November 30, 2011

Retirement and Simple Living

Over the past few years one of the bigger trends in the world of blogging has been the number of sites that promote living a simpler life. If you do a computer search for phrases like voluntary simplicity, zen living, minimalism, or frugality, the number of hits will be in the millions.

What is the attraction? It could be a desire to spend more time on things you like. Travel, becoming deeply involved in gardening or photography are more fun than constantly dusting, cleaning, repairing, and maintaining stuff you own. Living a simpler life has strong appeal for many. Eliminate things that take you away from what you really enjoy. Get back to basics. Play that creative music that is inside you.

I have found a tremendous interest in this topic among readers of the Satisfying Retirement blog. To have a happy retirement lifestyle you must have a firm handle on your finances. You may be looking to move to a smaller home or condo and aren't sure how you decide what stuff to get rid of. Maybe you are tired of all the work lots of possessions entail. Whatever the motivation, simple living strikes a real chord for many.

Most of the things listed here I have been doing for quite some time. There are a few recent additions as I have become more sensitive to the negative impact an overly consumptive lifestyle has on the planet and my own happiness.

I don't enjoy shopping so I don't buy much. I shop when I must for what I need. To some people, shopping is a form of entertainment or relaxation. To me it is a chore to be completed as quickly as possible. That saves me money and clutter. Maybe this is a guy thing, but I avoid malls. Clothing covers me and keeps me warm or cool. That's it. For me clothing is not a fashion statement or an indicator of my economic status. If it performs its function, is within my budget, and I need it, then I buy it.

A car is transportation. It takes me from point A to Point B with a minimum amount of fuss. It must be dependable, relatively safe, and have good air conditioning (this is Phoenix after all). Its year, make and model don’t really matter. Even the color is not terribly important (ask my wife about the baby blue Mustang I had in 1976).

I use it up, wear it out. Only then do I replace it. If something does what I need it to I don't feel the need for a replacement that does it 2 seconds faster, or is in a different color. I don't even require it to have all its parts as long as it still works.

We repaint, re-purpose, reuse. My wife is amazingly creative in looking at something and finding a whole new use for it. We find it much more satisfying to do that than simply throw something away that can be used in another way.

I buy very few books or new music. I read books constantly and listen to lots of music. I just don't feel the need to own them. That's what libraries are for. That's what the Internet offers. Part of that belief came during my radio days. I was given thousands of free CDs (I still have most of them). So, I got out of the practice of buying music and never regained the habit. Of the books I did own, I got rid of 80% of them. I realized I would never re-read them. All they did was take up space and get dusty. Someone else might enjoy them. So, I took many of them to a used bookstore for credit, and donated the rest to charity. Then my wife re-purposed the bookcases!

We use our own photos and painting to decorate. My wife and I like to take photographs and she is a painter and mixed media artist. Why buy someone else's work to decorate our home? We have the photos blown up and framed, or printed on canvas. Her paintings grace several walls in the home. It is much more satisfying to be surrounded by something you created.

Simplify lawn and yard work. Over the last few years I have cut back considerably on the number of potted plants I maintain. It was getting to be a chore, not a pleasure. We converted most of our bushes and shrubs to low water, low maintenance varieties. This saves time and money.

Cook enough at once for two meals. It is very unusual for us to make a dinner that doesn't produce enough leftovers for another time. And, if an ingredient is required for a meal we find another recipe that requires the same stuff so it doesn't go to waste. 

....this is an excerpt from Chapter 5 of my e-book, Building a Satisfying Retirement: How to Make the Most of This New Stage of Your Life. There are eight chapters full of practical, actionable information, whether you are a few years away from retirement, or have already started this exciting new phase of life.

I ask that you consider buying a copy for yourself, or someone else, this holiday season. The book is available through Amazon by clicking here.

Don't worry if you don't own a Kindle. A free reader for your PC can be downloaded here. Apps for your iphone and Android phones are also available at no cost.

