November 20, 2017

Income Inequality: A Growing problem for Retirees

I few weeks ago I asked why it is such a struggle to save enough for retirement. The post gave several reasons, most of which are part of the human condition. We procrastinate or make excuses. One comment, though, stuck with me. That reader suggested that for too many, the reasons they don't save is because they can't: there is barely enough to survive, much less invest for the future.

She was right, of course. For those of us lucky or privileged to enjoy a satisfying retirement, and I am definitely in that category, the types of problems she identified are hard for many of us to grasp. In fact, the reaction may be to blame the person who isn't doing well for their own fate or lack of planning. But, stepping back for a moment and looking at what is happening in our society and the world may bring a fresh understanding to these struggles.

It is not new information that income inequality in the United States is increasing. The rich control more of the nation's (and world's) wealth, while many middle and lower class folks find themselves drifting sideways or declining in economic terms. Recent figures suggest the top 1% control 39% of this country's wealth. That means just over 3 million of our fellow citizens have the economic power to directly affect the lives of 125 million of us.

What is of special concern to readers of this blog is that among seniors the economic inequality is growing faster than the population as a whole. According to a recent study, only those 65+ in Mexico and Chile have seen the gap between well-off and low income seniors increase faster than in America.

The loss of many well-paying jobs along with the rapid decline in employer-funded pensions are major factors. Less than half  of today's workers have a retirement plan at work that isn't completely self-funded. Wage and benefit inequalities follow us from the working world into retirement. With fewer resources to save and no help from employers, the cycle of falling behind starts early and gets worse as we get older.

Social Security has had minimal COLA increases for several years, not enough to stay even with inflation or increases in Medicare premiums.

Relentless increases in health care costs affect retirees just as the need for those services grow with age. The percentage of the population that is medically obese is higher in the United States than in any other developed country. Some of that obesity is self-inflicted, some is not. Regardless, this serious health risk is more prevalent among the poorer segments of society, putting an even greater strain on economic conditions.

Lower income seniors must depend on less-than-sufficient savings and Social Security to get by. The luckiest ones may be able to lean on their family for extra help. But, such is not the case for most. America has the self-image of being the richest nation on earth, yet, that richness is very concentrated among a very few. Too many on the fringes must fend for themselves.

I don't have a magic answer to balance things out. There is no snap-of-a-finger solution. There are some common sense steps to take, but they require more awareness of the problem than we have exhibited recently. They will require we admit that we, as a society, have a problem that is having serious consequences to our social fabric, a problem that is getting worse over time.

Any specifics that I list could open the door to a political tug-of-war, something I'd rather avoid. But, in general, policies that encourage retirement savings through tax-advantaged programs, incentives for employers to strengthen retirement savings accounts at work, and a tax code that doesn't tilt the playing field so obliviously toward those who are doing just fine would help. Strengthening the support system for those who struggle with medical care seems like a helpful step. 

Our economic system of capitalism has always produced winners and losers. Some people will be poor stewards of their resources and not prepare for their future. Those are not the people I am writing about. 

What is happening now is the senior, the retiree, is becoming one of the most vulnerable segments of our population. In addition to expressing your feelings to your representatives and voting your beliefs, I urge you to look for ways to be more personally engaged. Help an aging family member or relative who is struggling. Find some time to volunteer at a senior center or hospice organization. Decide that some of your charity donations next year will go to support struggling seniors. Help a senior prepare his or her taxes so expensive mistakes aren't made. Visit a shut-in with a meal every once in awhile. Walk an elderly neighbor's dog or offer to take a pet to the groomer. 

As individuals we can't solve the income inequality dilemma. But, as individuals maybe we can find a way to help a struggling senior find a bit more joy in life, and ease a person's burden even just a little. 

November 17, 2017

Sexual Harassment and Abuse: The Lid Has Been Torn Off

The last few months have brought a unsettling problem back into the spotlight: sexual harassment and abuse charges against several powerful and well-known men. From politics to entertainment, religion to business, these lurid stories of women, and some men, being victims of unwelcome, inappropriate, and illegal sexual advancements are being reported with stunning regularity.

The Me Too hashtag on Twitter shows almost 2 million uses in just the last month. Researchers say that an overwhelming majority of women, and a surprisingly high percentage of men, have been sexually harassed at some point in their lives. 

Until this all came to the foreground, I am afraid I was blissfully unaware of the size of the problem. I know that many men in positions of authority use sex as a tool of power or intimidation. Reports of affairs and cheating are depressingly common. 

Yet, the current list of people affected along with the social and personal costs of these crimes is beyond anything I knew existed. I should have been more aware. I raised two daughters. I had the normal dad concerns  about teenage boys and hormones. I also knew that at least one of my daughters and my wife had suffered through periods of sexual harassment at school and work.

But, until the news headlines and #MeToo campaign made this a topic of conversation, it wasn't a part of their past I thought about. Now, they tell me every female they know suffered some of the same sexual indignities. 

