June 24, 2013

The Checks have Started!

For me, the answer to "when should I start?" was last month. I turned 64 on May 10th, halfway between the earliest birthday at which I could claim benefits and my "full retirement" birthday. To see that first deposit appear in my checking account last week felt very good. Knowing that it will appear every month for the rest of my life was particularly comforting for my satisfying retirement.

The decision to start collecting Social Security when I did was not arrived at without a fair amount of thought and discussion. There are many who will argue I left two years worth of government money on the table by waiting this long. An even larger contingent will say I passed up extra money every month by not waiting until my 66th birthday. Still others will note, quite correctly, that if I waited until I was 70 my monthly check would be substantially higher.

Deciding when to start taking a Social Security check should be based on a combination of factors. In my case, I have been living off a savings and investment account since I retired in 2001. Most of the items in that account were tax free investments so that stream of income has been largely avoiding the tax man  for the past 12 years. I had planned for that account to last until May, 2013. In a case of good luck and an on-going adjusting as we went, the account reached a zero balance last month, right on schedule.

Since I started at 29, my IRA has been quietly bubbling along for the past 35 years. Not being a Roth account (not available until the amount in the account made a conversation too expensive), I will start paying deferred taxes on withdrawals. In order to keep the draw-down rate at under 4% (the target is 3%), a monthly Social Security check is required. By holding my income at a certain level I can avoid paying taxes on 85% of Social Security payments, though I will still pay taxes on 50% of those checks.

Waiting until I am 66 would have resulted in a larger check. But, my calculations are that the extra withdrawals from my IRA to make up that difference for two years would require 15 years of larger SS checks before I reach a break even point. To me that was too big a gamble. I do expect to be alive on my 81th birthday. But, how many years after that would I have to make that two year wait pay off? The final decision was to pull the trigger now.

The next big marker is Medicare, starting next May. I have been self-insured for 32 of the last 37 years. As anyone in a similar situation knows, the market for an individual policy has been an expensive and ultimately frustrating place to be. Over the years my rates and deductibles have increased steadily, while what is covered has gone the other way.

I have no doubt whatsoever that my insurance carrier would look for every way possible to deny coverage if I suddenly developed a major illness. The nearly $150,000 in premiums I have paid wouldn't matter at all. They would simply say "No" and wait for me to fight them or give up and pay everything out of pocket. That is how the system works and I am well aware of it. 

Regardless of its many flaws, the changes in our health care system will actually come too late to do me much good (or harm) since I am so close to Medicare. For Betty, several years my junior, we are hoping she will have more options than she has now. Her individual coverage stinks but with various pre-existing conditions she is stuck until the law makes that a non factor.

But, I don't want to think of medical insurance  and the mess it is in. I want to celebrate the fruits of my 35 years of paying into a system that now begins to pay me back at a time when it will come in handy. Will those monthly checks shrink over time as the deficit becomes too troublesome for even politicians to ignore forever? I don't know. So, again, I'll face whatever the system has in store for me when that time comes.

In the meantime, that number appearing in the checking account looks very nice!

June 16, 2013

Is Retirement a Bed of Roses?

A recent post by blogging friend, RJ Walters, caused me to pause (and that is a good thing). He was pointing out that the retirement blogs he reads, including Satisfying Retirement, seem to often paint an overly optimistic picture of life after work. He wonders if the descriptions are realistic. Don't retired people get bored, or lonely, or depressed, or unhappy? Is every day just another day on the good ship lollipop?

Nowadays by nature I am an optimist. I'll freely admit I didn't used to be that way. I could find the dark cloud in every silver lining. And, to reassure those who wonder if I am floating high above all of life's problems, the answer is certainly,"No." I do get bored on occasion. Sometimes I feel somewhat adrift in my life. Too many times, I struggle to be the type of husband I want to be to my bride of 37 years. I can be a real jerk. I have periods of self-doubt. My faith life was pretty much non-existent for way too many years and I still find myself turning to human solutions when I should be directing my thoughts elsewhere.

Certainly, there was a rough period of two or three years right after closing down my business in 2001. I have written several times about the second stage of retirement: that time when all the worries and second guessing seemed to occupy all my thoughts. I didn't know how to fill my time, except with television, endless hours of reading, and lots of naps. I was marking time.

Then, I found an interest in ham radio. I got my Federal license, joined a club, made new friends, and eventually became president of the organization for three years. I rediscovered the importance of faith in God in my life. I took a six month training program to become a lay spiritual counselor. I stopped most of my worrying about whether I had planned well enough financially. I began to see more silver linings and fewer dark clouds.