 Building A Satisfying Retirement is available for just $3.99.

Your definitive guide to a successful retirement yours today for just $3.99. If you are an Amazon Prime member you can "borrow" the book for free!

November 25, 2011

Working after Retirement...What Do You Do?

A growing number of retired folks are either working or considering that step. The reasons are as varied as we are, but generally involve either a financial  need or a desire to use skills and talents as part of their satisfying retirement. Working for a retail or service industry is often the most obvious choice. Others have decided this is the perfect time to start a business. If you missed my post on starting a business after retirement, click here.

What Do You Do?

We are all interested in what others do with their time in retirement. One of the most viewed posts I have written has been So, What Do You Do All Day? That is one of the first questions all of us ask someone we have just met: "What do you do?"  Saying, "I'm retired" will usually prompt the person to wonder how you fill your day. I'm asking that question now, specifically about working after retirement.

I'll go first. Since retiring 10 years ago to I was a part time tour guide for almost five years. This job involved taking groups of visiting business people, in town for a convention or sales seminar, horseback riding, kayaking down the Salt River, taking part in a cattle drive or biking through the dessert. It meant taking bus loads of folks to desert cookouts or fancy dinners at a 5 star resort. Often I'd be stationed at the airport greeting folks as they arrived in Phoenix and helping them get their luggage and then onto the bus to their hotel. The work was simple, paid well and had flexible hours. I was able to use my people and organizational skills and take part in activities I'd normally not be part of.

How do you generate extra retirement income?

Now, your turn.  We'd be quite interested in what you have done to re-join the work force, either full or part time. What different types of jobs have you tackled since retiring? Have you worked at a big box store, a small local retailer? Maybe it has been at a grocery store, or a delivery service. Some folks I know drive shuttle buses around town or at the airport.

Have you started your own business? That could be anything from selling some of your wood cabinets or handmade quilts, to becoming a consultant or launching a carpet cleaning company. Is it a full time or part time effort for you? How has it worked for you so far? 

Does being a volunteer count?

Importantly, the definition of working after retirement doesn't have to mean getting paid. Volunteer work can be every bit as time consuming as a paid position and an important part of a satisfying retirement lifestyle.

On the volunteer side of things I have been a tour guide at Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright's home in Scottsdale. For the last few years I have been heavily involved in prison ministry, working with a Christian organization that mentors men and women both inside prison and after release. I find volunteering to be immensely fulfilling.

What have you done as a volunteer that you could share? Your experiences could easily prompt someone to become involved in their local community. Volunteering is a tremendous way to use your skills to help others and feel good, too.

Your Turn: I really want your input!

OK, now please fill up the comment box below. Tell us about what type of work you have taken on since retiring. It can be full or part time, for someone else or your own efforts to bring in more money. Have you gone back to work and then re-retired?

Has any volunteer work you have tackled been especially meaningful to you? Can you suggest ways for the rest of us to get involved and make where we live a better place?

I am looking forward to some tremendous ideas.

November 23, 2011

Feeling Blessed

First Greece causes the world to hold its collective breath. Then, Italy has economic markets in a tizzy until its Prime Minister is forced out the door.  Portugal and Spain continue to twist in the wind. Waking up to the seemingly endless financial mess the world is in can become depressing rather quickly. As someone wanting to retire at some point, or already trying to put together a satisfying retirement, you may wonder if anyone is not only weathering the storm, but enjoying life.

A friend who reads this blog remarked the other day that I am really living the satisfying retirement lifestyle I write about. I thanked him for the compliment, but wanted more details. Since it is my life, I don't have the ability to step back and look at it like an outsider does. He reminded me of a few of things we had talked about recently:
  1. My trip to Maui where my wife and I spent a fabulous 18 days totally relaxing and forgetting the real world's problems for awhile.
  2. Enjoying a free outdoor concert near our home that featured a 30 piece orchestra & band performing 30 Beatle songs in a tribute concert.
  3. Having lunch at an outside cafĂ© and spending a sunny afternoon at the Desert Botanical Gardens, looking at the incredible display of cactus, succulents, and wildflowers, and endless people watching.

