December 31, 2014

Another Year Begins



Didn't the new century just start a few years ago? Are we really about to start the 15th year of the 21st century? 

I watch a movie from the 1980's or 1990's and it seems so recent, until I realize it is several decades old, and considered "old school" by so many people. 

Oh well, not to worry. As I enter into my 15th year of a satisfying retirement I have so much to be thankful for and so much to look forward to, even if I am in a bit of a personal funk at the moment while I look for a new spark.

My wish for you is a joyous year with as many positive occurrences and as few disappointments and problems as possible. 

Fill 2015 with family, love, memorable experiences, and making the world around you as joyful as can be. If you are struggling I pray that the new year lightens your burden, or gives you the strength and attitude to persevere.

Be safe and be well.

Bob, Betty, and Bailey

December 27, 2014

Time to Come Clean

I am bored and feeling stale.

Considering my posts for the last several years that is a sentence you probably didn't expect to read on this blog. I preach the importance of staying active and involved, in trying new things, discovering new passions, and making the most of the amazing freedom that retirement provides.

Up until rather recently that would have been accurate for me. But, not right now. I figured I owed you an honest look at a satisfying retirement that occasionally finds itself down a dead end street. My life has been quite blessed, but it is not a fairy tale or a movie with a perpetually happy ending.

I am feeling unhappy with where I live, how I live, and what I am doing with my time. As I quickly told Betty when I mentioned my funk to her, it has absolutely nothing to do with our relationship. That remains as solid as can be; I am very much in love with my wife and family.

No, my dissatisfaction is strictly with me and my lifestyle at the moment. There has been no precipitating event or action. There wasn't a switch that was suddenly thrown and I woke up living a unsatisfying retirement. It is just a feeling that has been building for at least a month.

I am spending too much time reading. I take too many naps during the day. I watch too much Netflix at night to fill the time until bedtime. I realize these are some classic early warning signs of clinical depression, but that isn't it. I am not depressed, I am just without a focus, a spark, or something that really excites me. And, I don't seem to know where to turn to ignite the fire.

An example? I am planning all of our itinerary for our RV trip in July - not because it really has to all happen 7 months ahead of time, but because it gives me something to do. That isn't good.

So, what am I going to do about all this? I haven't a clue. I am stuck in neutral with no clear route forward. I have no doubt I will figure things out. At some point something will click and I will have a full plate again.

But, for now, not so much.


December 21, 2014

What a Grand Time: Disneyland With The Grandkids




Choosing experiences over things has been one of the basic foundations of my marriage to Betty and in raising our two daughters. We try to make family memories whenever possible.

That approach has been transferred to the next generation. Our oldest daughter and her husband decided that this holiday season would not involve a fully decorated tree and piles of presents for their three kids. Rather, a four day trip to Disneyland and California Adventure Park would make memories that will last a lifetime. And, to make it even more special, one of the days would be "Grandparents' Day" with both sets of grandparents invited to join mom and dad, the three kids, and their aunt in the Magic Kingdom.

Betty and I and my son-in-law's parents piled into our car for the 350 mile trip from Phoenix to Disneyland and back to make Grandparents Day a special day to remember. For almost 14 hours, the ten of us rode every ride we could, saw spectacular shows, ate way too much junk food, watched fireworks, experienced snow falling on Main Street, and made memories for everyone involved.

Our grandchildren had the time of their young lives. They experienced the joy of being surrounded by their family - several generations worth, all sharing the same good times.

Was it worth all that driving and money to see the smiles and feel the love? Was the worth the one lost cell phone (that was eventually found!) and rain coat? Absolutely. We would do it again in a heartbeat. I'd even ride on a roller coaster again!












































The reason for the trip!




December 17, 2014

Scams and The Elderly: Signs To Watch For

A few months ago I wrote about hackers and their ability to make our life difficult. Another concern is the assault on the elderly by those perpetuating scams of various types. As is often the case the most vulnerable are the most likely targets.

The folllowing information was supplied by TrueLink, a service that helps protect folks from this type of indignity. I found the list worth presenting to you.


Red Flags That Your Aging Relative is Suffering from Financial Exploitation

1. Missing funds – This is the obvious one. If mom is a victim of elder financial exploitation – whether it's by a family member, a fraud ring, or a predatory marketing scheme – she's going to have less money as a result. Watch for unpaid bills or extra credit cards lying around, and keep an eye on the gifts being given during the holidays. If she’s giving dramatically less or dramatically more this year compared to last year, it could be time to have a conversation and check out her finances.

