a serious problem for some seniors. They look so good and sound so easy, until you hit the send button. Even legitimate web sites can involve  a form of fraud: you sign up for something that you need or want but find out there are other charges for other services you never agreed to.

Stealing your Identity. Of course, this is form of fraud but one that can cause immense problems. It can take years and cost of thousands of dollars to clear up the mess left when some bad guy pretends to be you long enough to wreck your credit and  leave you with thousands of dollars of unpaid bills. The problem with this type of Internet crime is you often have no idea it has occurred. It might take days, or weeks, or even months for the theft to come to your attention. You go to swipe a credit card at the food store and it is denied. You check and get the bad news. Everyday we seem to read about an  endless parade of companies that announce millions of personal information files have been lost or stolen. Does that include you?

Draining a checking or investment account. Often linked to your identity theft, few things can be more terrifying than looking at your stock broker or bank statement and finding the money gone. A life's worth of savings can be stripped from you in seconds. While many safeguards are in place, they are not foolproof.

Personal Information collected. Usually the purposes are legitimate: to properly identify you as the person you claim to be or to make your on-line experience more satisfactory. But, in other cases, you wonder why they need this information. Many larger merchants will ask you for your e-mail address when you buy something at the store in the mall. Giving someone the last four digits of your social security number sounds pretty safe. But, by knowing where and when you were born (available on the Internet with very little effort) the person suddenly knows the first three numbers, too. Randomly generating the other two is something any decent computer can do in a few seconds. The government collects information about you continuously. Google knows more about your Internet and shopping habits than your spouse. That grocery store loyalty card gets you hamburger for 40 cents less a pound but gives the store detailed information about what you buy.

So, what can you do? No steps will protect you from everything. Too many people are spending all their time inventing new schemes. But, there are some  things you should do to help swing the odds a bit more in your favor.

Basic Steps to protect yourself from the big bad Internet:

  • Change your passwords often and don't use the same one for all accounts.
  • Make the passwords unusual: a combination of letters, numbers & symbols
  • Don't keep a copy of your passwords on your computer.
  • If your computer suddenly starts running slowly it could be infected. Immediately run a scan.
  • If on a social network, set the privacy settings to protect important information about you
  • Don't put anything on the social network that you don't want the world to see.
  • If using Internet Explorer upgrade to at least IE 8. Set security to at least medium
  • Use Private browsing in IE to prevent web sites from tracking you.
  • Delete browsing history, temporary files, and cookies on a regular basis.
  • Examine all bills closely for unexpected charges.
  • Run a free credit check every 4 months (with one of 3 agencies) to catch problems.
  • Don't open e-mails from someone you don't know.
  • Never respond to an e-mail that says it is from your bank or credit card company and needs to verify some of your account information. They don't send e-mails like that, ever. Neither does the IRS.
  • Make sure your computer's anti-virus software is running and up to date.
  • Sign off from the Internet when you are done. Don't leave the computer connected, regardless of how safe the site is.
  • If you are using a wireless connection, secure it. People driving or walking by your house can use your WiFi connection. Same rule for coffee shops. Those wireless networks are not secure. Never do anything that involves important data or private information over a public WiFi network.

The Internet is a tremendous tool for learning, entertainment, staying in touch, and managing your affairs. But, it is largely unregulated and open to bad things done by bad people. Be alert, follow the basic steps above, use common sense, and you should be just fine. 

Do you have any experiences to share? Have you been a victim of some on-line scam? Is there any other safety hint you'd like to pass on? Now is the time.

A safe place to go on-line is the purchase of my new e-book, Building a Satisfying Retirement. I'd appreciate your support. Click here for more information on how to download the book.

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October 7, 2011

Blogging and Comments: I Am Very Lucky

The last few weeks have been an active time for comments left after some of my posts. Actually, the largest response was generated by some of the comments left on CNNMoney.com after my profile article. So, I guess that was lots of comments about lots of comments!

What I enjoy about this blog so much is the overall tone and quality of those who leave thoughts and reactions. Many blogs fight the problem of inappropriate, rude, or nasty remarks. Some bloggers spend a fair amount of time each day weeding out the hateful from the worthwhile. I don't have to do that, and for that I sincerely thank you. That is what this post is about: the power of your comments.

I could have picked any of dozens of comments as my focus. But, in the interest of keeping this to a readable length, I have selected two that do an excellent job of capturing the essence of a satisfying retirement.