When I got home I thought about his observation. I stopped checking the stock market and reading the world news to remember some of the things I had been able to do in the past few weeks:

  • Going to a movie with friends on a Friday afternoon while the rest of the world waited for 5 PM to start their weekend, followed by a dinner of happy hour appetizers while we caught up on each others' lives.
  • Enjoying a free admission day at the Phoenix Art Museum to see the new Western Art exhibit
  • Watching the Blue Man Group perform in Tempe: a 90 minute extravaganza of inventiveness and energy.
  • Having two sets of friends over for dinner two nights in a row, and really enjoying the time together to talk.
  • Hosting a Bible study at our house and making new friends
  • Taking the grandkids door-to-door on Halloween and loving that my granddaughter insisted on holding my hand all night.

My friend was absolutely right: my lifestyle was matching what I write about. Obviously the trip to Maui was expensive and ate up our vacation budget for a few years. The Blue Man group cost about $65 for tickets but worth every penny. Everything else though was free or low cost. For whatever reason I like finding things to do that are fun, free, and give my wife and me a new experience.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It is four days of family, food, relaxation, and no gift-giving pressure. I refuse to participate in the insanity of Black Friday. In fact, unless it is to visit family I make it a point to not leave the house. My life is blessed. I know that and I thank God everyday for it. I also know it could be taken away from me, or someone I love, in an instant so I take no precious moments for granted. It is truly a satisfying retirement life.

I wish for you and your family a happy, joyous, and peaceful Thanksgiving weekend. Whatever your circumstances you have something to be thankful for. Dwell on that for awhile.

November 19, 2011

Is Starting a Blog Right For You?

Should you consider blogging? Has that idea ever seem interesting to you?  I saw some statistics recently that would scare off a saner person:
  • Up to 80% of Blogs are abandoned within the first month
  • 20% of bloggers update their blog every single day
  • There are over 190 million blogs on the Internet
  • There are over 136 million domain names registered
So what is the attraction of getting involved in something that has an 80% failure rate, requires lots of time, puts me in competition with a huge number of people, and produces no income? Couldn't I find something else to do with my time? At least as of today, my answer is "No." Maybe you will see a reason that prompts you to enter this fascinating world.

I have a desire to write and blogging satisfies that need. My favorite courses in high school and college were those involving creative writing. It took me nearly seven years but I finished and self-published an Arizona travel book for family and friends. For awhile last year I took part in a writing group that met twice a month. I didn't stick with the group, but it re-lit my passion to write. All I lacked was a direction and an outlet I would enjoy. I found it in blogging.

Blogging can occur on a flexible schedule. Blogging can take a lot of time. Like any new hobby or pursuit there is a learning period that gobbles up the hours. Writing doesn't flow from my keyboard. Sometimes it is a real struggle to fill a page with something I am willing to put in front of others. 

But, I decide when I want to sit down and churn out an article. Some days I tackle writing first thing in the morning. Some times I'll be ready to write after after dinner. 

It encourages interacting with other people. There are a lot of people blogging. Many are willing to share ideas or help newcomers avoid proven pitfalls. I have found virtually everyone I have come in contact on the Internet is friendly and anxious to develop a relationship with other bloggers. They may be virtual friends, but friends they are.

There is a rush when something I have written generates comments from readers. The feedback from this type of writing is virtually instantaneous. I can post something on this blog and often within an hour someone has left a comment. Something I have written has meant enough to someone else to take the time to leave their thoughts. That feels good.

Of course, the flip side also occurs. I have written some posts I thought were pretty good only to have virtually no reaction and very few readers That is frustrating and disappointing. But, I quickly remind myself that no one owes me anything. I am blogging because it satisfies a need in me. The poor response prompts me to take a critical look at the article and the subject matter to see what I can improve the next time.