I was shocked at how close to home these stories can strike. This isn't just a Hollywood or Washington issue. I became angry at the people who do this every day and get away with it until someone has the courage to risk everything by saying, "Enough." 

I do caution myself that an accusation isn't always a fact. Today, just the suggestion of a sexual misdeed can end a career or a life's reputation. So, care must be taken that someone doesn't use these charges as a weapon. However, when multiple people report similar behavior or details are specific, there comes a feeling that behind the smoke is a nasty fire. To simply dismiss the charges as old news or fake is not acceptable.

Frankly, as a male, I hesitated even writing about this topic. I am aware that the emotional and physical scars on the victims are real and long-lasting. The mix of feelings these assaults trigger are more complicated than I could ever understand. 

But, as a human being, regardless of my sex, I can be appalled at the affront to personal dignity and sense of self that these events cause. To stay quiet, even if I say something wrong, seems even worse.

November 14, 2017

A Quick Medicare Primer

This post originally ran in September, 2012. Last week a regular blog reader mentioned how helpful it was to him when he was researching his options.  I noticed it is still getting some views even after 5 years, so I thought it would be good to bring it back for new readers and those who are now close to 65 and looking for a simple review. I have freshened it up a bit from the original.

Here you go!

One query that pops up rather often a concern about Medicare. The worry is not about the fate of the program or asking for help in determining what the politicians are likely to do (good question!). No, it is much more basic: "Please explain Medicare to me" or  "What decisions do I need to make?"

Disclaimer: I am still about 19 months away from qualifying for Medicare coverage, so I can't speak from experience. However, I'll do my best to summarize what you need to know. I will be covering Medicare, not Medicaid which is an entirely different program. As with most federal programs and health insurance coverage there are enough exemptions and differences to fill 20 posts. I will only attempt to explain the usual, most common situations.

Medicare is a federal program that pays for certain health-related expenses for people 65 and older. While many costs are covered, an individual enrolled in Medicare is responsible for certain deducible and copays. Some services are not covered at all and others for only a limited period of time.

There are four parts of Medicare:

Part A is hospital insurance. Copays, deductibles, or coinsurance will determine what you pay. Usually there is no premium for Part A.

Part B is medical insurance that helps pay for doctor visits, outpatient care, health health care, and equipment. There is a monthly premium for Part B.

Part C is better known as Medicare Advantage. This is coverage provided by Medicare approved private insurance companies.

Part D is prescription drug coverage. This is also run by Medicare-approved private insurance companies.

Most folks get Part A and Part B automatically. If you receive benefits from Social Security you will automatically get Part A & B coverage starting the first day of the month you turn 65.  If you aren't yet receiving Social Security (because you are still working for waiting until your full retirement age of 66 or later) you must sign up 3 months before your 65th birthday to get Medicare coverage.

If you must sign up (as noted above) there is something called the Initial Enrollment Period which is the period from 3 moths before until 3 months after your 65th birthday. If you miss this window your benefits will be delayed.

If you decide to wait until after the Initial Enrollment Period, there is a general Enrollment Period during the first three months of each year. However, if you use this option, realize your part B premiums will be higher.

If you are covered by a group health plan at your place of employment  and then want to start Medicare, there is another time period, called the Special Enrollment Period that generally allows you to avoid the higher premiums for late sign up.

With me so far?

Other Factors to Consider

Medicare does not pay 100% of most services. So-called Obamacare has put in place several free screening tests for those on Medicare, like colonoscopies and mammograms. But, most doctor visits, tests, drugs, and equipment are going to cost you money...usually something approaching 20%. That's where Medigap coverage enters the picture. This is a policy, sold by a private insurance company, that acts as secondary coverage to Medicare and pays what is left over after Medicare pays what it will.

Just like the rest of Medicare there is a specific enrollment period for Medigap coverage. You can buy any policy that is offered for sale in your state, regardless of your health status. The amount of supplemental coverage, the monthly cost, and any deductibles are different for each policy offered. You decide how much supplemental help you want and can afford.

Speaking of costs, Part A Medicare coverage costs you nothing since you already paid into the Medicare fund while you were working. Part B coverage does carry a monthly cost. For 2012 most pay $99.90 per month (for 2017 it is $104.90). There is also a small deductible. Part D prescription coverage costs vary depending on the plan you select and the level of drug coverage.

The infamous donut hole is a gap in coverage where you are mostly responsible for drugs after you have spent a certain amount each year. The "hole" closes after you have passed the yearly maximum. Depending what happens with Obamacare or its successor,  the donut hole is currently scheduled to come to an end in 2020.

What is Covered?

There is no simple answer to that question. Medicare publishes a 150 page booklet that still suggests calling for specifics. But, in general, here is what you can expect:

Part A pays part or all of inpatient hospital care, inpatient care at a skilled nursing facility, hospice care services, and home health care services. As you might guess there are all sorts of qualifications and exclusions for this list but this is the primary purpose of Part A coverage.

Part B helps cover medically necessary services like doctor visits, outpatient care, durable medical equipment, and several preventive services and screenings.