2. Lots of phone calls from telemarketers – Telemarketers know that older adults are particularly vulnerable to their tactics. And once they discover a viable target the calls can come nonstop, even if your parent is on a Do Not Call list. Take note of how many calls come during your visit. You may be surprised to find out that telemarketers call your parent more often than you or the grandkids do. Every one of those calls is a financial mishap waiting to happen.

3. New friends – All too often these senior entrapment schemes rely on the perception that the senior is susceptible, isolated, or even lonely. This is a tactic used by con artists, malicious caregivers, predatory telemarketers, and deceptive infomercial offers alike – "Just get the senior talking!" The more they build a trusting relationship, the more likely they are to get their money. If someone is suddenly spending a lot of time with mom or dad, get to know who the person is and what the nature of the relationship is. It might be a good time to do a quick review of their bank accounts and credit cards.

4. Small clues in conversations – Sometimes if dad says something that doesn't quite make sense, you just brush over it. He mentions a grandson's trip to Mexico and you think to yourself "oh, he must mean Florida and got confused." However, he could be talking about falling victim to the grandparent scam, in which someone posing as a relative in a tough situation cons the elderly person into wiring money abroad.

5. Unusual gifts - Family is often the most important thing to a senior, and so “gifts for family members” are often used as bait for financial entrapment by deceptive merchants. They might offer four for the price of one as part of a misleading sales pitch, and then the other three become gifts for family members. Or a sweepstakes or lottery winnings fraud will claim that a senior is going to get to take their family on an exciting trip abroad.

6. Secrecy – Seniors suffering from financial entrapment often feel fear or shame about the situation they are in. If mom or dad suddenly doesn't want to talk about money anymore, that's exactly the time when maybe you should be having a conversation about money.


“Family caregivers know best when something just doesn’t seem right,” says Kai Stinchcombe, whose company, True Link (www.truelinkfinancial.com) offers a service that prevents such financial exploitation. True Link offers a Visa debit card that allows caregivers to set spending limits for specific vendors, receive alerts about unusual purchases, or block suspicious purchases all together."





Satisfying Retirement presents this information for informational purposes only and has no connection to TrueLink nor is the publication an implied endorsement of their services. Satisfying Retirement has received no compensation for this post


December 13, 2014

Sun City Festival: A Retirement Community Treats Us Well

A major force in the retirement landscape in the Phoenix area is the Del Webb company. It is best known for Sun City, the nation's first planned retirement community that opened on January 1, 1960 in the desert west of Phoenix. Since then three more Sun City communities have opened nearby, just part of 50 communities in 21 different markets.

The newest, Sun City Festival, invited Betty and me for a weekend stay in one of their villas. We were invited to use the facilities, talk with local residents, interview marketing folks, and write about our experiences for Satisfying Retirement.

If your image of a retirement community in the sunbelt is just people spending all their days golfing, you need to readjust your mental picture. This  community is home to quite a few non-retired folks, or those who work at a second career or capacity. Yes, there is a beautiful 18 hole golf course, but so much more to keep the not-quite retired and those done with their working lives busy and productive.

At last count there are 42 clubs featuring all sorts of activities, everything from wine tasting and dancing to pickleball, bridge, and quilting. A life-long learning center affiliated with Arizona State University offers classes to keep one's mind sharp. Betty and I sampled the fitness center, ate several meals at the on-site restaurant, and even enjoyed a happy hour. We spent a very pleasant evening on an outside patio overlooking an enormous pool and spa complex.





Friday night was the community's Holiday desserts party that featured an excellent choral group as entertainment for the 200 or so folks in attendance. In front of the activity center were a few brightly lit cars and golf carts.



 On Saturday we were invited to visit the 9,000 square foot pottery and glass studio along with a huge woodworking shop. Always the artist, Betty fell in love with these facilities. She says they are absolutely on par with anything she has ever seen. Hundreds of residents learn and practice their artistic skills in this state of the art facility.



Linda - instructor at pottery studio




Clyde and Barbara at glass kilns
             



Jacque Petroulakis, Corprate Communication spokesperson for the Pulte Group (owner of Del Webb) notes that one of the most important approaches the company takes is to actively research the wants of today's home buyers. Last year they actually built prototype models inside large warehouses and asked potential customers to walk through and critique the designs and layouts.

The results are obvious. Today's models have elevated dishwashers and lower microwaves. The entrance from the garage does not involve any steps up or down, doorways are wider, and showers can include a place to sit.