There is the thrill of learning something new. Six months ago I had no idea what a blog was or how one was created. I didn't understand the language or the process. I had heard of Twitter but I thought it was for teenagers. I had no idea how powerful it can be to promote something like a blog. Successful bloggers have learned certain tricks of the trade that were totally alien to me.

Learning how to participate in this world and at least hold my own has been exciting. I need the constant stimulation of a new challenge. Learning how to build this blog has been the challenge I was seeking. I am learning something new almost every day which makes each day exciting and a joy.

Blogging can help others. Before starting I spent several weeks trying to decide what my blog's niche should be. Eventually it became clear that the only topic that I could really share anything of value was something to do with retirement. After almost a decade of figuring out what works and what to avoid, I thought I might have enough to offer others. 

There are literally thousands of blogs about retirement, and at least 80% of them deal with money and financial planning. I decided to pick an area that seemed undeserved: how to build a retirement lifestyle that is productive and satisfying. Feedback and comments seem to validate that choice. There is a real hunger for information and tips to make this phase of life a positive one. There seems to be an interest in hearing about my experiences in this journey. If what I pass along helps, the time and effort will be well worth it.

I don't know how long I will keep writing Satisfying Retirement. At some point maybe the thrill will be gone and I will move on to something else. But, at the moment that is the farthest thing from my mind. I am having a blast and have no intention of going anywhere.

If you are thinking maybe blogging would fill a need in you, by all means go for it. There is virtually no cost, except in time and taking an ego hit now and then. The blogging world remains wide open to someone with an itch to write and a story to share.

(Written 7 years ago, I am still blogging as of November, 2018. Views passed 3 million several months ago. The satisfaction remains)

November 17, 2011

It Only Takes A Few Minutes

The world is a scary and upsetting place. The amount of bad news overwhelms any stories that may cheer you up. One gets the feeling we are intent on destroying ourselves. Being in a non-stop political campaign doesn't help since the entire thrust is for one side to declare the other is working  to ruin our way of life and is evil personified.

Live long enough and you learn to take most of that with a very large grain of salt. Unless you are convinced there is a grand conspiracy at work, you begin to filter out the most extreme stuff. Frankly, if you intend to have a satisfying retirement (or a satisfying anything) you have to, or your ability to enjoy life will be at risk.

This year, I have taken a few simple steps to eliminate some of the negative clutter in my life. I have developed a filtering system to cut back on the stuff that drives me crazy. If you find yourself dwelling on the bad stuff too much, maybe some of this will work for you.

I have pruned back the list of blogs I read and follow. Too many of them spend too much time ranting about the unfairness of life, the dysfunctional political system, or the need to blame someone for their plight. Filling my in-box and my mind with that drivel every day obviously was going to affect my attitude. One blogger, in particular, has had a tough run of luck and circumstances the past several years. But, the lashing out at everyone and everything was getting to me. This person has more issues than a magazine. When I realized I feared seeing a new post in my blog reader,  it was time to stop reading. While what this person wrote about was often true, the vitriolic approach was not contributing to my day.

Other bloggers were a bit less angry, but nevertheless were not leaving me in a good frame of mind. I know things are screwed up and I am every bit as upset as anyone. But, pouring that anger into my head from all sorts of sources wasn't helping. So, I cut out the blogs that hurt rather than helped me.

Regular readers know I canceled cable TV last spring. I wasn't watching enough to justify the cost and the quality of a lot of the programming was dreadful, insulting, and sometimes disgusting. Reality TV shows are often designed to provoke the worst in both the performers and viewers. The news channels have staked out a part of the political turf and allowed no other viewpoint to grow. Prime time TV is either about sex, violence, or sex. By walking away  my life was instantly improved. Not only did I gain a few hours a night that was wasted, but my attitude improved. "Must-see TV" became a "Must-not for me."

