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 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 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.