If there is a downside, it is Sun City Festival's location. Since only a gas station and mini mart are located here and being 12 miles west of the nearest town, trips for groceries, additional dining options, or medical appointments are bit of a jaunt  But, residents we talked to didn't see this as a problem. In fact, several mentioned they like the quiet and lack of city lights.  A fire department, police, and EMT operation in town means one is not far from immediate emergency help. The nearest full service hospital is about 25 minutes away.

Sun City Festival is designed for active folks who want to live independently. There is no provision to provide assisted living or nursing care at this time. But, community representatives told me when the time approaches for more help with daily living, residents are likely to move to Sun City Grand or Sun City West, both of which offer such services.


Thanks to the folks at the Pulte group and Del Webb for inviting us to spend some time at Sun City Festival. It was a much needed break for Betty and me, and a perfect chance to see the changing face of retirement communities. The residents we talked to were very happy with where they live and extremely friendly. We didn't meet anyone who didn't welcome us with open arms.



Our villa home - very comfortable
 

Note: Betty and I were provided with free lodging, dining credit, and facility use during our stay. Sun City Festival did not have control over or prior approval of the content of this post.
 


December 11, 2014

Take Out The Trash That Clutters and Restricts

From three years ago this post still rings very true for me. As I review the list of "trash" that needs to be put by the curb I am reminded how much is still part of my life, and how much work I still have to do.



One chore we are all familiar with is taking out the trash. While it may not be fun, it is necessary. The stuff will not walk itself to the curb for pickup. Holding on to it serves no purpose but to clutter up our lives.

I suggest the same requirement exists in our personal lives. A satisfying retirement is going to require getting rid of things on a regular basis that no longer serve a purpose or just clutter up your life. A life accumulates various types of  "trash" that is best dumped.

Self-imposed Limits. I'm hard pressed to think of anything more destructive to our personal development and growth than limits we put on ourselves. We think we aren't very creative so we never explore that part of us. We have been told by someone in the past we aren't very smart or strong or productive or capable or.....(fill in your externally imposed limits). We have internalized that judgment of part of us by accepting someone else's view of our abilities as true. So, we no longer try.

We have failed at a previous attempt to form a meaningful relationship, start a business, write a book, learn to play tennis, grow vegetables in the back yard....whatever...and so we are afraid. We eliminate the chance of failure by refusing to try. Actually, we eliminate the chance of success.

Self-imposed limits are part of the trash of our life that must be disposed of on a regular basis. These limits will limit your happiness and your satisfaction. These limits will make it impossible for you to grow to your potential. Label these self-imposed limits for what they are: garbage that needs to go. 

Habits that no longer serve a purpose. We all have them. They could be habits we know aren't good for us but are tough to dump. They could be habits that affect our interaction with others. The list is long and the causes are complicated. I tried to quit smoking at least five times before it actually stuck back in the late 80's.

In this case, though, I'm referring to habits, or patterns of behavior, that once served us well, but no longer do. Previous posts have talked about how I fell into a routine of reading two newspapers every morning, until I realized I was wasting my most productive time of the day on something that could be done later (or eventually dropped completely). Maybe we have always answered every e-mail the second it hits our inbox, until we realize that is amazingly unproductive.

Going out to eat several nights a week is an easy habit to develop. Cooking after a full day of work is not something everyone looks forward to. But, now that you are retired, the pattern of eating most dinners at a restaurant no longer serves the same purpose. Also, it is probably putting a major dent in your retirement budget. I used to buy lots of books from Amazon, until I ran out of bookshelf space. Now, the library, with the purchase of an occasional book I really want to read is a much better match to my lifestyle.

We are resistant to change and comfortable with our routines. In fact, for many of us, our routines comfort us to the point where even the simplest change takes effort. But, are the routines and habits still serving a purpose? Do some of them need to be taken to the curb?

Grudges and Past Hurts. Here is a tough one. Doesn't it feel good to dislike someone who did you wrong all those years ago. It is easy to work up a towering inferno or rage and anger...until you stop to remember what caused the problem in the first place, and can't. Or, you review where the grudge came from and now, years later, it seems so petty and silly.

Holding on to an insult, or unkind action is never very helpful. It may feel good for a moment to zing someone back, but rarely does it solve the problem. Even worse is to allow a past hurt to fester for years, preventing you from moving on.

Taking out the trash every week helps keep your house free of clutter and unpleasant smells. Getting rid of the trash in your life is more complicated, but every bit as important to your satisfying retirement.


