June 30, 2017

How Can We be More Friendly to the Environment?

The post, from a few weeks ago, Being a Penny Pincher Even if You Don't Have To, had some excellent thoughts on being frugal without being cheap. Saving money is all about balance: cutting back where you can to be able to afford things you want. Retirement brings financial caution into focus, but it is also a time of life when we appreciate the difference between needs and wants, instant gratification and wise delays.

Several of the comments talked about being aware of our "footprint," those things we do that can have a negative impact on the earth's soil, water, and air. Being diligent about recycling, a focus on how much food is thrown away, composting, using rainwater for gardens, cutting back to one car - all are good for our budgets and our earthly home. 

That raised some questions for me about what small steps we can take to help be more friendly to the environment: the air we breathe and the water we drink, the landfills that we fill with our trash, and the chemicals we use that fill the space under the kitchen sink.

One of my pet peeves is excessive packaging. One of the worst examples is pretty much gone from our lives: CD cases. Designed to stand up in the racks originally used for vinyl albums, these things were maddening, not only to get open but with the incredible waste of plastic and energy to create each one. 

A new contender for wasteful king is the allergy nasal spray that will go unnamed. A two slot container contains one spray bottle. Like the compact discs, the overkill of plastic and energy needed to manufacture each one is mind numbing. No wonder each spray container is close to $20.

What I'd like to ask you to do is to share anything you do to cut waste, help protect the environment, and probably save some money in the process. What steps have you taken to cut back on the trash and garbage your household produces? Harvesting rainwater isn't practical in Phoenix, but maybe is where you live. Have you tried to catch this free water for gardens or other uses? 

Do you try to avoid certain types of packaging or products that seem insensitive to this problem? Do you make your own environmentally friendly cleaning products, and do they work? What about composting? That seems like a lot of work to me, but maybe my garden would appreciate the nutrient boost.

Some of the basics like reducing electrical use by turning off TVs, computers, and stereos when not being used, washing only in cold water, running the dishwasher with only a full load are things most of us can do with little effort, but they do make a difference. 

The average American creates 18 tons of CO2 every year while the average person on the plant contributes less than 4 tons. Whatever your feeling about climate change and global warming and all the factors that might affect those numbers, it is obvious we are creating that gas at a tremendous rate. 

What small, or larger steps can you suggest each of us consider to reduce our addition to these numbers, create less waste, pollute the groundwater a bit less, and save money in the  process? 

June 27, 2017

Pulling Out Your Stake

First posted almost 6 years ago, it seems worthwhile bringing back for you.

There is a story you may have heard about a giant circus elephant and how it was controlled. The animal was huge and very powerful. It could knock over a brick wall with it's trunk. But, in between performances all the massive beast had to keep it secure was a simple chain around its foot connected to a 12" wooden post hammered into the ground.

Certainly the elephant could have torn the stake from the ground with one tug, but it never did. As a baby it was chained to the same post. Being small, no matter how hard it pulled the youngster could not free itself from the restraint. Obviously, as it grew in strength and size it could have yanked the chain free in an instant. But, the elephant had convinced itself the chain and post were unbreakable so it simply gave up trying.

We all go through life being taught things that can limit our growth. We are told something that makes us doubt our potential or our abilities. Sometimes it is true. I was never going to be a major league baseball player. The coach that suggested I find another outlet was just being honest. I liked playing the clarinet but it was clear my musical skills were not going to get me first chair with the Boston Pops. That was not one of my gifts. I enjoy playing the guitar (poorly) now for relaxation, but Paul McCartney has nothing to fear.

What we must fight against are those limitations we are taught to believe are true when they are not. Sometimes it is a parent who tells us we aren't good enough to accomplish something. (if you are a parent, please never tell your kids or grandchildren that!). It might be a teacher or a coach. I had a drill instructor in the army who convinced me I was a danger to the entire U.S. military. Even though I actually became the honor graduate from basic training, he was right. I wasn't cut out to be a career soldier.