This one, from a reader with the pen name, jazz angel, provides an excellent overview of a couple just beginning their journey to a satisfying retirement::

My husband and I both worked for decades as public school teachers. We lived within our means, in a comfortable but modest raised-ranch home that felt a little snug when we were raising our three kids, but it's quite roomy now, and it's paid for. We also managed to pay for all three children's undergraduate college education. We gave them each a car (used) upon graduation from college, and now they are each gainfully employed and we feel that it's our turn to enjoy what we've worked so hard to accomplish.

My husband retired two years ago, and I just retired this year. We both just turned 60. We do not have millions of dollars saved, but we've crunched the numbers and we have enough to live on. Our state teachers' retirement system, which we've paid into for many, many years, pays us each a modest pension, and allows us to have an affordable health care plan and dental insurance plan. We are lucky in that we are both in good health.

We are taking this first year to figure out how to balance family, friends, interests, and travel on a budget. We've put one together that allows us dinner out once in awhile, a couple of days away every few months, and paying for a family vacation rental property every summer in order to get all of our kids and grandkids together for a week.

One day a week, we provide childcare for our daughter's one-year-old son. This is a joy that we love to share together. Another one of our children has two boys, and a third baby is expected in November. We'll be able to help out by caring for the older boys while their mommy gets plenty of rest after the birth. I am also looking forward to spending more time with my mother, who at 86 is still active and enjoying life. I'll be able to go visit her much more frequently now that I'm retired.

I've continued to teach by doing some one-on-one tutoring of adults, and I love it. Plus, I now have more time to teach my Jazzercise classes. I've been an instructor since I was 53 years old, and I love the exhilaration of a workout. Memorizing routines exercises my brain as well.

My husband and I both enjoy golfing, theater, learning to cook different cuisines, and traveling (except for the hassles of flying), and we are planning our budget so that we can go someplace warm for a week or two each winter through a combination of renting and visiting friends.

I feel that we're off to a good start. Staying active in the winter will be our biggest challenge, because we live in a cold climate and we've never been into skiing. Maybe snowshoeing would be something we could try together.

Thank you, jazz angel. What a tremendous look at the life of two folks who have planned, sacrificed, provided for others, and are now reaping the rewards. I second her contention that they are off to a good start.

Another reader, Steve from Los Angeles, is also following a carefully thought out plan to get him where he wants to be:

I am living modestly yet comfortably. I have my own residence, which is a two-bedroom and two-bath condominium in a suburb of Los Angeles. Although I have a loan on my residence, I will have the loan paid off within the next 11 years and 10 months. (I am 14 months ahead of schedule with my loan payments.) In addition to making the regular monthly loan payments, monthly homeowners' association dues, and twice-a-year property tax payments, I also pay the insurance premiums on my condominium owner's insurance policy and earthquake insurance policy each year. I also am making additional principal-only payments on the loan.

I am in my latter 50's and currently living on a modest government pension (which I will get for the rest of my life) and on savings that my parents left for me after they passed away. Later on (between the ages of 65 and 70), I will be living on the distributions from two annuities with lifetime income riders and on Social Security. I also have a Roth IRA. Starting at age 65, I also will be covered by Medicare.

I started planning for retirement when I was in my 20's. I am set financially for the rest of my life. I have lived beneath my means for almost my entire adult life. I currently live within my means by doing the following: (1) I devote most of my financial resources toward housing expenses (including my loan). (2) I prepare almost all of my meals at home. (3) Even though I do have a paid-for automobile (which gets great gasoline mileage), I rarely drive my car. I drive no more than 1,000 miles per year. I usually walk, ride my bicycle, or use public transportation. Consequently, I keep my automobile maintenance, gasoline, and automobile insurance costs low. As I do a considerable amount of walking, I am in great physical shape. (4) I keep the utility costs (electricity and natural gas) for my home low. My homeowners' association pays for hot and cold water.

It is possible for people to have a comfortable retirement. However, people must be highly motivated to do so.

In addition to being full of helpful information, both comments are supportive and pleasant. They have been posted by the readers in an attempt to validate the idea that a satisfying retirement lifestyle is quite doable, even in the midst of a poor economy.

Please take two points away from this post: my readers are an incredible group of people, and you have the power to shape your life and your retirement.

