February 10, 2012

My Biggest Retirement Surprises (so far)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  1. Replies
    1. Thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed my thoughts!

  2. It seems that retirement assessment always begins with...finances. I'm going to go ahead and put this out there -- money has been almost an obsession to me in that I've always been insecure about it and we have lived way below our means. As a result, at 60 I can (and likely will) walk away with an after tax income stream about twice what we've been spending for many years. Don't get me wrong, thanks to some very fortunate employment opportunities "way below our means" included vacations to London to see grandchildren (that's a bummer, grandchildren overseas) and Africa to see son who lives there. I'm including this information not to impress; just to fill in the picture. One complication to enjoying the full freedom of retirement and having taken care of the finances is that we built an addition for mother in law 6 years ago, and at 86 she has recovered from falls, fractures, pneumonia, and many other things that pretty much keep us from traveling without difficult arrangements. My wife is a real blessing to her (not sure she appreciates how much, but that's another story!).

    As I prepare to leap, my issue is one of how to make this a "satisfying retirement." I've been reading reading reading (this weblog, Zelinski's books, others). Finding the "passion" is my problem. I've built houses, additions, lots of furniture, but I can't see filling my days with woodworking. I admire those like you Bob who are comfortable with reaching out to others in need on a social one to one basis; that's a stretch for me. I've contemplated moving, maybe to a place requiring a lot of work to keep me occupied, but the elder care is holding us here. However, I'm smart enough to know that simply moving to a nicer locale or changing the scenery will not in and of itself solve the "how do I achieve happiness in a life of leisure" problem.

    So as I say I'm doing a lot of reading, thinking, and talking with wife and my few close friends. There is part of the problem, the friends are from prior long term workplace. I'm not one who finds it easy to go out and make friends, and my wife isn't all that interested in that either. We're two people who really enjoy our company and can do without much social life (we've been married since 19). However, that's the way my parents were and I thought it would have been nice had it been otherwise.

    It's really clear to me that I'm not ready for this, but the circumstances are such that I don't have a choice. I took my retirement from one job, went to another and it's not working out. And frankly, I'm really tired of what I've done all these years, water resources engineering. So there ya go, a 60 year old dude who's problem is dealing with retirement psychologically, not financially. No regrets on getting to this point, it's just how to achieve the Satisfying Retirement that you have Bob on terms appropriate for my personality. So some day I can look back and write a positive review of it like you have! Have a great day and thanks for sharing your experiences and allowing the rest of us to chime in.....

    1. The fact that you have the financial part under control certainly helps you focus on the other issues you raised. I will assume that health care costs are under control and not a problem since you didn't mention that area. Lucky you.

      Grandkids overseas...yes, that would be very difficult for me and Betty (The tile lady!). I'm so blessed that the 3 kids are only 35 minutes away. Of course, I like London, so I guess I'd console myself with the "necessity" of frequent trips there.

      The mother-in-law complication is a tough one. At some point will she move to a nursing care facility when your wife is unable to care for her? The love and respect for the MIL you two are showing by having her with you is admirable and too unusual in our society. But, it does complicate your retirement plans tremendously.

      You are absolutely correct that a move in and of itself will not solve your "passion" problem. If you and your wife tend to be loners (Betty and I are) then moving won't change that either.

      Discovering what to do with your time, energies, brains, and talents is one of the toughest nuts to crack. I spend the first few years doing what I had always done: lots of reading, watching baseball games, puttering in the backyard, and writing a travel book (which took 7 years to finally finish!). Then, I tried ham radio which introduced me to a group of new male friends and activities. That stopped holding my interest three years ago. While I still have a room filled with transmitters and occasionally talk with amateur radio guys all around the world, the hobby's ability to keep me excited waned.

      It wasn't until I stumbled into prison ministry that I found something that that I felt used my particular skill sets in a new and important way. As I've written, this was originally way out of my comfort zone. But, if I hadn't pushed myself to try it a part of my growth would have been missed.

      Of course, blogging for the past two years has given me an outlet for my need to write and interact with others (albeit in a disconnected way that only compromises my privacy as much as I am willing it to).

      A month or so ago I reviewed a book entitled, "The Pathfinder." it is primarily designed for someone who wants to change careers. But, the personality assessment sections are quite strong and may help you determine some side of yourself that is worth exploring. The review is here: http://bit.ly/zjS6aN

      Allan, there is no simple answer to the problem of what to do with your time. My only suggestion is you very well might have to push yourself in a direction that you assume will be uncomfortable for you, to see if you uncover something that creates a spark. If you simply stick with what you know and are good at, you will stagnate. The process is a lot of trial and error. But, eventually, you will find something (or things) that excite and motivate you.

      Finally, men and friends is a whole book. Males don't "do" friendship very well. My whole life has been very limited in this regard...until I forced myself to change. I realized one of the real joys of life is having another guy you can hang with, talk and share with, complain to, and care about. That isn't my normal personality, as I perceived it. But, it turns out I can make friends and I do enjoy that new side of me.