My wife loved painting when she was young. She would spend hours with a canvas and paints and her amazing imagination creating something that pleased her. But, at some point in college a teacher told her she wasn't good enough to continue. In fact, he suggested she was better suited to be a housewife. It has been 35 years and she still hesitates to pick up a brush with any confidence.

As we raised our two daughters, Betty and I were very aware of limitations imposed on children by well-meaning but shortsighted parents. We were very careful to teach our girls they could do absolutely anything they set their minds to do. We gave them the freedom and support to become experienced world travelers before many kids their age had left their hometown. It is gratifying to see our grandchildren being given the same support and excelling in just about everything.

In Betty's case, she pulled out her stake by finding another outlet for her artistic impulses. The painting dream had been seriously damaged by that thoughtless professor back in West Virginia. Even though those around her believe she has the talent, the barrier is still too high to overcome. So, she immersed herself in taking ordinary photographs and turning into works of art. Some samples were posted a few months back. If you missed seeing them click here to see what she can do with a simple camera and Photo Shop.

In my case my self-imposed barrier was writing. I had been told all my life that I wrote well. So, I tried over and over to write something of substance. I have started at least half a dozen different books, both fiction and non-fiction. I have been part of a few different writers' groups for brief periods of time. But, each time my 12" stake convinced me whatever I was writing wasn't good enough. I couldn't convince myself to put in the hard work required to learn the craft well enough to develop whatever ability I had. I would write a chapter and stall, then stop.

When I discovered blogging I discovered the way to beat my personal restriction: short form writing. I can churn out several hundred words with few problems. Give me a topic and I'll fill a page. I don't have to worry about dialog, character development, extensive research, or all the other parts of long form writing. My self-imposed limitation was gone and I could write to my heart's content.

So, what about you? Did you have certain limitations imposed on you as you grew? Are they still restricting what you believe you can accomplish? Have you been chained to a 12" stake that has kept you moving in a tight circle all your life when what you really want to do is break free and roam?  Is that restriction self-imposed or based on something that is not true? Isn't it time you pulled hard enough to pop that stake out of the ground?

What stake are you ready to pull against?

June 24, 2017

A Reality Check

I have been lucky. Throughout my life I have had few health problems. I went to a doctor for checkups and an occasional medical bump in the road. Even spending 150 days  each year in airplanes and hotels rarely resulted in more than a cold or occasional case of food poisoning.

Things started to change about three or four years ago. Slowly, I began to notice strange pains, OK , strange to me. Some of my fingers seemed a bit stiff when I first woke up. A twinge in my lower back wouldn't go away after a hot shower. I had some shortness of breath after a bit of yard work.

Two summers ago things got a little more serious during a trip to Portland: I ended up in the hospital for a few days with a cardiac episode. It wasn't a heart attack, but a small vein was blocked, resulting in pain and a small area of dead heart muscle. Scary for me, my wife, family, and friends, but eventually under control.

A year later, sharp pains in my lower left side wouldn't respond to my normal treatment method: take some aspirin and ignore it. I ended up in the emergency room with diverticulitis, painful but easily cured with antibiotics.

Then, this spring I caught a whopper of a cold. After two months, still coughing and feeling weak, I sought a professional opinion. Based on my description he thought bronchitis was a logical choice. Twenty days of steroid pills later, the cough and weakness still present, he decided to try antibiotics. Maybe my sinuses were infected and that was causing my problems. Nope.

Thinking it was time to up my game, I secured an appointment with an ear, nose, and throat specialist. If nothing else, I wanted a doctor to actually look at something up close and personal. A scope of some kind was threaded up my nose and down my throat; everything looked fine with only a slight swelling on one side of my vocal chords. Of course, that could be from all the coughing, but he thought it might also be caused by some acid reflux problem. So, a new set of pills to take. Some unpleasant side effects and a slight, temporary improvement didn't indicate he was right. 

