February 29, 2016

Inquiring Minds Ask - What Does Betty Do All Day?

A reader asked how my wife, Betty, spends her days. What does she do with her time and energies? Besides the life we share, what are her passions and interests? To give you a quick glimpse at the answer, I asked her to write a summary of her schedule for this post, but she was too busy to do so. I guess that answers part of the question.

Betty is a woman of projects. If she listed everything she would like to accomplish, I imagine there would be a few hundred things on that to-do list. Of those, maybe a dozen or so of the most important will be completed some time this year. Unlike me, she is never at a loss for something to do; her biggest problem is having too many things demanding her attention.

A suggestion might be to cut back, focus on what you really love. But, in her case, that would be the wrong approach because she loves it all. Even though she gets a bit ragged and stressed at times, she will be the first to tell you those feelings are worse if she isn't up against some sort of deadline.

Betty is rather atypical in some of her interests. Recently, our son-in-law's parents give Betty several wood-working power tools. Suddenly, part of our garage is filled with a router, a miter saw, and a large table saw. For her birthday, I gave her a new sander. No, I am not kidding; she asked for it. The tools hanging in the garage are mostly hers, or at least she is more likely to use them than I. She loves to hammer, build, paint, and make something out of scraps. Creating faux stained glass, using broken plates for mosaics, sponge-finishing a wall....it is all part of her repertoire. 

A typical day? There isn't one. Most days she wakes up around 5:00 AM, her mind going full tilt with ideas and solutions to problems left from the day before. Very politely, she either slips quietly out of bed to head for her office, or lays still until a more decent time, say 6:15, before asking if I am awake yet.

She starts with a quick breakfast, followed by some time playing with our dog (or dogs if our daughter's puppy is with us) and training them to not bark at everything in the world (!). A shower, a simple clothing choice of jeans, a t-shirt and sweater, and her day officially begins.

The next several hours are spent in a variety of ways. It could be at the computer, researching something for a project for church or photoshopping an idea. She will check in with Facebook friends and e-mails. If some supplies are needed she looks for on-line coupons and then could be gone for hours at Home Depot, Hobby Lobby, Jo-Ann Fabrics, or Michaels. Occasionally she has a meeting with someone about something she is helping build or design.

Lunchtime will be spent with me in one of two ways. We may be outside on the back porch, relaxing in the warm air, while reviewing our morning or reading. Several days a week we gather in front of the television for the next lesson in whatever Great Courses class we are studying.

After lunch, we take the dog (s) to the park for some exercise and lots of fresh air. Then, she is back at it, with projects, computer research, or running errands, until dinner time. Once or twice a week, she will run out of steam by late afternoon. That's the time for a small snack, glass of wine, and some reading before we both go inside to prepare, eat, and clean up dinner together.

In the evening, Betty will usually watch a few favorite TV shows with me. Sometimes, we go see a play or listen to music. Maybe an hour or so before bedtime she heads back to a project or planning session.

Of course, she (and I) are always on call for grandparents duty: baby-sitting, driving or picking up someone, preparing dinner for the crew, or just giving our daughter a place to crash and have someone else play with the kiddos.

Betty's schedule is full, actually overfull, but that is what makes her tick. Shopping for clothes and meeting friends for lunch are not part of her normal day. Chatting on the phone for hours at a time is not something she does. 

But, give her a pile of lumber and a power tool, or a bucket of paint, express a need, and she will be all over it. Tell her the bathroom needs some re-tiling and it is as good as done. Have something to be designed, freshened, or built at church and she is your gal. Be a friend, or even just a friend of a friend with a problem and she will be the first in line to help.

In short, she is very different from me. She is unique in a very good way. I suspect that is why we have been together for almost 40 years.

Betty's idea of dress up..off to solve a problem

February 26, 2016

Tax Time: Expecting a Refund? What Will You Do With the Money?

The average American taxpayer receives a refund each year of almost $3,000. That is a lot of your money for our friendly government to have and use, interest free, each year until they give it back to you.

Of course, with interest rates rarely breaking 1%, and sometimes just barely above zero, I guess it doesn't matter like it once did. 