My interest in writing has been a part of my life ever since a creative writing class in high school (thank you, John Durkin). But, I had never found an appropriate outlet. The great American novel wasn't waiting to spring forth from my mind. Except for radio programming and rock music from the 1960's and 1970's, I wasn't enough of an expert in any particular field to write a textbook. So, I filled many journals and waited.

Three year ago (June 25th) I started blogging. I found my outlet and a subject I had enough experiences in to share my thoughts with others. At that time virtually all the retirement blogs available dealt just with the financial side of life after work. Except for a few notable exceptions, the blogging world lacked many voices that seemed to deal with the full range of interests and concerns of building a happy retirement. Even the phrase, satisfying retirement, turned up virtually nothing on a Google search. Try it today and see what you find!

There may be times when I appear to have all the answers. There are more times than not when my readers and those who leave comments seem to be living a stress-free, uncomplicated, "Leave it To Beaver" existence with nary a cloud on the horizon. I think a closer reading of what the comments say and what is written between the lines should show that isn't really the case.

But, no matter. The world has way too much negativity and people tearing things down instead of building them up for me to want to be part of that crowd. The world is a dangerous and scary place that really doesn't care if you succeed or fail. I see my "job" for now as describing a type of life that is available after retirement....not "the" type of life, but one example: mine.

How do I know? Because I have been walking this road for a dozen years. Will everyone find the contentment and satisfaction I have found so far? Of course not. Is my retirement without bumps and stumbles? Don't be silly. Heavens, my IRA lost 30% of its value between 2008-2010. Talk about scary. But, I'd be less than honest and certainly no help to readers if I didn't emphasize the good stuff I have uncovered.

No one needs to be reminded of how tough life can be. Read the paper, watch TV news, or simply observe the world around us for a nonstop stream of the problems we face. Do we really need another voice claiming doom and ruin are bearing down on us?

If so, you won't find it here. I have admitted my past failures and will continue to do so when appropriate. I will continue to describe how my satisfying retirement is unfolding, in both positive and negative ways. I will strive to not duck the tough issues. But, I won't dwell on them. That's not who Bob Lowry is in June of 2013.


June 14, 2013

Arizona's White Mountains Makes The Perfect Getaway

Betty and I, along with our trusty canine companion, Bailey, just returned from a very enjoyable eight day RV trip to the rim country of Arizona. With temperatures topping 108 degrees in Phoenix, we decided this was the perfect time to head to 6,000 feet and cooler temperatures. About 150 miles from our home, the White Mountains are a summer heat escape for many Valley of the Sun residents. During the winter, deep snow and a beautiful ski resort entice those who prefer their sports on the chilly side.

We wanted high temperatures under 100 and mornings cool enough for a light sweater; we found both. Our first stop was Woods Canyon Lake about 30 miles east of Payson. We have fond memories of bringing our young daughters here for canoe rides and picnics. 

Betty's dad took his granddaughters fishing on the lake for their first experience with worms some 25 years ago.

This time we made a brief stop for a picnic lunch, pictures for Betty, and to allow Bailey to gather new smells. Because it was mid week we thought the parking lot would be rather empty but that wasn't the case. Several other RVs were in evidence, as well as at least a dozen fisherman with their electric trolling boats. 

Then, it was on to Heber and our RV home for the next four nights. Heber RV Resort is clean, quiet, and very well maintained. We had a problem with our 30 amp electrical plug that the on site maintenance man fixed in just a few minutes. Most of the sites are filled with those who spend the summer here, but we got one of the dozen short stay sites. With a 30 foot pine tree, a picnic table, and being just across from both the office and the shower facilities, the location was perfect. Bailey loved all the new smells while we liked the peace and quiet.

Then, we went back to Fools Hollow State Park near Show Low. After a short visit last fall we knew we'd want to come back to spend several days. The RV sites are spacious and well shaded. Many have full hookups; for those that don't a dump station is at the front entrance. 
I have posted several pictures before of this park, but here are a few new ones to enjoy.

Though rather short, this trip was important in one very important regard; Betty had the time to really look at the inside of the RV and figure out all sorts of ways to improve our living space. She came up with a long list of improvements that will dramatically increase our storage and simplify our life while traveling. She even figured out how to build a small "office" into some wasted space near the cab. It will provide work space for our computer and storage for supplies, but can be folded up and stored away in just a few minutes.
Now we shift our focus to our August trip to Portland. This one will be made by plane. Less than 3 hours in the air versus a 5 day drive each way - an easy choice! 