 

December 8, 2014

The Travel Itch Begins Again: Plans for 2015

The New Year is fast approaching and with it comes a need to firm up our travel and vacation plans. This year has been a blast, highlighted by the two month RV trip to the upper Midwest. What does 2015 hold?

The first jaunt has actually been on our calendar since last spring: The Palm Springs Film Festival. This January event attracts thousands of film fans, movie stars, and desert lovers for a long weekend of events. Mike and Tamara Reddy have been before and thought it would be fun if the four of us experienced it together. So, the tickets are purchased and the RV slots selected.


A month later I have booked an RV space for a three nights at a pretty county park just east of Phoenix, not far from the Superstition Mountains. Usery Park is nicely maintained with plenty of hiking trails for us and Bailey. 


We will be close enough to explore some the nearby lakes and maybe check out the Lost Dutchman State Park just down the road. The camping sites are quiet and have beautiful views of the mountains and city lights.



In April it will be time to head to Show Low in the White Mountains of Arizona for several days. Fools Hollow State Park has become one of our favorite spots. Our campsite overlooks a beautiful lake. There are kyacks and row boats to rent, dozens of miles to hike, and the smell of pine trees to make every day a delight. At that time of year night time lows are still not far above freezing so a blazing fire pit and roasted marshmallows will be part of each evening.



Come June we will be flying to Pittsburgh and then making our way south into West Virginia. Betty has put together a family reunion that will be the first time she has seen some of these folks in years. Arrangements have been made to rent a large cottage at a lake resort for the weekend. Then, back to Pittsburgh to spend time with her brother before we fly home.


South Park Blocks in Portland
Two weeks later, the RV heads north for a two month trip through Utah and Idaho to Portland. We will spend a month in one of our favorite cities before slowly driving down the Oregon and California coast, with a detour to wine country near Paso Robles to meet friends. A few days later we will arrive home just in time for Labor Day and two more months of blazing summer heat.


Oregon Coast


Wine country near Paso Robles

Last year we drove over 5,000 miles during the summer RV trip; next year the total to and from Portland is half that amount. Not only will substantially less gas will be needed but the wear and tear on the driver (me!) will be appreciated.

It sounds like another fun year of blending time at home with family and friends and on the road in the RV. 


Portland International Rose Gardens



December 5, 2014

Healthcare.gov: What Was Our Experience This Time?

A little over a year ago I wrote about our experiences with Healthcare.gov, the Marketplace health site. As everyone knows, the launch was a disaster. The system crashed and kept crashing for almost the entire enrollment period. I was able to get a policy to carry me from January until Medicare started in May without too many problems.

Betty was another matter. Her application and data were so messed up we finally had to fight our way through to the Resolution Center to resolve her situation. That is not easy to do. Those folks are protected from "customers" like the gold in Fort Knox. You can read about that fun time by clicking here.

So, billions of dollars and thousands of man hours later, what happened this year? Betty's insurance company was not offering the policy she finally got last year, so she had to go through the application process again. Certainly, things would zip right along, right?

Wrong. We got into the same mess this time around. The web site continually crashed the first two days it was opened, and only functioned sporadically after that for at least two more days. Betty's incorrect information from a year ago continued to haunt our attempts to complete an application. Her application was complete, then incomplete, then verified, then needed to be verified....exactly like before.

The folks on the phone can't do a thing: they use the same web site that anyone uses, so when it is in the toilet they are powerless. When it finally works, they are unable to fix something that is causing problems. Calling the 800 number only increases your frustration and does not solve a problem.

Like last year we tried the Advanced Resolution Center but the protective walls are even higher this time around. Those golden men and women who can fix a problem cannot be reached by mere mortals.

We were just about to give up and buy insurance through the health insurance company's web site, losing out on hundreds of dollars in tax credits, when Betty discovered a sheet of paper from last year's battle that included a user name and password that had been given to us by the nice lady who finally helped us.

With nothing to lose, I entered those precious letters and - we were in! Suddenly I was sailing through a new application and 20 minutes later we had signed her up for a new policy, with a small but welcome tax credit. 

Not so fast. Two weeks later and the health insurance company had not received the proper paperwork from the Marketplace. The fine folks at the end of the 800 number said they would have their technical people look at the problem but it could take up to 30 days. With the deadline for coverage only 2 week away that was a non-starter.

With time running out, we decided to skip the whole screwed up system and buy a policy directly from the company web site. Our costs will be substantially more than last year for Betty's policy, with less coverage and more financial risks to us (silver instead of gold). But, at least we won't face bankruptcy over a serious health problem.