When interest rates do begin to rise, I would argue that getting a large tax refund is not a good thing. That is money you do not have to spend or save until the following spring. I know that some folks treat the refund as forced savings, but you are giving the government a loan and cutting into your monthly cash flow.

For now, the reality is a few thousand back into our pockets over the next few months. So, my questions are simple:

1) Do you prepare your own taxes, with software or a pencil and calculator, or do you have a professional take care of it?

2) Are you expecting a refund for 2015?

3) If so, what are your plans for that money?

I will get things started:

1) I use Turbo Tax to complete my return (with Betty), my dad's final return after his death last year, and the trust return for my parents' estate. Doing taxes myself is much less expensive and gives me a sense of control over the process. Have I made mistakes? Probably. Am I missing some deductions? Maybe, but not significant ones. 

2) Yes, a small one. Not knowing exactly how much money my parents' trust was going to generate that would become taxable to me, I made a few quarterly tax payments that were a bit higher than they probably needed to be. But, my advisor was quite close in her estimates, so there is a little coming back.

3) Put it into the checking account for bills and living expenses. One year, after some major medical expenses, we did get a larger than normal refund that was used for a vacation. But, that is very rare. My goal each year is to get back, or owe, less than $200.

OK, your turn. 

February 23, 2016

Believing in Belief

I saw the following quote on some material sent to me by the folks at Olderhood.com, an excellent site for retirees.

If there is some sort of existence
Beyond what we experience here on earth,
Neither believing in it,
Nor not believing in it
Would change the fact of its existence.

I like that. As a believer, my faith convinces me there is something good, very good, after my existence on earth ends. I cannot prove it, I have no way of verifying my beliefs, and I don't expect God to audibly speak to me to verify what I think is true, or even that he really exists. I am either right or wrong
But, what I think will not change whatever the reality is. 

That is the definition of faith - a firm belief in something for which there is no definitive proof. Certainly, there are historical records, both written and physical, that appear to support my faith. Many of the places, people, and events described in the Bible have been confirmed as factual. 
What moves this all into the realm of faith is whether the words in the Bible are inspired by a God that is real, the future that he promises believers is coming, and the existence of a real force known as evil is part of the world. 

Numerous studies indicate a link between spirituality and health. Faster recovery, fewer complications, or lower blood pressure seemed to follow regular prayer or meditation. Marriage stability and longevity have been positively linked to a shared religious or spiritual mindset.

Of course, there are other factors that could explain these outcomes. Getting sick and then deciding to cover one's bet with a period of prayer or mindfulness is probably not what these studies suggest. Rather, the mindset that accepts that there is something greater than oneself in absolute control, and with a greater good as part of a plan, may be an attitude that allows the body to heal and recover more quickly and completely. I don't know if this is true, but it seems logical.

Speaking from a personal standpoint, I know my life has become much fuller, more comfortable, more relaxed, and more in tune with what I believe my purpose on earth is since my spiritual life became important to me. Those who know me have seen sides of my personality that weren't evident before. As a recent post on my marriage demonstrates, my most important human relationships have only grown stronger over the years. 

I don't even come close to the type of relationship with God that I know He wants. My prayer and study time remain too sporadic. Too often I do not treat others without the respect and love they deserve. My tongue and temper can get the better of me. I am a flawed human being and will remain so until I die.

Sometimes I am appalled at what others who follow my belief system say and do in God's name. Apparently, we are not reading the same Bible. Which one of us is wrong? Is it my responsibility to try to correct them? That is a tough question. 

People, operating under the mantle of organized religions, have caused tremendous damage, death, and destruction. At the same time, they has given people hope, a moral code, and a path to a life more in tune with what is perceived to be God's desires. The problem comes when they begin to act as if the religious organization is the purpose and specifically endorsed by a supreme being. 

I guess the answer is simple: it is not my place to condemn or to force my beliefs on others. It is my responsibility to speak out, to offer an interpretation that I believe is more representative of the intent of God, and then let Him work it out. We are all humans made in the image of God. I think my faith is correct, but as the quote says, I may be wrong. 

In all humility I must remember one simple fact: I am not a god, just a pale and flawed representative of the one who started it all.