Frankly, by now I was becoming a bit depressed. I began to see my future: endless trips to doctors, all taking guesses but never really solving the nagging aches and pains of  aging. Slowly, but surely, body parts and functions would begin to slip, just enough to be constantly there, never bad enough to prompt a real investigation, but just enough to sap my spirit and strength. I had been through that with my parents and didn't want it for me.

Then, after four months of this problem, the cough began to diminish, from being my frequent companion  to only an occasional visitor. My mood lifted, my energy returned enough to allow me to start going back to the gym, and life seemed brighter.

Had the cold and its effects finally gotten tired of playing with me and left to move onto someone else? Had I completed my 40 days in the wilderness (more like 120 days) and was freed from this test of patience and faith?  I doubt a medical professional knows, I certainly don't.

But, this experience reinforced a few important realities that this 68 year old man must face:

1) My future will contain problems  like this, and worse. The approach of benign neglect that worked so well for the first 64 years of my life is over, finished, no longer on the table.

2) We say doctors "practice" medicine because the human body is too complex for anyone to be able to arrive at more than an educated guess about what may be wrong. I am seriously grateful that the medical profession exists and that I have insurance that allows me to benefit from that  knowledge, but doctors are not always right. Sometimes, they are wrong. 

3) My wife has lived with constant aches and pains for the last 30 plus years. Because of a hypersensitive system she must avoid most pills or medical options. Importantly, she rarely complains. She certainly doesn't give into the disabilities, but works right through them.  Instead of shutting down and bemoaning my fate, I must try to emulate her approach.

4) Ultimately, I am in charge of how my body's treated. If what a doctor gives me doesn't seem to be working, I will not stay on that course. I will ask him to look at other options, i will find a specialist, I will look for second opinions. I will do my own research.

5) As time progresses  I must learn to adjust to more limited choices. Hopefully  I will continue to see the glass half full, but accept that aging has consequences.

We all learn so much on our retirement journey. Some of it is hard to accept, but accept we must. I think what makes the difference is how we deal with the inevitable.

June 21, 2017

Retirement Vacations: Worth the Time and Money?

First posted almost 6 years ago, it seemed appropriate to bring back my thoughts on the staying power of s vacation as we move through the summer season. This seems especially relevant because I have a busy set of vacation plans for 2018.

Betty and I returned from an 18 day glorious vacation on Maui a little over two weeks ago. Even now we are still sorting through the 2,400 photos. I have yet to wear all the T-shirts and Aloha shirts I bought, but the new flip flops are still getting daily use. We had perfect weather and a time of total relaxation. 

Several friends have asked what was my favorite part and the answer is always the same: sitting in a folding chair and watching the sunset every night from a different beach, until all the color faded from the sky and it was dark...the perfect end to a satisfying retirement vacation.

Virtually each evening, we were given a spectacular exhibition of  streaks of vibrant oranges, pinks, yellows, and various shades of blues. The show lasted almost 30 minutes after the sun was below the horizon.

We returned completely refreshed and relaxed. That feeling lasted...... about 36 hours. Then, the real world made itself known and pushed the euphoria of Maui to the sideline. There was nothing dramatic: no bursting of pipes or a major illness. None of our family had a problem that needed addressing. My dad weathered our being gone for an extended period just fine.

It was simply a case of commitments and meetings, chores, bills, computer glitches, and putting things away from the trip....real life....sucking the air out of the vacation glow quite quickly. It felt as if we hadn't gone anywhere. This vacation wasn't unusual in this regard. I remember the same thing happening after trips to England, Ireland, and Italy. So, the question is why? Are vacations destined to have little or no carryover benefit once someone arrives home? If so, is all the money worth it? 

When I was younger I seem to remember a great vacation had a much longer shelf-life. Whether as a youngster with my parents and brothers, or as a young married guy with my two daughters, I remember that afterglow lasting at least several days, sometimes even weeks. The work and home pressures were just as great, if not more so than they are now. But, the warm, post-vacation feeling lasted longer. Why? Was it because there were four people to remind each other of specific events or moments? Was it because there were more memorable moments when a young family is involved? Was it because I was younger?