The Bottom line: National news reports indicate things went much more smoothly than in 2013. A half a million people were able to go through the process and sign up in the first week.

But, that isn't true for everyone. Once your application gets fouled up by software glitches, you are in trouble. With only 30 days this year to get things done before it is too late to get coverage starting January 1st, there is no margin for error.

The call center people told me that at times the software was performing no better than one year ago. If you had told me that we would have exactly the same experience as 14 months ago after all the money, the effort, and the promises, I would have not believed you. But, for us, that was what happened.

Guess what: Betty has 4 more years before she qualifies for Medicare. Do you want to bet we will go through this same minefield four more times? Or, simply pay whatever the insurance companies want and skip the whole gut-churning experience?

Of course, if the Supreme Court decides tax credits are illegal then the whole for-profit healthcare system as it is now set up will collapse in 2016 under the weight of huge premium increases and no tax help for those not well-off. Betty will become one of an estimated 80 million Americans without health insurance. 

Won't that be something. 


Update: December 11th and Betty finally has coverage directly from the health insurance company...3 days before the deadline.




December 2, 2014

The RealPad: Is It The Real Deal?

A few weeks ago AARP sent me a new product to test: The Real Pad. It has been designed for 50+ adults who want to use a tablet-type computer device but have been afraid of the technology. With a full compliment of applications, the owner can browse the Internet, send and receive e-mails, read e-books, take pictures and make movies, visit Facebook, make video calls to friends and relatives, play games - in short everything a tablet is designed to do. It has built in WiFi, bluetooth and touch screen capabilities. It comes with one free year of AARP membership (or an extra year if already a member).

With a screen just under 8", it is slightly bigger than a standard size Kindle Fire and on par with an Ipad. It comes with a charger and USB cable. The battery life of approximately 8 hours is quite adequate. My biggest complaint is the cost. At $189 it is quite a bit cheaper than an Ipad and about $10 less expensive than a Kindle HDX. But, to entice someone who is not comfortable with the whole concept of a tablet, a device that is almost $200 seems too high. Fewer capabilities and a price somewhere in the $125-$150 range would probably make it more attractive to the target.

OK, so how about the RealPad itself? It feels sturdy and reacts quickly to touch. The processor and browsing software are not as good as those found in better known brands, but for the target user that isn't important. Things work quickly enough to be very satisfactory. There is a 16GB memory to hold lots of pictures if someone decides to use this as a camera.

The icons are a bit larger than on other tablets, making it a easier for older eyes to find what one is looking for. The best features are the 24/7 customer support and what is known as Real Help: 10 preloaded videos that explain how to set up e-mail, use WiFi, search the Internet, how to use the touchscreen, what apps are, and tablet basics.

One of the settings that many will want to access wasn't readily apparent, especially to a newbie to the tablet world: how to increase font size. If you know to go to Settings, then find Display, then find font, you can change the size from small to what AARP calls, huge. I suggest that font size adjustments should be much easier to find for those unfamiliar with navigating several menu options.

As a test, I asked my wife, Betty, to play with the RealPad. While she is comfortable with a computer, she has never tried using a tablet. I gave her the manual (very good with clear explanations and pictures) and asked her to give it a spin. She did read the first few pages of the start guide, but most of what she tried she did without consulting the booklet.

Not surprisingly, the first thing she found was the camera. With both front and rear facing cameras she immediately started snapping photos and made a few short videos. It took her a little while to find out where the photos are stored, but she managed to review them and then delete them with no real problem. 

She also had fun with the "speak" feature. While connected to the Internet, if you touch the microphone icon and ask a question, the Google search engine will find your answer in less than a second. She tried, "What's the temperature in Scottsdale, Arizona,"  "show me pictures of cocker spaniels," and said the two words we all love, Satisfying Retirement. In each case she was instantly given what she asked for. Yes, smartphones and other tablets do this, but I was interested that Betty figured out how to use this feature intuitively.

She quickly learned to sweep screens either up or down and how to "pinch" or "expand" to make something on the screen larger or smaller. She liked the video tutorials but didn't have the time to set up her e-mail in the tablet. So, for a tablet neophyte Betty had no serious problems.

The RealPad looks and acts like any tablet on the market, and that may turn out to be a long-term problem. This AARP entry will succeed or fail on its ability to convince the tablet-wary crowd that it is easier and more user-friendly than better known versions. It does have excellent tutorials and one of the better user guides I have seen. But, it is not cheap and has enough features and menus to confuse someone who is brand new to this world. 