      Feel free to e-mail if you specific questions that aren't appropiate as a public comment. I'd be glad to be you pre-retirement buddy!

  3. Primarily in response to Allan's question and your response, Bob - Isn't it entirely possible that there is no one answer to how to live one's life? Meaning that life is a series of constant change, both internal and external, and that in order to remain satisfied and fulfilled we need to continuously evaluate, adjust and change out as necessary?

    When we worked, our employer primarily provided those challenges. When we step away from work, we have to continue to seek out and assign those challenges to ourselves in order to remain satisfied and content with life. I think the problem a lot of people may have with retirement is due to not understanding this, and therefore not including opportunities for ongoing growth. And a life of too much ease can quickly become a life of boredom.

    I also think it's entirely normal to discover that our passions ebb and flow over time. The beauty of life is that there is apparently an unending supply of new passions we can throw ourselves into. So when something becomes stale and no longer strikes that deep chord of passion, we can say "thank you" for the joy it previously provided, set it aside with appreciation, and then look for the next opportunity or challenge waiting to be brought into our lives. And yes, this all takes energy, and it would be nice if we could just set up our lives and say "OK, I'm good!" but I don't think it works that way. As someone smarter than me once said "The only constant in life is change."

    1. I agree with everything you say. The challenges of a work environment must be replaced with something. Personally, I could never fill that gap with 18 holes of golf a day like a lot of folks around here do. But, they seem happy, have friends, and get plenty of fresh air and sunshine, so more power to 'em. It just isn't for me.

      That is a very astute point about the ebb and flow of passions and interests. My ham radio involvement is a good example. While I am at an ebb at the moment, the radios and antennas stay in place in case I decide to restart that hobby. I play the guitar enough to not forget where the notes are, but not enough to be good or enjoy learning something new. It just has never moved past that level for me. Might it someday? Sure. But, if not that is OK, too.

      On average I think men have a much harder time of adjusting to retirement than women. Women tend to have a much easier time with social contacts than guys so they have others to lean on. Even so, women struggle with that adjustment, too, but maybe in a different way.

    2. So much wisdom here from you Bob and Tamara and others. The ebb and flow and constant change are key concepts here for me. I think part of my problem is that the engineer in me wants a solution that is the correct or at least the best one. As in, OK, given me and my interests this is what I should do, let's plan this out. Rather than sit back and try something out and if it isn't the eternally right answer, move on. I'm the guy who says...I want serenity and I want it NOW!

      Another observation. I've always counseled people with problems that they need to talk to other people and find different perspectives. If all you do is roll the same problem around with what you have between your ears, you'll not come up with anything new, if anything you'll drive yourself nuts. Having come here and opened up a bit on my problem, I'm seeing things in a much different way. I've always said my main problem is over thinking things. My wife agrees. Heartily! So thanks all for being here.

    3. If folks weren't learning from each other, sharing, and developing a caring community of fellow travelers through retirement, I wouldn't continue this blog.

      Personally, my life is so much fuller with so many more ideas and options because of the type of exchanges we are having right here, right now.

      So, thank you.

  4. I love how you found a worthy cause to donate your time. I am still struggling to find mine. And also to write book this year.

    Sorry to hear of your mom's passing.

    Just wanted to add that the thing I like most about your blog is that you strive to be positive and that counts for a lot.

    1. Thank you, Kelly. The positive outlook is a bit of an adjustment for me. Back when I was traveling 150 days a year I was not much fun to be around: too much work and too much stress. But, once I quit the rat race I had time to understand what was important to me and make sure I built that up instead of tearing it down. That requires a more positive attitude. Besides, being negative doesn't make anyone feel better!

  5. Isn't it always the small stuff that trips us up? I, too, flog myself about not taking enough time to do some of the things that are on my 'should' list -- finishing up projects around the house, clearing up the clutter in my writing room, or spending more time on self-improvement reading. I am slowly realizing that doing the things I love is one of the gifts of retirement.
    Obviously the prison ministry is something you love and something that gives more back to you than the gym or the guitar or the loss of 5 pounds. You are living the way you want to live -- no reason to flog yourself about what you haven't accomplished. Be well and enjoy, postworksavvy

    1. All very true, but my quality of life will be directly affected if I don't do all I can to protect my health. I know that, but still find sitting here now with the laptop and writing this comment is more pleasurable than putting on my sweats and going to the gym! So, i think I will be well and enjoy!