Part C is the designation of Medicare-approved private insurance companies that has various coverage options and costs. You still have Part A and Part B coverage, but the specifics are likely to be different from original Medicare. Generally, coverage is more complete but the costs are higher.

Part D covers some of your presecition drug costs. If you don't need a lot of drugs now, it still may be wise to take this coverage because of late enrollment penalties. Part D is provided by private insurance companies and varies widely in costs and coverage. There are usually copays and deductibles involved. The "Donut Hole" limits coverage on what these plans will pay for your drugs. 

Importantly, these items are not covered by Medicare (not a complete list):
  • Routine Dental care
  • Dentures
  • Cosmetic surgery
  • Acupunture
  • Hearing Aids
  • Exams for fitting hearing aids
  • Long term care

If you'd like more detailed information or see if specific services are covered,  this government website should be your first stop.

The official government handbook Medicare and You is also a must-have resource.

November 12, 2017

Cyber Attacks & Ransomware: Is There No End?

It is hard to not worry about the safety of our inner-connected world. Malware, ransomware, hackers, phishing, trolls....the list of people and organizations who want to make our life difficult, dangerous, and expensive seems to grow as quickly as algae in a backyard swimming pool. On average, there are 244 new cyber threats a day. I am a humble example, as my post of a few months ago made clear when a hacker broke into my computer.

Your patient information from your health insurer, or financial details ripped from your credit card company are fair game. Disabling a hospital's admittance system for an entire country happened this past summer. And, don't even get me started on Equifax. Making money off my private information, giving me no way to "opt out," and then losing it all. Enough!

If you follow even the most basic of common sense steps, the odds of your home computer becoming someone else's to control are increasingly possible. Those who decided to hack into my computer found nothing of interest unless they love scrolling through tens of thousands of photos of our vacations. Passwords are not stored there, nor is any critical personal information. 

If someone held my files for ransom, I'd simply use that as an excuse to get a new computer. They'd never get a penny (or Bitcoin) from me. So, I assume the reason for all the malware stuffed into my system was to seize control of my computer and use it to send out attacks to others. Scary stuff.

That should really be one of our biggest concerns: that our computers can be used to infect others. My system (and yours) could be used to send out millions of e-mails in giant phishing waves or denial of service attacks on businesses or governments. We would be part of the problem, but completely oblivious. 

Personally, I  upgraded to a more secure router to add a little more protection. . I discontinued the automatic printer ink monitoring service offered by a certain company. Allowing them to enter my home system to read ink levels on a printer seemed too risky in today's environment. I change passwords on a regular basis. I added a new malware protection software program. Even so, I know I am not safe. Maybe changing to Apple products would help, but even Macs are now being hacked; read about the Fruitfly malware or realize that viruses can breach the Apple defenses. Own a computer and you are vulnerable.

Actually, my biggest fear is much more global. Everything in our daily lives is linked to computer systems. The news reports make it quite clear none of them is secure enough to stop a dedicated attack. The havoc that is possible if businesses or hospitals, air transport systems or government agencies are compromised is serious. 

What keeps me up at night is the very real likelihood of a successful breach of the systems that control our electric grids, water treatment plants, or oil pipelines. If (or when) this happens, we will have crossed the line from irritating, embarrassing, and expensive, to life-threatening.

There is absolutely nothing I can do about this type of attack on our way of life. I have to believe others, smarter than I, are dedicating serious time and effort to making these events stay where they belong: in a fiction novel. 

It is impossible to disconnect from our interconnected world. What I must do is be aware of what is happening, protect my little corner of the world the best that I can, and then lead my life as I choose. The benefits of having the Internet and all it brings still outweigh the risks.

What about you? Have you done anything to protect yourself as best you can? Have you altered how you use computers? What happens when you find out a company that holds your credit card info has been hacked? What was your reaction to the Equifax disaster? What can you do about it? 

This is one area where, literally, we are all in this together. Let's share and discuss.

Note: As I write this a new ransomware attack, Bad Rabbit, has targeted Russia, Ukraine, was well as other eastern European countries, Japan, and the U.S. There really is no end in sight.

November 9, 2017

I'm Retiring...How About My Mortgage?

Whether to pay off a mortgage before or just after retirement is a topic I have addressed before. But, it is such a major decision, I get at least one email every few weeks asking my advice. No wonder. With nearly 30% of all those 65+ having monthly mortgage payments, it is important to make the best choice for you. 

As I write this, the picture is anything but clear. Plans for a tax cut are bouncing around the halls of Congress. As of now, mortgage interest deductions would be protected. But, an increase in the standard deduction and a change in personal deductions might be coupled with the loss of real estate tax deductions, making house ownership potentially more expensive for some. 

So, for purposes of this post, let's stick with how things are right now. After the dust settles in Washington and there is clarity (?) I might do a followup to adjust to the new reality.

Retirement brings its own unique set of concerns and decisions. Near the top of many lists is a decision about housing. Is it best to pay off the mortgage before retirement, or is that extra money better off being invested? If I pay off the house won't I lose a major tax deduction? But, what if I have a major health expense and can't pay the mortgage..could I end up retired and homeless?