I have found I am spending more time with people who enrich my life and less time with those who don't. These folks add warm, love, spiritual support, and encouragement when I am with them. They avoid spending time on negative or divisive issues. Even though several of my friends and I are on very different ends of the political spectrum, we care enough about our time together that we don't allow those differences to become a wedge between us. Plus, we agree about so much more than a political issue or a social concern it would be a shame to let the disagreements sour the entire relationship. We choose to be positive with each other.

Lastly, though actually this is most important, I have made a personal promise to myself to be a better companion to my wife. After 35 years we know each other well. But, I am not the most demonstrative person when it involves " romance" stuff. Even though I know my wife craves it, I am stingy with the things that she desires. Being not much brighter than a box of rocks, I have realized that such an attitude bring down two people - her and me. And, that is just stupid. The environment around the house is so much more pleasant if I simply make the effort to give her what she needs. I do draw the line at dancing, but everything else is open for modification. Since I have taken this new tack, the Lowry household is sooo much more enjoyable.

We can't control many things in our life. Coming down with a serious disease is usually nothing we can prevent. Often our employment is in someone else's hands. Having a roof torn off in a big storm is going to happen no matter how much you wish it didn't.

But, you can control some of the things that affect your happiness. To not deal with the things you can to improve your life is, well, just silly. It took me good chunks of this year to figure out the negative triggers in my life that I wanted gone. Then, it took a matter of minutes to come up with a solution. Do you want a more satisfying life? What are you waiting for? The clock is ticking.

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November 15, 2011

My 2012 budget...The First Draft

With Thanksgiving a week away and the end of the year just five weeks after that (Where oh where did 2011 go?) it is time to start looking at next year's budget to keep my satisfying retirement on track. There is enough information on what I've spent so far this year to project what categories will need to be adjusted.

In July I wrote about the categories that are in my personal budget in the post Jumping off the Financial Cliff Without a Net.  I'll use the same ones to see how things went this past year and what changes I should make.

  • Mortgage payments: I own my home so no payments No change
  • Real Estate Taxes:  should be somewhat lower next year due to decreased valuation of the home in 2010 (always lags by 2 years)  Reduce by 5%
  • Home Owners Insurance:  very stable over the last few years. No change.
  • Utilities: electric, gas, water, sewer/trash pickup  will go up.  Increase 10%
  • Home maintenance and repairs:  under budget this year, but house is one year older. Will hold with no change


  • Food and household supplies: under budget this year due to smarter shopping and coupon use, Expect food prices to continue to rise. Increase 10%
  • Internet and cable TV: doubt cable company will raise rates again. Too much pressure from other choices. No change
  • Cell phones: expect wife to get a smart phone. Will increase costs by $35 a month. Increase 25%
  • Decorations & furnishings: under budget this year. Don't need much in way of new furnishing or planting. No change.
  • Yard service:  No change

  • Clothing purchases: slightly under budget for year. Don't need much beyond basics. No change
  • Dry Cleaning/Laundry:  budget for entire year is $90 and only spent a little more than half that. Reduce by 30%
  • Entertainment: under budget for this year but purchased theater tickets for 2012. No change
  • Dining Out:  will be right on budget. No change
  • Auto gas, repairs, insurance, registration: bad year for cars - 36% over budget. Gas will go up. Increase 20%
  • Health insurance premiums, uncovered expenses, co-pays:   15% over budget this year even though I planned for an 18% increase in premiums. Increase 30%
  • Health supplies over-the-counter vitamins & medicines: slightly under budget. No change
  • Eyeglasses: neither of us are scheduled for new glasses next year. No change
  • Haircuts & beauty salon:  a bit under budget because I went five weeks between haircuts instead of four. No change

  • Gifts: under budget since decided to not exchange presents between adults at Christmas. Still over budget slightly due to unexpected wedding and baby showers. Reduce by 25%
  • Computer purchase, repair, software: way over budget due to replacing crashed computer, new printer, and a few external hard drives. I will need a new computer next year. Increase 20%
  • Subscriptions, postage stamps: under budget due to canceled subscriptions. Reduce by 15%
  • Charity:  on budget. No change
  • Vacations:  big trip to Hawaii and several day trips. Next year no biggie. Reduce by 50%.
  • Life insurance: will continue to buy policy on my life until I'm 65. No change.