I commend AARP for trying to get seniors connected. Whether it works will be for the marketplace to decide.


Satisfying Retirement was given a free RealPad for its use and review. There was no additional compensation involved.



November 28, 2014

A First Look At Next Year's Budget

Making budget decisions can be quite complex
The New Year is a little over a month away, so it is certainly not too early for me to review how how well my 2014 budget held up to our actual expenses and make adjustments for next year. I have lived with a budget for the last 40 some years. 2015 will be no different. 

This was a year of some significant changes: it was the first year I had Medicare coverage for about half the year and Betty purchased health insurance through the government healthcare marketplace. It was the first time we were away from Phoenix for part of the summer. We bought a new car to serve as my primary vehicle and to tow behind our RV. 

So, how did things work out? Pretty well, it appears. I am on track to be about 7% under budget for this year. A quick disclaimer: RV and vacation expenses are part of a separate budget. As I have noted in an earlier post the cost of gas during our 2 month RV adventure and a much higher than expected bill for repairs and maintenance knocked that budget for a loop (29% over). But, the main household budget did well.

What came in under budget:

1) Home Maintenance and repairs - usually there is a few things that go wrong with a 30 year old house. This year everything held together.

2) Medical lab tests - three of the tests Betty and I usually get and pay for are now covered by ACA or Medicare.

3) Pet Expenses - 2013 was not a good year for Bailey: a doggie chiropractor and several x-rays for a troublesome back problem. This year, she has been much, much better.

4) Dining out and entertainment - we found that we are spending more time with family and in-laws, which besides being more satisfying is much cheaper.

5) Betty's car's registration and gas expenses - an 11 year old car doesn't cost much to register, plus it is only driven about 5,000 miles a year. We are putting no more repair money into it but will drive it until it quits, then donate it to a charity.

6) Change in RV insurance - this one part of ownership I keep under an insurance heading in the household budget. By switching companies I was able to pay for only when I expect to be on the road next year, thereby saving $250.

And on the not so good side:

1) Real Estate taxes - even though real estate assessments lag by two years, our home's market value has rebounded strongly from the 2008-2009 disaster, making for a larger tax bill than I had planned for.

2) Yard work - while we were gone for July and August, I paid our yard service several hundred dollars above budget to do the trimming that I normally handle.

3) New set of eyeglasses: I thought I could make it until next year with my old lenses, but the change in my eyesight made a new pair important.


So, for 2015, with our income remaining unchanged, I will:

A) Trim the pet budget by 20%

B) Set aside enough to handle one or two major home fix ups, but not three.

C) Budget more for medical premiums. Betty's ACA plan will be about $37 more each month than this year, with somewhat higher copays and a much bigger deductible.

D) Trim the dining out amount a bit to reflect more family time.

E) Budget more for the real estate tax since it is bound to go up again.



All of this should allow us to stay at a 3% (or less) withdrawal rate from our retirement account and still be prepared for most of what 2015 may decide to throw at us.


How about your expenses for next year...anything lurking in the shadows?



November 25, 2014

2014: What Do We Have To Be Thankful About?

If you spend enough time with social media, cable TV news channels, newspapers, or on the Internet, the title of this post seems like a reasonable question. Between the mess that is the Mideast, Ebola, political dysfunction, and the general tension of 21st century living, Thanksgiving may seem like an anachronism: a pleasant idea that lives on more in memory than reality.

I disagree.  In America we have survived yet another election cycle with all the drama and cynicism that implies. The results were not pleasing to many, full of joy for others. But, we all woke up on November 5th, complained or rejoiced, and got back to living our lives. As much as politicians like to think what they do is critical to each one of us every waking moment of our lives, most of us spend our days with the political circus far in the background. Their "games" effect us in the long term, but for the most part they occupy their own world.

The fact that we had a contentious election and the country moves forward is the important reminder of our system. With the next presidential election less than two years away, the fun is about to begin again in earnest. It all may be infuriating, silly and wasteful, and often downright counter intuitive to common sense and logic, but there are no coups, insurrections, or massive social upheavals on the horizon.

In two years the country might turn the House and Senate back to the Democrats, not because they have all the answers, but because the public is always ready to "throw the bums out" regardless of who the bums are. That is just the way it is.

Personally, life couldn't be better. My wife and I not only survived but thrived during two months together in an RV this summer. We found new sides to each other, relished the time disconnected from normal distractions and connections, and saw beautiful parts of our country. We also learned being away from family for two months is our limit. 