Good questions with no clear cut answers. But, they are worth asking and taking a look at some of the ramifications. As an obvious disclaimer, I am not a tax expert or a financial guru, so what I offer is opinion and some basic thoughts from my own research. Please think through your own situation carefully, consult a trusted adviser, and proceed with caution.

If you do a Google search about retirement and mortgages the majority of the sites and articles that rise to the top suggest paying off your home loan before retirement. They do admit that many people can't do that, but it should be a goal.

 The reasons most often cited to pay off your mortgage:

1. Peace of mind. Even without a monthly payment you still have real estate taxes, HOA fees, maintenance, repairs and upgrades. But, if you delay fixing a leaking toilet for two months you won't risk losing your home. That big monthly Must Pay bill is gone.

2. Home equity is available. I strongly suggest this source of cash be used only for major repairs and upgrades to your property or something like a large medical expense. Home equity is not a piggy bank so you can take a 12 day cruise to Hawaii or buy a new truck. Too many people got stuck when they spent their home equity only to find the worth of the house dropped below the size of the loan during the 2008-10 recession. But, with home equity lines of credit at  low interest rates you may save thousands in interest over more conventional loans.

3. You have more freedom to relocate or resize. Get in trouble with your mortgage and someone else might tell you when to move. Have no mortgage and you can decide when to downsize, move closer to the kids....or stay put.

4. You have a large source of retirement money available. If you move to a smaller home or condo or even rent an apartment, any profits after the house sale and purchase are yours (up to a very generous level set by the Federal government). Though expensive and sometimes risky, reverse mortgages can provide a steady income from the equity you have in your residence too. This tactic requires an expert to prevent a serious mistake, however.

On the other side of the argument, these points are made:

1. Don't pull  money from other investments to pay off a cheap mortgage. Even losing the tax deduction of a mortgage may not be enough to make up for better performing investments. If you take a chunk of your retirement funds to pay off a mortgage the money left will not produce as much income or growth.

2. Tying up too much of your net worth in an illiquid asset. You own a $300,000 home free and clear. But, depending on the market conditions it might take you 6-9 months or more to be able to sell the house and see any net profits. If you need quick cash a house is not the place to find it (except through a home equity loan which comes with its own risks).

3. If you have other high interest debts, like credit cards or auto loans, pay those off first to reduce the amount you are losing each month in high interest charges. Only after those debts are satisfied should you consider retiring your home's mortgage.

Another consideration lies in what your plans are about an eventual move. I know that at some point Betty and I  want to move into a continuing care community (CCC). The "buy-in" will be somewhere around $250,000. If we own a home or condo and need to move rather quickly into the CCC because of health issues, our buy-in money will be unavailable until we sell. That may be too late. We are willing to take that risk for now, but will probably move into such a community sooner rather than later.

Again, I will remind you I am not a financial planner or expert. I have bumbled along pretty well for the past several decades, but there is always more to learn and consider. If you are a financial planner, investment guide, or CPA I welcome your input (as long as you aren't trying to sell something!). 

All that said, you have thoughts, concerns, questions, and insight that will help of of us, expert or no. Please add your comments to this important subject. Since a home is generally the biggest expense for most of us in our lifetime, knowing what to do with that resource is vital.

November 7, 2017

Healthcare Marketplace Strikes again

This will be Betty's last year to endure the swampy water of the Healthcare Marketplace. Ever since 2011 she has had to put up with the same crap....misinformation, provider lists that are wrong, fewer choices. and higher prices.  In 16 months she will be Medicare-eligible....we can hardly wait.

Like last year, there is one company in Arizona offering plans for the individual market through the marketplace. Predictably, prices went up 20%. That included a higher deductible, lower hospital cost coverage and a switch to a different hospital system. Whether her primary care doctor or any of the specialists she sees will be under contract for next year is impossible to know until sometime in January, or too late to do anything about it. We do qualify for a monthly subsidy from the government that keeps the total affordable, even with the large monthly bump in price. But, this turmoil every year is taking its toll on my wife.

With lawmakers in Washington unable to either kill the ACA outright or come up with a viable bipartisan alternative, the approach now seems to be to let it slowly twist in the wind, becoming more unattractive and workable until....who knows what? The Republicans don't have the unity to repeal and replace; the Democrats don't have the power to fix it or present an alternative with enough support. Frankly, both parties share the blame in this mess so if there is any finger-pointing it has to cover everyone.

The insurance companies have no idea what to expect, meaning the customers are left to guess what their future holds. It is hard to imagine a scenario where the American health care system could be worse than it has been...well, welcome to the jungle.

At the moment Betty has decided to postpone a needed foot operation until she has Medicare coverage. While we certainly could handle our share of the costs, she refuses to give into a system that is deeply flawed and has made her health care coverage such a painful experience (pun intended). 

What about you? Are you stuck between whatever coverage you had while working but don't yet age-qualify for Medicare? How are you handling the health care problem? Have you explored the H.S.A. option?