February 20, 2016

Wearing a Hat - Breaking Free

A short post about a hat? Yes, but not for the snappy head covers, rather what they represent. During the Palm Springs Film Festival last month I bought two hats. Why? I have no idea. Maybe it was the creative vibe in town. Maybe my head was cold. Or, maybe, I wanted to try something different and a bit out of my comfort zone. What someone spends on vacation doesn't "count" toward the budget, so why not?

Except for baseball caps and protection from the sun I don't wear hats. I just never have. I  don't see myself as a hat person. There aren't many places in town where one would not look a little silly. 

Even so, one afternoon Betty and I found ourselves in a hat store in downtown Palm Springs. After trying on a dozen different chapeaus (that's hat in French!) I settled on the two you see pictured here.

I wore one to dinner that night and seemed to fit right in. I wore the other hat part of the way home and heard no giggles from Betty or folks at the various rest stops we visited. We are going to a symphony concert in a few days and I will probably wear one of them. 

So, what's the point? Something as simple as a change in wardrobe, a change in routine, even a change in worrying what others might think, frees you up to experiment, to add a dash of difference, to maybe find something you like.

A satisfying journey through retirement often requires an adjustment. That could be a major change, like where you live, the place of possessions in your life, a new passion or focus, even a change in or renewal of relationships. Or, it it could be a simple adjustment: less TV in the evening, more vegetables and less meat, walking to the neighborhood mailbox instead of driving, not reading Facebook or email until after breakfast.

We tend to resist change. Routine is comforting and reassuring. But, change is part of life and should be welcomed, not avoided, even if it is as simple as wearing a hat.

February 16, 2016

When Is It Best To Retire?

The short answer is, when you are ready. One of the most read posts on this blog continues to be, How Do You Know When To Retire. Written over four years ago, it continues to resonate with blog visitors, with over 25,000 views at last count. Since the topic is so important to so many, I thought I'd take a fresh look at this vital question.

It is best to retire when you are ready. That is the simple truth, but, those four words cover a lot of area. How you answer the question depends on the particular focus you have in mind. Let's look at the three key parts of the answer, as well as some additional areas that deserve your attention:

1) When you are ready financially. This is not a financial blog. Frankly, the way the stock markets and economy have been performing since the first of the year, I am glad I am not expected to make sense of it all. Even so, retirement is a huge step into the unknown that is much more likely to succeed if your finances are under control. I have written extensively about budgeting, living below your means, delayed gratification, even good debt versus bad debt, so I won't repeat those thoughts.

Instead, let's focus on where you need to be to feel financially comfortable without a regular paycheck. To contemplate retirement you must be very honest with yourself. Decide what type of retirement you want: lots of travel, a summer home, and more meals out than at home, or, a simple lifestyle, with most meals at home, and the house you live in being fine for all seasons. Vacations, sure. But, not a three month around the world cruise and several skiing trips to Aspen.

Then, look at your income and expenses closely, think through different scenarios, and allow for unplanned for emergency expenses. Accept that you will have to adjust as conditions change. Do those numbers support how you want to live? Then, you are very likely to be ready financially.

2) When you are ready emotionally. For many folks, their job defines them. The way we earn our living, the people we interact with, the gratification that comes from our work, even the fact that we have a regular schedule, supports how we see ourselves. Without a job we are lost. We don't know who we are and what makes us happy when we are alone.

An open calendar or a day without structure sends us to the antacid bottle. We run the risk of over-compensating by becoming too busy with commitments and promises. Or, we sleep until late morning, stay in a bathrobe most of the day, read or watch TV to access, and have little to excite us.

Being emotionally ready for retirement means you are prepared to reinvent yourself if necessary, to live out an unfulfilled dream, to balance activity with enough time to just be still, to define yourself without a job. If you are comfortable building your day with a structure that is under your control, you are ready.

3) When you are ready relationally. It should go without saying that retirement often affects more than one person. If you are married or in a long term relationship, your spouse or partner faces a life that is every bit as different as yours will be. 