My dad remains physically healthy. While his short term memory can be measured in days (sometimes hours, it seems) he enjoys getting together for lunch every few weeks and is generally upbeat. A new set of hearing aids seems to have helped his ability to participate in conversations.

Our daughters, a son-in-law and grandkids are happy and doing well. We spend time together frequently and enjoy each others' company.

I have had a series of medical tests provided by Medicare that don't reveal any issues of concern. My overall health remains good.

Financially, I remain on solid ground with no concerns. Betty and I are comfortable with our lifestyle and how we manage our resources. A summer in Portland is planned for next year and a trip to Europe for our 40th wedding anniversary in 2016 looks doable. 

This blog is doing well and remains fun and engaging for me and several thousand readers every day. I am moving forward on a third book that should be published sometime next spring. 

So, what do I have to be thankful for in 2014.....everything. 

I sincerely hope that your Thanksgiving review shows your life to be bountiful and satisfying. Perfect? Probably not. Better than many? Quite likely. 

Enjoy.


November 21, 2014

Retirement and The Middle Class: Still Possible?

First published three years ago, the discussion about the fate of the American middle class and the growing economic inequality in this country has not gone away, in fact it has intensified. I'd welcome your thoughtful comment on this issue.


There has been a lot written recently about the decline, if not outright disappearance, of the middle class in many countries around the world. The original premise was that hard work and perseverance would result in a comfortable lifestyle and a satisfying retirement. That vision included decent retirement funds, health care coverage at an affordable cost, a home, a car or two in the garage, and enough money to send kids to college. It assumed that each generation's standard of living will be better than the one before.

In reality, that picture began to go out of focus at least 10 years ago. The dot.com stock market crash of the late 1990's damaged the hopes and dreams of many. It exposed the true risks of betting that the stock market would always go up and making money was simple. Just as things seemed to getting back on track, the world came crashing down again in 2008. Folks who had pinned their dreams on the value in the homes found themselves upside down, or worse. 

Again, stock performance tanked taking the retirement plans with them. The average middle class person has seen a steady erosion of their financial situation. Some are referring to the past ten years as "the lost decade."  Even while the top few percent of our society are richer and more isolated from reality than ever before, the middle class, and even more so the poor and disadvantaged, have watched the dream turn into a nightmare with few promises of a fix anytime soon. The big squeeze is getting worse.

Some will argue that we are reaping what we sowed. Flipping houses, taking out loans we couldn't repay, running up credit card bills of more than our annual income, betting that stocks would only go one way....we were acting like children let loose in a candy store, assuming that "they" would be sure we were OK.

Others will say that the system has been tilted in such a way that the rich and powerful have stacked all the cards in their favor. The financial meltdown was caused by their greed and their manipulations. The "main street" middle class person has no chance to get back on top.

I believe that both those views have some validity. Each side must share part of the blame for the mess we are in. Our government has shown, at least to this point, it either has no idea how the "fix" things, or is so dysfunctional it can't.

I will also state that a satisfying retirement is still within reach of the many of us. Am I being foolish or hiding my head in the sand? I don't think so. The research I do before writing certain posts and the tremendous feedback left by readers have increased my sensitivity to the realities that way too many of our fellow citizens face. 

What I have learned in this journey is that we are in the midst of a massive and probably permanent redefinition of some of what we were brought up to believe. The concepts of employment stability and generally benevolent employers, of having protections and safeguards in place against unethical behavior that would prevent large scale damage, and of having affordable health care available to most are no longer givens. In fact, they aren't reality at this moment.

So what does my vision of a middle class retirement look like? Since there is no universal agreement on what constitutes middle class, I suggest we not get hung up on that phrase. Your satisfying retirement is determined more by how you act, react, and what you accomplish than by a textbook term or a particular income.

Having the proper retirement mindset means you are flexible. You may stop working completely at the "normal" age of 65 or you may keep working into your 70's or beyond. You may take on the challenge of starting a new business or company. You may become a consultant to your old industry. You may work part time at a local retail establishment.

You may never work another day in your life, but spend countless hours volunteering to make someone else's life just a bit brighter and less burdensome. You may take care of your grandkids all day so mom and dad can go to work. You may find yourself on a mission trip for a year to Africa. You may be the primary caregiver to your mom or dad.

Whatever shape your retirement takes, it will look very little like what retirement used to be. Relaxing and doing lots of nothing all day while slowly declining in mental and physical ability holds absolutely no appeal. You will do everything in your power to avoid that path.