If you are a visitor or occasional reader, please consider making this one of your regular stops. You can subscribe by e-mail or reader. Both are free and both choices insure you never miss all the great comments left by folks just like you! Look for the link about halfway down the right sidebar.

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October 5, 2011

A Hidden Piece of the Puzzle

.....well, not really hidden, just not written about all that much. In addition to financial discipline, a good amount of luck, strong relationships and a healthy lifestyle there is one additional part of my satisfying retirement.

I want to approach this subject carefully. My goal is not to turn anyone off.  I've worked too hard on this blog to write something that will drive some readers away. And, I must be sensitive to others' feelings since this subject can generate as much heat as light.

The one piece of the puzzle that I have used to build my satisfying retirement is the importance of my spiritual life. Okay, relax. I am not in the business of promoting my religion, convincing you I have found "The Way," or getting all preachy. Actually, my approach is just the opposite. I am simply stating that my life caught fire when I discovered that side of myself.

I am a Christian and that means I believe that certain things are true. But, I am not arrogant or dumb enough to claim I have the all the answers. I am still more full of questions than I am answers. Are there other paths to God, or a supreme being, or a raised consciousness, or whatever you may believe? I don't believe so, but I won't know for sure until I'm dead. I am not going to prejudge anyone else. I will do my best to live my life a certain way that matches my beliefs. If you ask me questions I will answer them. But, I will not attack whatever beliefs you do, or do not have. Respect is key.

With that "disclaimer" out of the way, what does any of this have to do with my retirement? I've come to believe the answer is, "a lot." There are several benefits that I believe have come from my enhanced spiritual life. One is an overall sense of calm and peace. The people I grew up with, my high school, college, and work friends, would never believe that is my condition. Until seven or eight  years ago, I was stressed, uptight, looking to blame others, short-tempered, verbally abusive, anxious.....in short, a mess. I was a type A person with a capital A.

All of that negative energy didn't disappear overnight. The unwinding took a few years. But, as my awareness of the love for me from something much greater than myself grew, my anxiety decreased. I began to let things be what they were. I didn't feel the need to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders as much. As that releasing came, my day-to-day life improved. I found I could relax more. I discovered I actually had a touch of empathy buried deep inside that was moving toward the surface. I became....well, happy.

I have come to understand the role of money and possessions in my life. When I was on the road 150 days a year, making a six figure salary, living in a big house with an upper middle class lifestyle, I wasn't really enjoying it much. Of course, I was gone a lot. but, even when I was home I was working in my office and rarely taking the time to swim in the pool or sit in the spa, or even relax on the porch. I was very good at making sure my family lived beneath our means while saving 25% of my income. But, that still left enough for a nice lifestyle....that wasn't satisfying. I didn't have that something  to make me feel successful. Every time a client stopped using my services I'd fly into a panic and doubt my abilities. Even though I had the most incredible children and wife, I was basing my feeling of completeness on my business. 

As my religious "training' kicked in it was obvious that I had substituted material idols for spiritual comfort. As my relationship with God deepened the rest of the stuff just slipped into the background. Sure, I liked the house, the convertible, the vacations and the bank account. But, their importance to my daily joy receded. I didn't have to give them up, I just had to put them in perspective.  I began to let loose of the things that I couldn't control and let a greater power do his will. My idea of controlling my life was just an illusion anyway. 9/11 and the recession of the last few years has proven that point beyond a shadow of a doubt.  

I have come to appreciate the people in my life so much more. Without rehashing it all, my family members were saints for sticking with me through the tough times. Actually, they were simply following our faith's teachings on lifetime commitments and the importance of marriage and family. As my spiritual journey has unfolded I hope that I have become more sensitive and caring toward them. 

There are few joys in life greater than good friends, folks you trust with your special secrets. Until 6 years ago I had no one who I'd put in that category. Now, through my church relationships, I have a dozen men and women who I'd trust with my life. That feels fabulous.

OK, that's enough of my exposing a part of me that has become a critical part of who I am and what my life has become. Without this faith and my belief, my satisfying retirement wouldn't be nearly the marvelous journey it has been so far.

Did I scare you off? Are you thinking I've become too personal? To you is belief in a supreme being just a crutch to feel better in a dangerous and irrational world? I invite your comments. Keep them respectful, avoid name-calling and absolute judgments, and we might have an interesting discussion.