Is a good vacation one that allows you to accomplish whatever the goal was for that time away regardless of the let down afterward? If I totally relaxed for those 18 days but fell right back into the daily routine almost immediately, was the vacation still a success? 

Looking at all the photos Betty took can bring back memories of where we were and what we were doing when the pictures were taken. 

But, as soon as the digital album closes, the real world is back. Maybe that is the way it should be. Stop the world, I want to get off, for a little while. But a really satisfying retirement requires me to be active and productive. A permanent life on the beach just isn't my style. A long visit every once in a while is just what the doctor ordered, even if the medicine wears off rather quickly.

Has this been your experience after a great vacation? Does the real world force its way to the foreground more quickly than you'd like? Does that mean all the money invested in time off was worth it? Enlighten me!

June 18, 2017

Why Civility Is In Decline

I wish I knew. More to the point, I wish it would stop. As the recent shooting at the baseball practice in Washington demonstrates, things seem to be escalating in a very dangerous way. 

An article in Psychology Today said,  "There seems to be more and more rude, demeaning, insulting, and aggressive language and behavior in our society."  That sums up what most of us experience on a too-regular basis. The question then becomes, why?

Civility is defined as courtesy in behavior or speech. I'm pretty sure we all know it when we experience it. From holding a door for a stranger to helping someone reach a box of cereal on the top shelf, from disagreeing without disrespect to making a fresh pot of coffee after taking the last cup, civility makes life more pleasant and satisfying.

So why does civility seem to be in decline, maybe even dying from disuse?  I can offer a few possibilities. Your (civil) additions to my list are encouraged!

1) Social media

Facebook and Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat didn't start out to be uncivil. I imagine the inventors thought just the opposite. People could connect with others anywhere in the world to share ideas, photos, thoughts, and feelings. What was not anticipated was the anonymity of the Internet giving some people the freedom to insult, demonize, and degrade with no personal consequences. 

Those first hurtful comments seemed to open the floodgates. Decency and respect were swept away. Nice comments didn't get retweeted or reposted nearly as often as the hateful, inciteful ones. The lack of any boundaries seems to have encouraged a certain type of person to flourish while those repelled by the verbal vomit stopped participating. Politeness was buried under waves of disrespect. Of course, it is possible to avoid this stuff on your feeds, but that doesn't mean it isn't there.

2) Political Correctness

I dislike the term, political correctness. It has come to mean something very different from its original meaning, which was to avoid words or phrases that denigrated certain people based on differences, disabilities, sexual or racial matters. Because of the extreme nature of some PC zealots, the whole idea of being sensitive of those different from us has become a reason for pushback. Being politically correct has become a negative.

This allows for some of the worst traits of humans to be expressed under the banner of being freed from the abuses of extreme PC.  Rebellion has allowed the pendulum to swing so far to the other side that marginalizing the "others" has become acceptable to many. Civility is one of the victims of this mindset. 

3) 24 hour news cycle

Most readers of this blog grew up in the era of three networks on television and a morning newspaper. Whatever happened in our town, state, nation, or the world, would only come to our attention if it was part of the 30 minute Huntley-Brinkley or Walter Cronkite newscast at 6pm, or on the front page of tomorrow's paper. Radio newscasts were about the same: hog and wheat prices, a local robbery, or whatever the networks in New York could fit in a 5 minute update at the top of the hour. Everything was slower. Reactions were muted by time and distance.

No more. Hundreds, if not thousands of sources, rush to inform us of whatever they deem important in a continuous flood. Something that happens in Paris or Moscow, New York, Washington D.C., or Phoenix is before our eyes or into our ears with virtually no delay. The time to verify facts or put something in context is no more. On the plus side, we can be much more aware of what is happening in the world around us. On the other side of the ledger, the tsunami of stuff simply washes away our ability to process all this information. More often than not we react with emotion, not consideration. Blame, anger, and condemnation are too often the first responses.  