Not surprisingly, next year I will be faced with increases in the categories you might expect: utilities, food, gasoline and car maintenance, health insurance, computers, and cell phones. Meaningful decreases can be taken in vacations and gifts.

The bottom line looks like a total monthly budget that should be about 5% more than this year. Both my wife and I will get our new health insurance premium information in a few weeks and that could cause a major pruning of other categories if my guess at the size of the increases is off by a lot.

How about your situation? An accurate budget is the only way to help you achieve a satisfying retirement. There is no other way to stay on top of your expenses and be sure your financial plan is working well. It is time to take a look at how you have done in 2011 and begin to think about next year. I welcome your comments and suggestions.

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November 14, 2011

Here it Comes: Winter Time

Last week after a cold front roared through town, we had to turn on our heat for a few mornings to make the house comfortable enough to shower and wake up. That made the timeliness of the following guest post submitted by Andrea Woroch to satisfying retirement perfect.

Furnaces are kicking in across the U.S. as temperatures sink. Alas, keeping warm comes with a higher sticker price each year, no matter what type of heating system you use. According to CNN Money, the average bill for a home using heating oil is more than $320 per month while gas users fork over $160 monthly. Here are some thoughts on how you could lower your heating bill without freezing your way through the winter.

1. Energy Audit

The first step is to assess any problem areas. Ask if your utility company provides a free or low-cost energy audit, which will identify changes you should make. If you such audits aren't available, there are still ways to ascertain problems for yourself and small projects you can accomplish without professional help.

2. Seek Incentives

Some states offer improvement incentives, including providing and installing a free programmable thermostat; paying a portion of insulation upgrades; or providing rebates on the cost of materials. Look for such offers at the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency. If you can't find an applicable program, you can reduce the cost of supplies by finding coupons for major home improvement centers, hardware stores, big-box stores and more at such sites as CouponSherpa.

3. Change Furnace Filters

Many of us think of changing our furnace filters just once or twice a year, yet experts say we should replace them every month during the heating season. Better yet, switch to a permanent filter you can clean regularly.

4. Dodge the Draft

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, you can waste 5 to 30 percent of your energy use to heat the great outdoors through drafts. The simplest remedy is to place draft dodgers or snakes at leaking doors. You can use an old towel or make your own easily out of a leg of pantyhose stuffed with rice or sawdust and tied at both ends. To find air leaks, place a light candle in front of possible drafts, have someone blow through the crack from the other side, and watch to see if the flame wavers.

5. Weather Strip Thresholds

Draft snakes are fine for cracks at the bottom of doors, but we often lose heat at the sides and top of doors and windows. Check out this video explaining how to install weather strips.

6. Install a Programmable Thermostat

A programmable thermostat allows you to keep the house cooler when it's empty and automatically turn up the heat before you arrive at home or get up in the morning. The Nest Learning Thermostat represents the latest and greatest in programmable thermostat technology, but you don't need to shell out $249 to benefit from one of these gadgets. You can pick one up for as little as $20 and save an average of 10% a year on your heating and cooling bill. Check out this article for other high-tech ideas for keeping warm this winter.

7. Upgrade Your Attic Insulation

Roofs are energy vampires. They'll suck rising heat right out of your home, if not properly insulated. Types of insulation include the standard fiberglass (in both batt and blown forms), rigid foam board, spray foam and cellulose. Unless you're handy around the house, this is a project best left to professionals, but it's the best investment you can make to reduce future energy bills.