One of the biggest strains on a relationship is retirement: the long-standing "rules" are no longer clear. Too often a wife or partner finds herself defending how she has managed things for decades. The husband expects his wife to be available to do things he likes, whenever he wants. When he is bored he turns to her for ideas. If his identity has been totally work-centered, he is likely to go through a period of unhappiness, even mild depression. If the couple does not have much to talk about and lacks shared interests, strains can develop quickly.

The partner who is still working faces similar problems. She comes home to find the newly retired person has rearranged things or made changes to established routines. He may show signs of envy or jealousy over her connection to the working world that he no longer has.

I think a couple can survive almost anything in retirement except a poor relationship. Being together full time can put a strain on even the best arrangement. If you discuss potential pitfalls ahead of time, openly discuss sharing the chores, and work to develop a strong bond, you are ready.

The are two additional considerations that can affect a satisfying retirement journey: health and spirituality. Paying for health problems must be part of your financial planning. Taking care of yourself to delay avoidable health issues is your responsibility and requires a strong commitment. If you have ignored this part of your life up until now, the time to get serious is here. 

Thinking about our own mortality is not something most of us do voluntarily. But, as we enter the last third or so of our time on earth it becomes unavoidable. Following the precepts of organized religion is not necessary, but facing death without some set of beliefs about what may happen next can be especially disconcerting for many folks. Even if you think that nothing happens after you die except you return to the earth as dust, those thoughts must be addressed and any fears faced. 

When is it best to retire? The questions you should ask yourself are pretty straight forward. It is the answers that take some time and introspection. And, it is never to early to start that part of your journey.

February 12, 2016

Volunteerism And Your Health: They May Be Connected

As regular readers of Satisfying Journey might remember, last fall I was invited to become a member of a steering committee charged with developing a new initiative of the Phoenix area United Way (Valley of the Sun United Way). Realizing that retirees are strongly motivated to use time and talents to benefit others, Retire United was launched to develop a coordinated way for folks to volunteer and support United Way. 

It has been an exciting several months. After a few organizational meetings, the committee has begun to take concrete steps to make Retire United an important force for good in our community. Public events that showcase volunteer opportunities as well as provide basic educational seminars about the challenges and opportunities of retirement are being scheduled. A valley-wide in-school reading event happens next month. 

A recent Harvard University research study supports the benefits of volunteerism. Besides making one feel useful and satisfied, there appear to be direct, positive health effects from giving of one's time and abilities. Mei Cobb, who is United Way's Director of volunteer and employee engagement at the organizational headquarters in Washington, summarized the results in a recent newsletter.   

She notes that "although numerous studies have shown that volunteering is linked with better mental health, physical health and health behaviors, new research from the Chan School of Public Health went one step further and asked: are volunteers more likely to practice preventive healthcare, go on fewer doctor visits and spend fewer nights in the hospital?

The  report found that volunteers are more likely to engage in preventive health care than non-volunteers. For example, volunteers were 30% more likely to receive flu shots and 47% more likely to receive cholesterol tests. While volunteering was not associated with frequency of doctor visits, the research did find that volunteers spent 38% fewer nights in the hospital.

The [gentleman] who lead the study suggests volunteering increases social connections, which have been linked to better health for a wide range of reasons. For example, people can share and receive information about things like where to buy healthy foods at the best prices or remind one another of which health screenings to get. 

People can also provide and receive support, such as sharing resources like rides to medical appointments. Social networks also provide emotional and psychological support, and that leads to better health. Volunteering also increases a sense of purpose in life, which has been seen to be a driving factor in a healthier lifestyle."  

Frankly, I am not surprised that helping others may directly help you stay healthy and active. I found a real passion and purpose in prison ministry. Deciding to change direction and follow a new path, I am so happy I had the opportunity to become part of Retire United.  I am excited by the potential to help fellow retirees find that special connection that brings fulfillment and a new sense of purpose....maybe even better health!

Volunteerism is good for everyone (courtesy VSUW)

February 9, 2016

The Power of Memories

Memories: something remembered from the past that recalls a moment, a place, a person, or a feeling. Memories, both good and bad. Memories, fleeting or recurring. Memories, powerful or almost like a whisper.

Just reading the word can trigger a memory or two. And, interestingly, studies show that for the majority of us, negative memories are more prevalent and more detailed than positive ones. Criticism has more power than praise, particularly if it is the last thing someone hears.