Have you finally entered into the safety of the single-payer system after 65? Did you delay medical treatment until then? 

We can't do anything about the mess our system is, but sometimes it helps to vent. 

November 4, 2017

Retirement Done Differently

Last month, a reader suggested I explore the journey of retirees who have lived their life a little differently than many of us. That sounded like a fascinating idea. The problem? My retirement has been pretty standard. While I left the working world earlier than I had planned, I live in suburbia, have a steady life, and rather traditional goals for myself and my family. Something may go wrong at some time in the future, but I am not the person to ask about retirement done "differently."

What I can do is share some examples of what a "different" retirement may look like. But, then, the real expert is you. Either you have approached this phase of life on a less-traveled path, or you know someone who has. This should be a an interesting learning experience for us all! I guess this is a natural followup to the previous post about retirement being a personal path.

Examples of a Retirement Done Differently

1. Retire to a foreign country

Becoming an expat is the choice of a growing number of retirees. The State Department estimates at least 9 million Americans live in other countries. Of those, close to a half a million are 65+. Social Security checks are sent to those who live outside the U.S., but Medicare does not apply. 

Of course, in places picked by retirees good health care is often much more affordable than in the States. Plus, housing costs can be dramatically lower, too. For a look as some of the top reasons to retire in another country, click here.

If you'd like to read the stories of those who have chosen to spend their retirement years in another country click here for some of the most popular blogs. International Travel is another site that specializes in expat living: click here.

2. Living Full time in an RV, travel trailer, or boat

Living all or most of the year in an RV or trailer has been well documented. If you love to travel, don't mind small spaces and have few belongings, and can handle basic maintenance chores, living in a recreational vehicle may be the right choice for you. Check out this site for a quick overview of this lifestyle, or this article from the New York Times. Thousands of retirees earn extra money each year by accepting one of the jobs listed in the Workamper News.

One of the best summaries of RV living can be found here. This couple is not retired but their answers match with our experiences. Some of the better fulltime RV blogs are available here. I am a big fan of Wheeling It. They write well and provide plenty of excellent information.

A little less usual but not unheard of is living on a sailboat or motorboat. I found a web site with an excellent overview of what living on a boat full time is really like. Click here.

A new phenomenon is spending most of your retirement on a cruise ship. Not for those on a limited budget, there are benefits: meals are all provided, there is a doctor and medical clinic open 24 hours a day plus most entertainment options on board are free. Someone cleans your "home" every day. You visit fascinating foreign ports on a regular basis.  Actually, I wrote a bit about this choice in a blog post, Unusual Retirement Options a few years ago.

3. Starting over in dream location 

A little over a year ago I had a post about Brett and Laura, a couple who sold all their belongings and moved to the island of Kaua'i. Their blog, The Occasional Nomads,  is an excellent overview of their life, day in and day out, 2,600 miles from the mainland. They aren't hesitant to write about both the mundane joys and problems of living on an island.

Importantly, the couple spend two years researching the idea of a move before committing to such an upheaval. They have family on both the mainland and in Japan, so Hawaii is actually centrally located for them. Take a look at the blog post for some insight into their decision-making process.

4. Volunteering overseas 

Linda Myers has been a blogging friend for several years. She and her husband spend part of the year in Arizona and the rest in their home not far from Seattle. Her blog, Thoughts from a Bag Lady in Waiting, is one of my favorites.

Starting a few years ago, she and her husband, Art, started volunteering at a refugee camp north of Athens. Just this year alone she has been several times. Personally, I find that type of dedication inspiring and encouraging. An overview of her last, 31 day stint, is summarized here. Giving that much of yourself to those who really need your love and support is a special way of sharing part of your retirement.

5. Living off the grid 

I have no idea how many retirees have decided to disconnect from normal support services and live a low cost life off the grid, but I am sure there are thousands. Estimates are that less than a million Americans live without regular utility services. For our purposes, off the grid means not being connected to a normal supply or electricity or water. It might also mean no Internet or cell phone services.

Solar panels, a wind turbine, or generators for electricity, propane as a source for cooking or heating, a well or hauling water from another source, are alternate ways to maintain a liveable environment. A composting toilet or septic system would be involved. The house may be tiny, it may be on wheels, it may even be a canvas Yurt, though none of those options are required for disconnecting.

Why would some do this? I would suspect cost savings is the primary motivator. So is wanting to have as little a negative impact on the environment as possible, as well as living closer to nature. For others, a survivalist bent means being more self-reliant than most of us.

If this subject interests you a beginner's guide to on how to live of the grid  might be a good place to start. A couple's story of disconnecting in one of the harsher places in the country can be found by clicking here. For retirees, cutting as many ties to regular support systems as possible probably means living full time in an RV. (See Section #2 above)

I'd love to hear from folks who have picked one of these retirement paths, or even one I haven't noted. Just as interesting would be someone who tried a different path and found it wasn't for them.

November 1, 2017

Fail Fast and Move Forward

This is a phrase I heard someone use at a meeting of a volunteer committee I was attending a few months ago at United Way. I like it. It summarizes an approach to life, especially a retirement life, that I endorse. Let's see where it goes.