Andrea Woroch is a consumer and money-saving expert for Kinoli Inc., and has been featured among such top news outlets as Good Morning America, NBC's Today, MSNBC, New York Times, Kiplinger Personal Finance, CNNMoney and many more. She is available for in-studio, satellite or skype interviews and to write guest posts or articles.

For all  inquiries, please contact Andrea Woroch at  andrea@kinoliinc dot com.

November 12, 2011

Is This You? Do You "Fit" the Satisfying Retirement Profile?

One of the keys to longterm success in blogging is to know your readers. Not unlike any business or organization, success usually depends on filling a need for a particular niche. Sometimes it is a large one, like home improvement and repair. Home Depot or Lowe's spring to mind. It could be an airline that doesn't charge for luggage. Southwest has that covered. On a local scale, a particular restaurant my wife and I enjoy greets us warmly, seat us at a preferred table, and makes a dish off the menu that my wife likes. They are filling the niche of being  one of our favorite restaurants, beating out hundreds of others with 10 minutes of our home.

Various sources have provided me with a profile of a "typical reader" of  Satisfying Retirement. My question is how this profile fits you. What topics I write about and how I promote this blog are, in part, based on this information. Is it accurate and on-target, or is this profile too narrow?  Does this look anything like you, or is the audience for a blog about building a happy retirement lifestyle broader than this?

Let's take a look:

  • The typical reader is over the age of 50. Based on the subject matter, this makes sense. But, I have received enough comments from those in their 40's to make me question whether I should think of topics that might appeal to a somewhat younger person, too. Most psychological studies say that all of us tend to think of ourselves as being about 9 years younger than our chronological age. Should my mental picture of a reader shift to include those who are a bit younger?

  • There are no children at home. This is an interesting finding. Excluding the situation where an adult child moves back home temporarily due to a job loss, illness or divorce, someone at age 50 could easily still have children at home. Am I missing topics that would serve a need by assuming my readers are in an empty nest, or never had kids?

  • The reader is a college graduate or has been to graduate school. Again, that part of the profile may be limiting me. If I assume this to be true, I am much more likely to write in a certain way, and deal with subjects that are potentially more of interest to a college grad. But, in doing so, I very well might be overlooking the needs of a whole segment of the retirement market that I could serve more completely.

  • Most read this blog at home. This seems to fit since this is a blog focused on having a satisfying retirement. It implies the reader has a bit more time to spend reading a post that interests him or her. If my target was more likely to be reading while on the job, for example, my posts would probably be shorter since less time is available to spend reading what I write. But, with the average person being at home, a post that takes 4-5 minutes to read seems acceptable.

So, there we have it. Now, I really would appreciate your feedback. How close are you to the typical reader the research describes?  Am I limiting myself more than I should, or is the path I am on the correct one?

Rest assured, any adjustment I make based on your feedback and comments will be slight. My only question is if I have a bit more wiggle room in terms of topics and focus. If not, then I am very happy doing what I doing and how I do it. 

November 9, 2011

The Customer Strikes Back - I Hope

Probably like you, I have felt the shift away from true customer service over the last several years. I can't remember the last time I called a help line and actually talked to a person without pushing lots of buttons, or giving answers that confused the machine. I have found repeating a gibberish phrase sometimes speeds up the "please wait while we transfer your call" event.

When I have called a credit card service number, by the time I fight my way through to a human, he or she is located in Munbai or some foreign location. How do I know? The person's attempt at speaking English is almost unrecognizable. Besides being very heavily accented, talking at three times  normal conversational speed doesn't help. Asking to speak to a supervisor means being put on hold for several minutes, and then talking with someone who is a bit older, but still isn't speaking a language I recognize.

The list goes on. Home Depot tried to eliminate most of the helpers from their stores, only to see complaints increase and sales drop, so back came the orange aprons.  I've written about the weak customer service at my local Borders bookstore. They are out of business. I'm sure you can add dozens of your own examples.