4) Lack of shared visions

The word bipartisan could join civility in the endangered column. Extreme political divides, believing the other party is not only wrong but evil and doing the devil's work, seems to be par for the course. Why that matters is two-fold. Firstly, governing in a representative democracy requires working together. It isn't simply nice and more productive in the long haul, but it is required. Even if one party controls all branches of the government, without working together on major initiatives, the out-of-power party will just do their best to gum up the works and bring governance to a halt.

Secondly, the dysfunction in Washington spills well beyond its borders. Citizens find little reason to participate in building something; tearing down and obstructing become the new norm. We stop seeing ourselves as part of a whole. There is little shared vision of what made us who we are, and what is needed to maintain and build upon the successes and learn from the failures. Being civil when a person views others as a threat is impossible. It is very much a Lord Of The Flies worldview: survival of the fittest.

A little over a month ago I wrote A Different Way To Think About Politics. As expected, there were some comments that suggested my plea for moderation and civility in political matters was naive and dangerous. I expected that; I rarely write about politics because that isn't what this blog is about and most readers don't want to find it on these pages.

This post really isn't meant to be political.  Point #4 above, The Lack of Shared Visions, happens in part because of politics, and I believe rubs off on our everyday life. But, civility and its importance in making life more pleasant is one that transcends donkeys and elephants, as the previous three points emphasize.

I am very interested in your observations in this area. Also, I am hoping you have some suggestions to improve our situation. The post on the positive power of affirmations, A Force That Powers The World might shed some light on how we deal with this problem, too.

OK, that ends my thoughts. I politely and respectfully ask you to add to this discussion!


June 15, 2017

How To Guarantee a Satisfying Retirement

If only that were possible. Except for knowing you will die at some point, life doesn't come with a guarantee, and that includes retirement. 

After 17 years of experience, there are a few key concepts I'd be glad to share. Maybe I can help you eliminate some of the risks involved, though there is no guarantee.

1) Numbers

All sorts of numbers will determine the extent to which your retirement is satisfying: figures in your budget, income, outgo, the size of your investments and pension or IRA, the age you decide to start Social Security, and how you spend the hours in a day.

Not completely under your control but still important is how long you will have good enough health to do what you like to do. Days and nights spent in front of a TV or in an easy chair aren't very satisfying if you have other options. 

2) Assumptions
No one really know what the government will do with Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security payments, or what will happen to the health insurance markets. Inflation, deflation, interest rates, the end game with terrorism, all will affect retirement. Being frozen into inaction by uncertainty is not a good choice. Waiting for complete clarity means waiting forever.

The only way to approach these unknowns is to make basic assumptions and move forward. Until something definitive happens, plan on the social safety net remaining intact for you. Assume that interest rates will rise and fall, but in ways that won't place your retirement in jeopardy. Assume that terrorism will continue for the foreseeable future, but realize your odds of being struck by lightning are substantially higher than being harmed in some sort of attack or bombing. 

Your attitude and approach to each day are under your control. Assume that, too.

3) Flexibility

Flexibility is in your willingness to adjust things as you move through retirement. A plan is important; entering retirement without one is not advised. Sticking to that plan without allowing for changes based on finances, interests and desires, health, or family situations is just as dangerous. Show me someone who claims he or she developed a plan for success after work and has followed it to the letter, and I will show you someone whose original plan was severely lacking in details. 

Odds are good you showed flexibility when you were raising a family. Dr. Spock was good but didn't have all the answers. If you have ever been the parent of a teenager, I know you learned to be flexible. It is quite likely you were flexible in how you fulfilled your responsibilities at work. You adapted to changes as needed. You changed employers when required. You made do when that was required. 

Retirement is no different. Flexibility is a show of strength, not weakness.