June 10, 2013

A Place For Mom (and Dad)

After a post on spiritually based retirement communities a few weeks ago I ran across yet another option for deciding where to spend a satisfying retirement: a referral site that features reviews by actual users. It gives a full option of housing choices to search for by location.
Obviously, this is a business and I can't vouch for anything they do in that regard. Nor am I being compensated for this mention. But, I like to bring to light services and options that may be helpful to you.
By the way, what happened to dad? Why isn't it A Place For Mom And Dad?

New Service Provides Listings for Over 100,000 Senior Living Communities; Reviews for 17,000 Currently Available and Growing
SEATTLE, Wash., March 25, 2013 – A Place for Mom®, the nation’s largest senior living referral service, has announced the launch of SeniorAdvisor.com, a first-of-its-kind consumer reviews web site designed for seniors and their families. The site allows visitors to submit and review consumer feedback for over 100,000 senior living communities and care services throughout the country. Currently, there are more than 17,000 posted reviews. The launch comes as A Place for Mom continues to look for new ways to empower consumers with information necessary for finding the right senior living communities for their aging loved ones.
“Choosing a senior living community is an extremely important and emotional decision, and people want to feel confident they have made informed choices. In support of this, we are consistently asked if we have consumer reviews and ratings of senior living communities,” said Sean Kell, CEO, A Place for Mom. “Based on this demand, we’ve created SeniorAdvisor.com, designed to become the nation’s largest and most comprehensive source for senior living and eldercare reviews, ratings and unbiased information.”
To encourage valid feedback for other consumers and providers, reviews on SeniorAdvisor.com will be obtained and verified from a variety of sources: the 200,000 families A Place for Mom helps annually find senior care options and the company’s nationwide network of partners that includes more than 18,000 providers of senior living care and services. Additionally, when any senior living community or service listed on the site claims ownership of their profile, they can invite consumers to review their business.
SeniorAdvisor.com offers helpful tools and quick access to reviews and ratings for communities nationwide, bringing functionality and convenience to a process that tends to be complex and overwhelming. Features include:
  • Comprehensive listings including a complete directory of senior housing options in all
    50 states. For example, a visitor to the site can research memory care options in Seattle, for example. along with six additional types, including assisted living, retirement communities, residential care homes, senior apartments, adult day care and skilled nursing.
  • A five-star rating scale system covering five categories:care, cleanliness, activities, value and friendliness. Consumers can view individual scores for each category as well as an overall score.
  • Ability to post personal comments explaining a rating or general insights about a community or service.
  • Search tools that allow users to seek listings within designated geographic locations and for specific desired amenities.
  • Customized, personal accounts to bookmark favorite communities, write reviews, store comments and ratings, and share information on communities with friends and family.
  • Ability to request a tour of a community, organize scheduled tours and send text message reminders for favorite communities.
“Today’s savvy consumers are proactively seeking the opinions and experiences of others. Many shoppers read reviews of movies, restaurants, hotels and other products before they buy, so it’s not surprising that they expect this kind of information to be available for senior living services,” said Eric Seifert, President, SeniorAdvisor.com. “In line with other service industry reviews, we’re seeing about 82 percent of our ratings on SeniorAdvisor.com land at three stars or better. It will be exciting to watch how this progresses as the number of visitors to the site increases.”

About A Place for MomA Place for Mom, Inc. (APFM) is the nation's largest senior living referral resources and personalized assistance in finding senior living services. Using its nationwide network of more than 18,000 providers, APFM helps families find options based on a loved one’s stated needs, preferences and budget. This may include independent senior housing, home care, residential care homes,assisted living communities and specialized Alzheimer’s memory care. The service is offered at no charge to families as providers pay a fee to APFM. For more information, visitwww.aplaceformom.com, call 1-877-311-6099. For more information on SeniorAdvisor.com, visit the web site or call 1-866-333-2721.

Because the service is new, the few communities I checked had only a handful of reviews. But, this does appear to be a service that will be helpful when enough folks write their opinions. Satisfying Retirement has no connection with nor does it endorse any aspect of this service. This post is provided for purely informational purpose.

June 7, 2013

On The Road Again (Briefly)!

It is hard to believe but we have been home almost 6 weeks since our April trip to Texas and New Mexico. The RV has been cleaned and checked and sitting patiently on the side yard for the next time we hit the road. Well, that time is here. Thursday morning Betty and I headed to the White Mountains of Arizona for an eight day break from the extreme heat.

A four night stay near Heber, followed by four nights at the beautiful Fools Hollow State Park in Show Low is a quick jaunt compared to the April adventure. But, to have an RV and not take every chance to use it seems silly.