So, it has been interesting to watch two high profile developments in the last few weeks. Netflix has been an example of a company that was doing everything right. It dominated the streaming movies on the Internet niche. Blockbuster has virtually given up the ghost. Cable companies view Netflix as their worst nightmare. Netflix has become synonymous with Internet movies.

Then, management had a major stupid attack. Prices were jacked up 60% for a lot of customers. The company stated that they expected the DVD disc through the mail portion of their business to be less than 10% of the total by the end of this year. The problem is, their streaming library is weak. "Recent" additions are movies that can be 10 or 20 years old. TV show choices are thin. "Classic" movies apparently mean anything more than 12 months old. In short, they were trying to force their customers into streaming and away from the more expensive disc-by-mail method without the resources to back it up. The response was predictable. Hundreds of thousands of customers have said goodbye. Netflix has seen huge drops in its stock price. Competitors smell blood in the water, most notably Amazon.

Then, to prove they had completely lost their mind, Netflix announced that henceforth, the disc through the mail service would be called Qwikster and require navigating a different web site with different billing and queue practices. The howl from customers became even louder. More cancellations followed. Amazon and Hulu announced major new additions to their libraries.

Apparently, someone at Netflix finally had a slap upside the head and realized he was on the road to destroying the company's image and good will in just a few months. He apparently finally heard the sound of customers' feet as they were streaming to the exits. Qwikster died before being born. Netflix didn't change its pricing policy but began a very public move to beef up the library available for streaming.

Let's shift our focus to everyone's new devil: banks. Bank of America decided now would be a good time to charge people to access their own money. The infamous $5 a month debit card charge was born. Meanwhile, under the radar of most people Wells Fargo, Chase, and smaller organizations like Suntrust Bank had been testing such a move for months,  But, when B of A made their announcement, the public rose up as one. Reports of people cutting up their debit cards in bank lobbies mounted. Credit Unions had their biggest growth spurt in years as fed up customers pulled their accounts from the big banks (the ones that got all that bailout money) and looked for alternatives. 

Last week B of A, Wells Fargo, Chase, and SunTrust announced they were just kidding. The plan to charge people to use a debit card was killed. But, almost within the same breath, most banks began to announce new higher minimums to avoid monthly fees and higher late fees. Reports are circulating that banks will soon install parking meters in their lots, and a charge to open the bank door. I think these last two are false, but only because someone hasn't figured out what to call these fees.

What I am welcoming is the inevitable result of companies treating their customers poorly. There has been an attitude for way too long that we, the customers, will take whatever is dished out to us. We will meekly accept every attempt to nickel and dime us to death, with nary a peep of protest. We have been told to be happy we have these large organizations looking out for our best interest. And, for the most part we have accepted it (think airline fees and health insurance premiums).

To see Netflix and the banking industry buckle, even a little, is tremendously encouraging. I pray it means the American consumer has been pushed as far as he or she is willing to be shoved, and push back has begun. Without getting into all the pros and cons of the Occupy Wall Street situation and how it is playing out, I find it interesting the the majority of the American public supports the basic message of OWS: the have-nots are being trampled by the haves. They are saying our society is becoming polarized and the middle class as we have known it, is disappearing.

I'm not taking this post political. What I am highlighting is the new aggressiveness of the customer to reject practices that are blatantly harmful and unwarranted. Where this will lead, if anywhere, will be interesting to track. Unfortunately, it is likely the entire message will become sound bites and positioning statements during the political races of 2012.

Our economy is built on consumption. I have suggested that mindset has been one of the causes of our current economic mess. I am an advocate of simpler living, and mindful consumption over mindless spending. I am a proponent of knowing the difference between needs and wants. I am a firm believer that the consumer of any product and service is best served by paying attention to what is going on. If something strikes you as unfair, predatory, or simply wrong, you must speak up and take your business elsewhere. You should reward the business that treats you well and punish the one that doesn't. That's how our system is supposed to work. I am seeing the first glimmer of light that says our eyes are opening.

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