Culturally, these studies show that we tend to think people who say negative things are smarter. A movie critic who writes about a film or piece of music or art in glowing terms will not be as well received. Apparently our brain tells us that someone who isn't noticing the bad parts of something is not to be trusted. 

These findings do help explain a lot about how our world seems to function. Politics is all about pointing out how wrong someone else is about almost everything. The media rarely covers good news - it just doesn't attract the attention that bad news does. All of us have had the experience of slowing down to look at a car crash on the freeway, and thinking, "thank goodness that isn't me. What a bad driver." So, this is just the way the brain works: something negative will stick with us longer and be more powerful. 

OK, so I must be a little unusual or have a brain that is wired differently. Sure, I can remember some bad stuff while growing up. Yes, I had negative experiences during my working years, like being fired. I recall giving some very bad advice over the years to clients that lost me their business. There are some experiences in my marriage that don't give me a warm glow when I think about them (all my fault, by the way...no really!). 

But, I have to search for bad memories. As I told my mom and dad several years before they died, I have no negative memories of my childhood. I was never beaten, underfed, unloved, ignored, or uncared for. I was only nurtured, held, encouraged, supported, and loved. If there were unpleasant memories they were tough times we went through as a family, not just me. 

My memories are almost unfailingly positive. That doesn't mean my life has been a dream. As a human being I have had my share of disappointment, heartache, and loss. But, I almost never recall that stuff unless asked to. Even after my heart attack last summer  I look back on that episode as a time when so many wonderful people expressed feelings of love and support for me, the doctors and hospital staff were great, and I was given a chance to fix my body and my lifestyle. It was a good experience.

Apparently there is a name for this: positivity bias. To string together a few cliches, I don't wear rose-colored glasses and I am not a glass half full (or nearly full) kind of person. I can become as agitated or angry as the next guy. I know there is a lot of evil in the world and at the moment it seems to be winning. But, those feelings doesn't extend to my memories. 

Part of the reason I have continued to write Satisfying Retirement (now Satisfying Journey) for almost six years, is the forum it give me to encourage people, to talk about the possibilities that are in front of us, and to celebrate the wonders of a fulfilled life.

Now I know why: I have PB (positivity bias).

February 5, 2016

Women and Retirement Finances: A Rocky Road Ahead?

This post ran over 4 years ago. Recently, I have received some requests to deal with this subject. I thought I'd bring this one back since there are a lot of new readers since it was published. If it generates enough feedback I can take a fresh look at this important subject. I have updated a few links near the end of the post.

A comment left on a post a week or so ago asked if I'd explore the important subject of women and retirement finances. Since I am not a financial planner or expert, I have included some links at the end of this post to sites that you might find helpful. But the topic is important enough for me to do some basic research and pass along what I have learned. 

Building a financially satisfying retirement is more difficult for the average older woman for many reasons. Gender roles, lack of training in basics of investing, and a lack of confidence are all contributing factors. A depressing fact is that one in five women will live in poverty during her retirement. Also true:

*While working women earn less. Obviously that affects the amount available to save and invest, the size of any company pension, and the amount of a monthly Social Security check. So, what is to be done? How can women prepare for and thrive during retirement, married or single, widowed, or divorced?
*Women spend less time in the workforce. On average, females spend 10 years out of the workforce while raising children. Men average less than one year. There is a direct correlation to lifetime income.

*Women are less likely to have retirement plans. Again, because of less time in the workforce, or primarily involved in part-time work, fewer have actual retirement plans from their employers. 

*Women have lower Social Security benefits. The average social security check for a woman is $800.00 per month and for a man it is $1,200.
*Women live longer. The typical woman will live an average of 6 years longer than a man. That puts additional pressure on her retirement savings and investments to fund several more years. 40% of women living alone depend on Social Security of all their income. 

*Divorce can have a devastating effect on retirement. Because of the over-reliance on the husband's pensions and Social Security checks, divorce can leave a woman in a serious financial bind.