4) Luck

I'd be less than honest if I didn't note that sometimes luck plays an important part in your retirement. Through no fault of your own the economy slips into a serious recession, taking a chunk of your savings with it. An impaired driver slams into you at an intersection, putting you tens of thousands of dollars in medical debt.

You try your hand at building your own business, and you just happen to tap into the hottest trend in the world. It succeeds beyond your wildest dreams and Google buys it for 10 billion dollars. My mom's chance visit with me in tow to a local radio station resulted in an interest and career that stuck with me for almost 40 years. My going with her that day was pure happenstance.

Luck is when you and reality intersect in a way that helps or harms you in a way that you can't predict and can't avoid. A dictionary definition is, "success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one's own actions." Many religious traditions would say that God is ultimately in control, there is no such thing as luck. In that case, I could define luck as what happens when we can't explain what God has decided to do (or not do).

Get a warranty for the new solar panels on your roof or the repair work on your car. Get serious when planning for your retirement. That is the best guarantee available.

June 12, 2017

Being a Penny Pincher Even If You Don't Have To

Voluntary simplicity, frugality, simple living, down-sizing....all have their genesis in trying to cut expenses. Less harm to the environment is another motivator, but the financial aspects are usually key. 

Certainly, for many of us, spending less money, living within or below our means is necessary. A faltering, or failed pension from work, a job loss at the wrong time, unexpected medical, housing, or caregiving expenses can force our hand.

For others, money isn't the overriding concern. Sure, we worry the money will run out before we do, and we can't predict some future financial disaster. But, overall, we are in good shape. There is something else that motivates us to reduce.

Interestingly, being in the first or second camp doesn't seem to be a solid predictor of our urge to cut expenses, pinch pennies, and find a less expensive way to accomplish a goal. Maybe it is a gene many of us carry. Maybe it is lesson we learned from a parent. Or, a rough patch in our past has left us with the desire to be more of the master of our own financial fate.

Whatever the reason, I find that posts that deal with frugality (or penny pinching, to use an older expression) usually prompt some good comments and interaction. Certainly, I always learn something new to consider as I review my budget. 

There are those who view cutting expenses as sort of a challenge: how low can I go? You have heard of extreme couponers who can buy hundreds of dollars in food and supplies for just the loose change in their pocket. Besides savings lots of money, these folks probably get a thrill from using the system to beat the system.

A while ago I wrote about people who have cut their wardrobe down to a few dozen items of clothing. They haven't seen the inside of a dry cleaning store in years. Their clothing budget is almost non-existent. Others have joined the tiny house movement, slashing housing and utility costs in the process.

I have written about replacing cable or satellite TV with a mixture of various streaming choices, over-the-air television, or Sling TV. Some remove the television completely, figuring their time is better spent in other ways.

One car instead of two, using the library instead of Amazon or Barnes and Nobles for your book fix, always cooking enough of one recipe for at least two meals, shopping for clothing or household needs when a store has a BOGO sale, realizing that Goodwill has some amazing bargains...the list is endless.

Being frugal or a penny pincher is different from being cheap. You don't save small slivers of soap, reuse aluminum foil, or figure out a hundred uses for a rubber band. Maybe you buy a high quality product or item of clothing, but you know it will last much longer than a poorly made one and it makes you happy. The cheapest choice isn't often the best one, but a frugal choice may be. 

So, my question to you is, are you a penny pincher (either from necessity or by choice)? No one likes to waste money unnecessarily, but how many of us look for ways to shave a budgetary corner here or there, or feel a thrill when we figure out how to pay less for something then we once did? 

What ideas and tips can you share with us? 