At the same time, it probably won't look like you thought it would. That isn't necessarily bad, just different. A middle class retirement may still mean travel, an RV, a vacation home...or it may not include any of those things. If you like a life of travel then you will make sacrifices in some other area of your retirement to make that happen. If you are more of a homebody you will devise a budget that supports you in that decision: maybe lots of flowers in the garden, books on every flat surface, music playing all day, and an inviting place to live. It may be a 300 square foot rented apartment or a 3,000 square foot house. It shouldn't matter. It is where you feel safe and comfortable and "home." You will not let your possessions define you.

Your retirement will accept that you must take on additional responsibility for your future happiness, health, and well-being. You will not expect others to do all the heavy lifting. You will eat right, exercise, eliminate stress, see a doctor when needed, but fight aging and decline with every power you have. You will keep your mind active by constantly taking on new challenges and responsibilities.

A middle class retirement means you are in control of much of the quality of your retired life. Will there be times when you have to pinch pennies, clip coupons, bypass a wanted (or even needed) item? Probably. But, you realize that you have the greatest gift of all: more control over your time and how you spend this irreplaceable asset.

People will continue to aspire to retire (I like rhymes!), but in a way that will be unique to each of us. I can be satisfied with a lot less than I thought I'd need or want just 5 years ago. At the same time there are parts of my life I need and will fight to maintain: being close to family, volunteering to help just-released convicts, building my spiritual life, and feeling safe and comfortable inside my home. And that sounds very middle class to me.

How about you?

November 18, 2014

Is College Always The Right Choice For Our Grandchildren?

Not long ago I was contacted by a fellow who works for an Internet training company. The CEO had just posed a provocative question on their web site. The question asked was whether a college education is worth the money. Is there enough of a return on the investment of tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of dollars for everyone who goes?

The author, Dave Dunn, cited figures that projected the costs of sending his three children to private colleges several years into the future. The totals were over $1,000,000. He used that million dollar figure to raise the issue.

Aside from the obvious fact that no one has to go to the most expensive private universities (unless on a full scholarship!), his point is still one that we, as parents and grandparents should ask. The mess that has become the college loan industry has been in the news. We are probably quite aware that the cost of a college education, even at a state run university, averages close to $40,000 for in-state students, and $100,000 for out-of-state attendees. Triple that for a top flight Ivy League or private college and there is serious money involved.

When I was in high school, it was expected that everyone who could afford to do so would go to four years of college after graduation. For those with limited means, two year junior colleges (now community colleges) were an option. Technical schools were available for those with mechanical interests. But, in my neighborhood of suburban Boston, college was simply a given.

As post high school education became increasingly expensive, folks began to ask the question: is college right and necessary for everyone? Well, for some professions like doctor or lawyer the answer was, and remains, yes. But, how about for other careers or job paths? How many require a four year degree versus shorter, specialized training and experience? 

For this post, I raise the question because grandparents are sometimes asked for help in sending a grandchild to college, or of their own volition establish a college fund for a child's child. If the money is available is college always the best option? Do we accept that a high school graduate may leave college already seriously in debt?

As the graduate of a well respected private university I will add two thoughts:

1) I have freely admitted that the money my parents spent on me was largely wasted. I had decided on my career path while barely a teenager. My chosen profession did not require a college education. During my last two years in college I worked almost full time at a radio station in town, learning my craft and improving my future prospects. My college classes were an interruption. In my case, college was somewhat wasted on the young.

2) I wish I could have gone to college when I was older. I would have possessed the maturity and intellectual curiosity to have made full use of what college is meant to do: teach one to think and learn critically and independently. 

Before anyone starts leaving nasty comments I will make it clear that I know that continuing one's education after high school is essential for the development of many of the skills for success in our technologically oriented world. High School graduates face a daunting task to survive and thrive. When used to its fullest, those extra years of schooling can be a building block to a full and satisfying life.

But, with a college education becoming something that is being priced out of reach of all but the well-to-do, we should ask if a traditional college is always the best choice. And, as grandparents, whether we pay part of the bill or not, we should ask if a four year institution is in the best interests of the young adult.


What do you think? How critical is that diploma? Is the amount of debt often required justified?

What about on-line college degrees, where most of the work is done, at home, with only limited classroom time required? Technical colleges are readily available for virtually any career choice. Community colleges have developed well past just being a feeder system for four year schools.

Is the time away at school important in one's development as an adult? Is it more than just classes and study?

Your feedback is encouraged.