The temperatures at home are now well above 100 and will be for 4 months. Last weekend we sizzled at 108 degrees and this weekend may be even hotter. The thought of 84 degree days and 56 degree nights just 3-4 hours away is tugging us northward.

For this trip we had originally planned on leaving Bailey at home. A break from 6:00 AM potty needs and barking at other dogs or birds would be welcome. Betty and I could sleep later and not be crowded by a dog that insists on sleeping so her head touches one of us and her legs the other. But, the closer we got to leaving the more we felt we'd miss her cute cocker spaniel face too much. So, at the last moment, we brought her along. 

What will we do? Betty wants to work on a church project that takes months to plan. I will probably write a post or two and work on my next book: a travel book for Arizona. 

Japanese Gardens in Portland
Then, our attention will turn to our month in Portland in August. Since we will be driving up in our car, we'll have to plan our route, pick some towns to spend the night, and see a few sights along the way.

We have given ourselves five days to get there so we don't have to push it. I think we'll make the drive north a combination of Interstates and more scenic choices.  

Posting your comments may be a bit slower than usual, but know that Betty, Bailey, and I are enjoying our satisfying retirement to its fullest.

June 3, 2013

No Excuses

At some point, all of us have some struggles in our lives. Some are major and require serious adjustments. Others are more in the category of  irritants or minor bumps in our journey toward a satisfying retirement. At the time we may be upset, but in retrospect we realize we have it pretty good compared to others.

This post is about a young man who is years from retirement. In fact he is in his early 20's. He is the son of a couple in our small group at church. His mom and dad keep us up to date on his life and how he is faring. Oh, I should mention he is autistic, though, you will see shortly that is not who he is nor does it limit him. Rather, I get the very real sense that he would think of autism as just one of  the "bumps" in the road that he has learned to navigate.

Matt is a cook, and a very good one. I know because he often prepares desserts for our small group meetings. He lives with mom and dad and creates his magic in their kitchen. Last year he was given an opportunity by a local organization, SeedSpot.org, that provides funds for early stage social entrepreneurs, to develop his own business.

Stuttering King Bakery is the result. Matt, with help from mom and dad, now supplies baked goods to several Phoenix area offices and coffee shops. For example, one place Matt delivers his seriously good pastries is the Beneficial Beans Cafe in the Scottsdale Civic Center Library. That cafe is run by the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center. His goal is to open a bakery in downtown Phoenix or Scottsdale to expand his operation, while hiring other autistic folks to help him with the work load.

Stuttering King Bakery? The name choice reveals a lot about this amazing young man. Matt says the name is in honor of England's King George VI, a man who overcame a serious disability to lead his country. The recent movie, The King's Speech, told his story. Matt faced his own major challenges in finding ways to accomplish his dream through an educational system that has problems properly serving autistic students.

Matt took private lessons for three years from a local pastry chef before serving at St. Mary's Food Bank kitchen to hone his skills. In his office space at Seedspot he and mom work on budgets, marketing, and all the issues involved in establishing a viable business.

Recently, The Downtown Devil, a newspaper for those attending the downtown campus of Arizona State University, wrote a glowing report on Matt and his determination to succeed. In that profile the co-founder of Seedspot, Courtney Klein Johnson, said "How can you not fall in love with his story, the dream and his dream for other autistic people? [Matt's] unique home-baked and delivered business model, attention to detail and dream to employ other autistic people make him a perfect member of the Seed Spot mantra."

The Phoenix Business Journal had a report on Matt's story, too. Seedspot sponsored a demonstration day at Phoenix Symphony Hall. Four young businesses pitched their concepts and products. Matt's baked goods stole the show and earned him a picture on the front page of the report.

So, besides knowing him personally, what is the connection between a 23 year old autistic man and this blog? It is the universal message that, regardless of age and circumstances, we always have a choice: to give in to our troubles and problems, or fight them and find out how to make them work for us.

I recently re-read Stephen Covey's mega-bestseller, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Several of his points fit Matt's story perfectly. Mr. Covey reminds us of Eleanor Roosevelt's words, "No one can hurt you without your consent." 

He also makes these point:

* Blaming everyone and everything for our problems chains us to those problems.

*The power to make and keep commitments to ourselves is the essence of developing the habit of effectiveness.

*It is not what happens to us, but our responses to what happens to us that hurts [or helps] us.

*Our behavior is a function of our decisions.

*If my life is not of my own design, but the result of my deferring to circumstances and other people, then I can change it.

Matt is autistic. He is also a creative, generous, giving young man with the gift of baking masterpieces and the will to succeed.

I doubt he spends much time thinking about the autistic part anymore. He is too busy building a dream. Do any of us need any more motivation than that?