June 7, 2017

The Mouse in The Attic

The faint click of tiny nails, the rapid patter of small feet, woke me up. It was probably the middle of the night, though with no bedside clock there was no way to know. I recognized the sound, a field mouse most likely, running in the attic over my head. The sound no longer scared me, in fact it was kind of comforting since I heard it most every night.
It reaffirmed I was in a favorite place for our family vacation: my grandparents' summer place, a rural farmhouse, out buildings, and 36 acres of fields and trees north of Pittsburgh, a few miles from  the small town of Butler. Hearing nothing more, both the mouse and I relaxed back to sleep.
My dad would work the day before we left on our annual trip, then drive all night to arrive the next morning in this magical place. While mom sat next to him during the long, dark, drive to keep him awake, the three boys were in the "back-back," the rear of the station wagon, sleeping on blankets and pillows. An occasional stop at a gas station somewhere on the Pennsylvania turnpike might wake us up for a few minutes, but mostly we slept as dad drove so we could arrive by early morning.
Each day of vacation began the same way: coffee for the adults was made on a large, blue-speckled, enameled pot, on a fireplace a dozen yards from the place where we slept. Granddad made it the old fashioned way: grounds dumped into boiling water to produce a powerful, hot sludge. Bacon was cooked over the same stove, as Gran and my mom cooked eggs on the large, propane stove in the huge country kitchen.
During the day, the adults sat on chairs under a huge tree, talking and dozing. The three boys and my uncle explored the woods, cutting paths through all those acres of empty land, and finding plenty to stay busy all day.
 Nights were spent around the wood-burning pot bellied stove, kerosene lanterns providing enough light for board games and reading. Bedtime was determined by when the sun set, and wake up time when the sun rose.

4th of July saluting the flag with mom
Isn't it funny how powerful and long-lasting some of our childhood memories can be. We called this special place, The Farm. My grandparents, mom's brother, my parents, two brothers and I would spent two weeks here every summer until the property became too much for Gran and Grandad to maintain.

What it lacked in conveniences was more than compensated by the  feelings of freedom and exploration. With no electricity, heat, running water, or inside toilet, the Farm was worlds away from our suburban home 300 miles back down the road in suburban Philadelphia.

One of the reasons Betty and I bought a small cabin in the woods two hours north of Phoenix while our daughters were young, was to recreate that special feeling that I felt at The Farm. When the girls became teenagers, it was time to sell the property. But, the memories they have of our time together in that small home in the woods will last forever.

I hope that you had some place or something that you did when you were young that still brings back positive emotions and feelings like the Farm does for me. I can still smell that bacon......

June 4, 2017

Retirement & The Middle Class: Still Possible?

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

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

In reality, that picture began to go out of focus at least 15 years ago. The dot.com stock market crash of the late 1990's damaged the hopes and dreams of many. It exposed the true risks of betting that the stock market would always go up and making money was simple. Just as things seemed to getting back on track, the world came crashing down again in 2008. Folks who had pinned their dreams on the value in the homes found themselves upside down, or worse. 

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

Some will argue that we are reaping what we sowed. Flipping houses, taking out loans we couldn't repay, running up credit card bills of more than our annual income, saving virtually nothing for retirement, betting that stocks would only go one way....we were acting like children let loose in a candy store, assuming that "they" would be sure we were OK.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the same time, it probably won't look like you thought it would. That isn't necessarily bad, just different. A middle class retirement may still mean travel, an RV, a vacation home...or it may not include any of those things. If you like a life of travel then you will make sacrifices in some other area of your retirement to make that happen.

If you are more of a homebody you will devise a budget that supports you in that decision: maybe lots of flowers in the garden, books on every flat surface, music playing all day, and an inviting place to live. It may be a 300 square foot rented apartment or a 3,000 square foot house. It shouldn't matter. It is where you feel safe and comfortable and "home." You will not let your possessions define you.

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

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

People will continue to aspire to retire (I like rhymes!), but in a way that will be unique to each of us. I can be satisfied with a lot less than I thought I'd need or want just 6 or 7 years ago. At the same time there are parts of my life I need and will fight to maintain: being close to family, volunteering to help those less blessed than I, building my spiritual life, and feeling safe and comfortable inside my home. And that sounds very middle class to me.

How about you?