The first two words, Fail Fast, assumes a few things. One, that trying something new is encouraged, because without trying failure could not occur. That mindset is one that might have served you well during your working career. There are very few jobs where trying to improve something is not encouraged. Maybe you were not in a position to execute an idea, but you could certainly talk to a supervisor or someone else up the chain of command. Your idea to save money, serve clients more efficiently, be more productive, or improve workplace safety would be expressed.

After retirement, we are in an even better position to experiment: a different housing or lifestyle setup, a new hobby, a desire to learn to sail, building furniture, making beautiful quilts...whatever will satisfy you. The boss you have to answer to is you. 

The second assumption in those two words is to not dwell on something you have tried that doesn't work. Take on a new hobby, business, passion...anything and decide if it is for you. If it isn't, move on. Turn that page and tackle the next thing on your "I want to" list.  The only real failure would be to stick with something that doesn't make you happy. To me, fail fast is the harder part of  the phrase. I don't want to admit I wasn't good at something or it didn't bring me joy. I will stick with something longer than I need to.

The final two words of this phrase also give us an important message. Don't let a failure keep you from a Move Forward. Isn't life a series of starts and stops, steps forward, sideways, even backwards for a time? What is most important is forward momentum. 

Someone might argue that during retirement we don't have to grow or learn new things and add complications to our life. I agree, if we are talking about the initial phase of retirement. That is when your mind and body releases all the stress from working. Relaxation and enjoying an open schedule are encouraged. Then,  comes the time to seize the opportunities retirement gives you.

Life without change isn't really living. Things will change whether you want them to or not. That is a basic fact of life. Move Forward says take the next risk, try the next opportunity, be in control of your choices whenever you can. There will be times in our future where life will dictate what happens. When you can determine your course, move forward to whatever is next.

Four words. A solid guide to a satisfying retirement.

October 29, 2017

Saving for Retirement: Why Is It A Struggle?

This isn't going to be a post where I pull out all sorts of scary statistics about our lack of savings and the problems ahead as millions of Boomers join the already-retired. I'm not going to give you a detailed plan for having a financially comfortable, satisfying retirement. There are thousands of web sites, blogs, and books that can help you with financial planning if that is what you decide you need. 

What I would like to do is offer some reasons why we simply can't seem to do what we know we must do: save enough for our post-working life. If we recognize what the obstacles are there is a chance that these problems can be minimized.

I ran across an article by Jennifer Derrick from several years ago on her web site, She offered an interesting explanation of what may be part of the problem:

"It’s only been in the last two hundred years or so that technology and medical care have evolved to the point where we now have the luxury to think about the future. Unfortunately, now that we can think about the future, we aren’t fully prepared to deal with it. We have no trouble envisioning the future and thinking about it in abstract terms. However, when it comes to taking action, we are still hampered by our ancient selves. We want to take action and we know we should, but the ancient part of our brain is still saying, “Why bother? We might not be here tomorrow and, even if we are, the future is so far away as to be less important than what’s going on today."

Her point would explain why various levels of government can acknowledge a problem but can only agree to delay a solution until someone else has to worry about it. As far as saving for retirement I'm not sure I fully accept her argument that it is really a question of evolution, that we are not prepared to think about the future in action-oriented terms. But, she raises an interesting argument.

Whatever the cause, the fact is clear: the majority of us do not save enough for our financial health. I have a few ideas why I believe this is a problem in search of a solution. See if any of these make sense to you.

Expenses will be lower when we retire

This argument has been "common knowledge" for decades. It sounds reasonable. After all, your clothing, lunch expenses, and commuting costs will certainly be less if you aren't going to work everyday. It is likely you won't be paying for your kids' education or other expenses.

But, I think the premise is dangerously flawed if taken without thinking about your own situation. No matter how good your health insurance or what happens in the future with Congress, your health care costs will go up as you age. A study just released says that a couple over 65, even with Medicare and Part D coverage, will need close to $250,000 to pay for their care.

You will continue to buy cars and probably pay on your mortgage at least part way into your retirement. You are likely to travel more and spend more on entertainment. Food, cable and phone costs, heating and cooling...all the normal expenses of living will not decrease when you stop working, they will continue to increase just as they always have. My experience does show a noticeable drop in expenses after retirement, but it did not happen automatically. It took judicious cuts.

I can work as long as I want to make extra money

If your present position seems safe, talk to any of the millions of unemployed who thought they were secure. The economy has undergone a drastic change over the past decade and a half and isn't likely to ever go back. More productivity with fewer employees is the new norm. You may not have any say in the matter.

A much more realistic appraisal is to assume you won't have full control over when you retire, so preparing while still working is the only prudent decision you can make. If you are thinking about part time employment even that may be difficult if you are over 50. Certainly, it can be done, and an increasing number of seniors are finding work. But, something close to minimum wage and part time is the most likely option.

The future is out of my control so what can I do?