  6. I am now 1 year into my retirement. I am 64 years old. My husband is 65; he is still working full time. He plans to work full time until age 66 when he would like to continue to work maybe 2 days a week if it could be worked out with his employer. We'll have to wait and see on that. I had planned to work until 66 also but health issues made it necessary for me to retire last year. The biggest retirement surprise for me has been how much I love being retired. I had thought that I'd be bored or lonely at home but I am having a wonderful time doing all the stuff that I never had time for. I quilt, read, garden, attend church and neighborhood functions. DH and I go birding about once a month (I helps to live on the Texas Gulf coast flyway where they migrate through twice a year!!)

    Finances are certainly an important part of retirement but fortunately our house and vehicles are paid for and we have no credit card or other debt. We have 403b accounts and a good sized emergency fund. Another important aspect of finances is the fact that we live pretty frugal lives--the things we like to do, just don't cost a lot.

    One down note is that travel is difficult for me because of my mobility problems. We are going for a trial trip to NYC this summer and see just what adjustments we need to make.

    Anyway, I am thoroughly enjoying my Satisfying Retirement!!

  7. After reading your description, I'd say you definitely qualify for a satisfying retirement merit badge. Without stereotyping, it seems that women have an easier time than guys adapting to retirement. Many men just don't have the social system or hobby structure down as well so they struggle with all the free time.

    Good luck on the trial trip to NYC. You strike me as a women who will figure out how to make it work for you.

    BTW, nice web site, Florence (Time Goes By)

  8. I've only been retired for months instead of years, but when someone asked me yesterday if I have been surprised by anything in retirement, I had an answer ready. I'm surprised that there are still only 24 hours in a day.

    I thought when I retired that I would have enough time to do all the things I wanted to do, but I don't. I still have to make choices. I still have to postpone or let go of things I just can't fit in. When someone suggested that I still have to take up time with things I don't want to do, I protested that in fact I hardly ever do something I don't want to do! I'm this busy with things I love doing!

    Yes, I have to do some things like pay bills and clean the house and such, but really most of my time is taken up doing things I love doing. When I realized that I wasn't going to be able to do it all, I felt disgruntled and cheated. Then I had to laugh at myself. Only the newly retired would have such a distorted view of time.

    Time hasn't changed at all. And that has been my biggest surprise.

    1. You said, "Most of my time is taken up doing things I love doing." I don't think there is any clearer way of summing up the opportunities and freedom that retirement provides.

      My day runs out well before my "want to accomplish" list, but there is always a fresh start tomorrow morning. Chores and obligations don't cease with work, but they take their rightful place in my life.

      Welcome to the wonderful world of retirement, Galen!

  9. I so love reading your blog Bob and all the comments on retirement! My hubby and I can't wait but alas it is probably a ways off.We are 55 and 57 so we think husband can retire at 62 so in 5yrs, me umm well I am a nurse so I don't really think I will ever retire but less hours more freedom will probably be how mine looks.I have a ton of things I want to do besides work so all should be good.I noticed how similiar we are in that a day with just the 2 of us being together is still a great day and the way we prefer to spend our time.We still have a ton of obligations,my Mom is critically ill,hubby's parents were ill and have died over 10 yrs ago so we have some of those issues.We will be grandparents for the first time in May 2012 so lots of excitement.We have never travelled and I am not sure we will be able to afford to but that is ok.I know I do not want to add any extra worries or things to care for like pets/homes/jet ski's/RV you get the idea simple is best for me.I want to be able to play every day at what I like not have to's....Amazing how similiar we all are in some aspects with unique differences.Your work with prisons is fascinating,I look forward to reading more as you discover alot about yourself and mankind.

    1. I love reading such positive and powerful comments! Becoming a grandparent is a real kick...you and hubby will enjoy it. Love him or her, play with them, and then go home. It is a perfect arrangement!

      I see that you like Adele...6 Grammy awards last night. You picked a winner.

      My dad's 88th birthday is in 2 weeks and he is still living independently in a continuing care community about 30 minutes away. His memory and hearing are not all that great, but he doesn't look 88 and doctors keep giving him a clean bill of health. So far, so good.

      Simple living is so...well, simple. You have less to worry about and more time to do what really interests you. It sounds to me as though you aren't waiting for retirement to live your life to the fullest, which is exactly how it should be. None of us know how much time we have on earth. To put everything off until tomorrow is a risky strategy.

  10. People often become depressed when they retire. You can avoid that by still making contributions to society: business, charity, etc. To retire means to be put out of use. Don’t be put out of use. Be useful, resourceful, and keep adding value beyond your golden years.

    1. I promote thinking of retirement as simply "retiring" from one life path (full time work) and getting on another path. The concept of "retiring" from the world and all stimulation and involvement is a concept that, thankfully, died out with my parents' generation.

    2. You make an excellent point. Retirement is just a new chapter in life. It's no epilogue, and it shouldn't be treated that way. There's a change in pace, yes. But once you adjust to that, you'll soon find a new groove to enjoy.

    3. I certainly agree with the analogy of retirement being a new chapter. It may include some more work or not, but it certainly isn't the "end" of anything.

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