So, what is to done? What can a woman (or a man) do to improve the odds that a financial crisis isn't part of her (or his) future? Here are some common sense suggestions for you to consider:

  • Become educated on financial basics. The good news is that once comfortable with the hows and whys of various investment options, women tend to be better investors than men. They make less risky choices, are more likely to admit a mistake and move on, and tend to know what they don't know. Resolve to learn one new financial fact every week.
  • Train yourself to be financially independent. Be aware of the finances. Even if your husband or partner is handling the money know what is happening. Stay involved. 
  • Fund your retirement account regardless of Your age. For younger women, retirement seems eons away. Put in as much as you can, especially if your company matches funds. Otherwise you are leaving "free" money on the table.
  • Don't fear reasonable risk. If all you do is protect your capital instead of making it grow, inflation will put you farther and farther behind. Liz Perle, author of Money, a Memoir put it well when she said women perceive their investments like a lake, that is a finite resource. Men tend to look look at it as a river that is constantly renewing itself. Liz says consequently, "women are afraid to risk." Educated risk is not the same as speculative risk.
  • You don't have to do all this alone. There are plenty of investment groups and clubs that will help you learn and share ideas with others. The local library and the Internet contain a wealth of information and resources. Here are a handful of web sites that provide an excellent overview along with specific steps anyone can take to become more comfortable in managing finances.

Doing the background work for this post helped open my eyes to the unique challenges many women face in protecting themselves financially. Like so many parts of a satisfying retirement journey it boils down to taking charge of this part of your life. Learn what you need to know, have faith in your abilities and abilities, and constantly adjust and improve your financial plan.

February 1, 2016

What Should It Take to be a Good Citizen of The U.S.?

The post, What Should it Take to Become President, generated some interesting feedback a few weeks ago. Everyone who commented seemed to agree that a candidate for the highest office in the land should possess certain qualifications. One reader made a suggestion that is responsible for this post: what do we need to do to be a good citizen?

He is right. This is not a one way street where our leaders do all the heavy lifting and we are just along for the ride. No, a citizen has responsibilities, too. Not only do we have to evaluate and pick those who will do the best job in leading the country, but we are part of the "team." In large part, our actions will determine our future. 

So, here goes. What are our "qualifications" to take part in this grand experiment known as American democracy?

1) Commit to be educated. I would argue this is the most important requirement. A citizen must take the time to learn about the issues, to think deeply about the problems and opportunities we face, and to avoid the tendency to accept whatever the media or our favorite talking heads have to say.

Just because something is on the Internet, TV, or radio does not mean it is accurate and true, though it may be. A citizen's responsibility is to dig deeper. Consult multiple sources for insight, including those outside your normal comfort zone. Talk to others, form your own opinions but be prepared to change what you think if new information becomes available. Rigidity is not compatible with education.

2) Commit to participate. Not voting makes you no better than a non-citizen. Not supporting candidates and issues you believe in leaves you no right to complain about the outcome. Of course, you have every right and responsibility to fight for or against things you feel passionately about. But, if you don't play in the game, you can't simply complain about the score.

3) Commit to support or deny support as appropriate. Even if your dream candidate wins, even if every ballot proposition that you support passes, your duties are not over. There will be people, maybe lots of them, who disagree with you. You must work to support what you think is important and withdraw your support if someone or something doesn't seem right.

As the next point states, that doesn't mean you stop paying taxes if you dislike the IRS. It doesn't mean you occupy a federal building to protest a policy you find odious. It does mean you vote against people or things. It does mean you legally protest, with signs or petitions. You use your money and time to support or deny support. 

4) Commit to follow the rules. With a civilized, organized society comes the rule of law. As much as a citizen disagrees with the speed trap south of town, if caught driving faster than posted, he will pay the fine. If  called to jury duty she will serve. If someone disagrees with a point of law you don't disobey it but work to change it. As our society is structured, the Supreme Court is the ultimate arbitrator. Disagree with a finding? Work to change the law. A citizen doesn't have the right to disobey legal statues he disagrees with. Otherwise, we face anarchy.

5) Commit to be committed. Being a good citizen is not a part time job. You can't "turn it on" in an election year and then hibernate until the next one. As the points above should make clear, this is a full time responsibility.