The events since 2008 certainly seem to support this argument. The rules we play by are quite different from the rules the big boys adhere to. All our planning and investments can be wiped out and we can do very little to stop it. So, why not just live for today?

OK, but who takes care of you tomorrow? This approach assumes society, or a rich relative, or someone, will be there when that future does arrive. That strikes me as a huge gamble.

My parents will leave me a lot of money

Maybe, maybe not. Are they completely immune to bad investments or failing health with large bills? Can you really build your future around an undetermined amount of money you may inherit at some point in the future?

My parents did leave me and my two brothers an amount that will help the three of us (and our kids) tremendously. But, I didn't retire 16 years ago with that as a cornerstone of my plans. When it happened it was very welcome. But, I didn't build my future around it.

I'm already retired. My worries are over

The need to save, invest, budget, adjust, and look for alternative sources of income doesn't stop when you retire or when that first Social Security check arrives. The need to monitor your financial well-being and do what is needed to stay healthy never stops. Financial planning is as necessary at 70 or 80 as it is at 30 or 40. If you missed it, review Should You Continue To Invest After Retirement?

Add to the above excuses the fact that giving up something today so we have something tomorrow is unpleasant. It goes against our instinct for procrastination and instant gratification. But, just like the infamous Titanic, nothing is unsinkable. Saving and investing for a satisfying retirement are a must.

So, how do your plans look?

October 26, 2017

When Retirement Becomes Less Than You Dreamed

Most of my posts stress the positive nature of retirement. After all, this blog is Satisfying Retirement, not Unhappy Retirement. I am a firm believer in our ability to work toward making a bad situation better. Attitude and a willingness to change can often work wonders.

Even so, there are times when your retirement doesn't live up to your dreams or expectations. Despite your best efforts, fate has dealt you a difficult hand. Try as you might, things seem to have gone off track.

It may be a health problem that doctors can't seem to solve. Whatever you have tried doesn't seem to have worked well. Maybe your relationships have taken a turn for the worse. Sometimes being close to someone 24/7 reveals cracks in the foundation that weren't noticeable  before. 

Your dreams of travel have bumped up against the reality of your resources. A trip to the South Pacific has to be replaced by a three day trip south of your hometown. The idea of seeing the country through the windshield of an RV isn't going to happen.

The lime green refrigerator clashes with just about everything else in your kitchen. But wait, have you seen the cost of a new refrigerator? And, a kitchen remodel costs as much as your parents spent on your college education all those years ago.

This stage of life is not immune to problems, failures, disappointments, and missed goals. Humans fall short of expectations and desires on a very regular basis. Even so, sometimes we think we are the only ones who struggle with something.  I would like this post to be a chance for us to be reminded of the struggles others have had. We are not alone. 

Could you please share a time or circumstance where your retirement has been less than you dreamed it might be? It could be the whole experience has left you kind of frustrated. Your dreams remain on hold or put away for some other time.

Or, maybe just a series of small bumps in the road came at you unexpectedly. All the free time and all the ideas you have are just not coming together. You aren't sure why, but you are stuck in a place you didn't expect to find yourself.

Big or small, major or minor, it doesn't matter: whatever it is that has affected your retirement in a way you didn't expect. Would you mind sharing a bit of what has happened? Can you tell us when your retirement became less than you dreamed it might be?

Learning about someone else's struggles could be an important step for all of us to accept that we are not alone.

October 23, 2017

Helping Your Aging Parents: What To Expect

One of the toughest things many of us face is dealing with our parents as they age. Watching someone you love decline is not pleasant. I will tell you my parents' story because it is probably rather typical, and the one I know best.

As my mom and dad started struggling with older age issues I had to learn as I went along. Since I lived within 35 minutes of their home, I became the primary caregiver. My brothers lived quite far away. They did what they could with occasional visits, but the bulk of the responsibility fell on my wife and me. We were just fine with that role and enjoyed a strong loving relationship with mom and dad.

In 2006, my parents had the foresight to move into a retirement community. Dad was 82 and mom was 79. At that point, both were in good physical and mental shape, certainly well enough to be allowed into the community. It offered independent and assisted living options as well as a nursing care center. They wanted to avoid the situation where one or both became unable to care for themselves or too sick to be accepted into such a facility. We had discussed other options: caring for them in their own home for as long as possible, or even moving in with us.

But, in the end mom and dad insisted that the benefit of the three level system was best. As it turned out their timing was excellent. Dad was a trouper but his failing memory and hearing loss often left him somewhat befuddled. Within 18 months my mom’s health began to take a dramatic turn for the worse. Four years after moving to the community she died. Dad made it on his own for several more years, dying in 2015 at age 91.

Anyone with aging parents knows about all the daily decisions that I faced. Can anything be done to make their independent cottage safer to help prevent falls, burns, or other accidents? Do the bathrooms have grip bars? Are the throw rugs slippery? What in-home services does the facility offer? Asking these questions directly to my parents usually didn’t generate helpful responses. For quite awhile their contention was that they could handle everything even when that was not so. Finally, I had to just go ahead and take the necessary steps.

Older folks often suffer from poor nutrition. Meals are skipped or poorly planned.  Staying properly hydrated is a major problem. If the person’s eyesight is failing or gone, even the heating of meals becomes a big challenge. Luckily, the facility where my folks lived had a few dining options so two of the three daily meals were taken care of. Breakfast at home or a light lunch was possible for the first few years. Then, too often, one of these meals would be skipped or forgotten.

Next on my list were financial issues. Again, some foresight proved very helpful. Various health and legal directives were up to date. What about paying bills and taking care of taxes?  I assume that this can be an area of conflict, particularly if the relationship between parent and grown child isn’t the best. The fear of being taken advantage of is very real for seniors. Careful explanations of the consequences of missing credit card payments, utility bills, or tax problems are required.

My dad was more than willing to turn almost all of that over to me.  I was able to interact directly with their investment counselor and make decisions. After being added to the checking account I paid the few bills that still were required.  

One the biggies I had yet to deal with was the taking away of the car keys. From discussions with friends and what I read in various blogs, I knew this would not be fun. My mom was unable to drive the last four years of her life due to macular degeneration and other injuries.  So dad was the designated driver to take them to doctor’s appointments, food shopping, and all the errands of daily living.

I checked his car every time I visited for new dents or scratches. Even though the retirement community has shuttle and on-property transportation, he liked this last bit of true independence. Finally, at age 88 he agreed he was putting himself and others in too much danger to continue. The solution was to gift the car to a granddaughter.  He didn't want to let go of the keys, but felt good about helping her. 

Each parent took multiple pills every day, so the management of that couldn't be left to chance. I met with their family doctor and had the legal authority to intercede if needed. Of course, there was no one to guarantee that the right pills were taken, at the right time, and in the correct dosage as long as they lived independently.  I watched for signs of trouble and understood that a move into assisted living might be triggered by a pill problem.

Memory loss comes with age. Already I sometimes have those frustrating “senior moments.” Both parents were having issues in this area. In my mom’s case, she broke her leg and ankle a few years before her death. That put her in a hospital for almost two weeks and then into the nursing center. She didn't remember breaking her leg. I assume some of that is the brain blocking out bad experiences. But, it is still shocking to me that whole episode was not real to her at all.

In his last few years dad had almost no short-term memory either. Luckily, he was a list-maker. His daily to-do list was written down in great detail in a notebook he carried with him always. He finally became comfortable with answering a cell phone. But, calling me always created problems.

The broken leg really accelerated mom’s decline. While she was allowed to “visit” their apartment, she was not allowed to return there to live. That awareness, along with her almost total blindness left her with little to fill her day and mind, so the slippage continued. Dad spent most of each day sitting in her room, reading the paper, or discussing doctor appointments, but that was causing his world to close in, too.

I’m afraid this is not a post that will end of a burst of optimism. Dealing with aging parents is mostly about facing reality. On several levels my folks were blessed. They had the financial resources to be in an excellent facility. They had family in town who visited at least once a week, sometimes more. Through 63 years of marriage they remained deeply in love and committed to being there through good and bad. Mom and dad were there for me. It was my time to be there for them.

 If you haven’t faced this issue yet, you may have it in your future. If you have been through this, then you have experiences I ask you to share with all of us. There are all sorts of questions, problems, and possible solutions I have skimmed over or missed completely. I would very much appreciate your feedback and comments on this subject. It may not be pleasant, but it is real.

October 21, 2017

Two Quick Getaways Make Memories

Since we sold our RV last spring, we have been staying rather close to home, enduring another blistering Phoenix summer There was a 4 day trip to Disneyland with the family in August. Otherwise, it has been a time of swimming  pools and family dinners with movies and games.

As the temperatures began to cool off in northern Arizona, we took two trips within the last few weeks, just for a change of pace. In six days we managed to enjoy the beautiful red rocks of Sedona, the former ghost town, now artist community of Jerome, and the cool green of Flagstaff. 

Actually, the Flagstaff trip was quite a family gathering. There was a fun run/walk to help raise money and awareness of Parkinson's disease. My son-in-law's father suffers from this progressive affliction, so the cause is very personal.

We decided that twelve of us would go north, spend some time together, and then participate in the 5k run or 2k walk. With the help of a walking stick, even Papa was able to complete the 2k walking portion in good shape. It felt really nice for all of us to be with him as we banded together to support him and this cause.

I thought you might enjoy seeing some pictures from these spectacular parts of my home state, as well as a few of our family teaming up to fight Parkinson's.

Yes, the rocks behind me are actually older than  I am

Beautiful river just south of Sedona

A view of the hillside (almost) ghost town of Jerome

Typical "street" in Jerome

Several fires have burned Jerome to the ground. This was once a 4 story hotel

Jerome is supposedly haunted (this isn't real, unfortunately!)

The Grand Hotel at the very top of town

And, the view from its steps

Betty chatting with Albert Einstein

The start of the Parkinson's Fun Run in Flagstaff

Tom: the reason for all of us participating

The whole crew after the race/walk!