June 27, 2019

Summer Road Trips: What Can You Learn?

Taking a vacation is one of the real joys of a satisfying retirement. Sometimes that means a night away at a local hotel or resort. It may mean a long weekend when your calendar is suddenly open. Every once in awhile it means something truly out of the ordinary: a cruise through the Caribbean, a week on the beaches in Hawaii or Mexico. No matter how elaborate or inexpensive, a vacation always has the possibility of enriching your life in ways you didn't expect. It becomes more than just a break in your routine.

Several years ago Betty and I took a driving trip in the car. This wasn't a two hour jaunt to Flagstaff, or 6 hours over the desert and mountains to San Diego. This was a long distance endurance test: 25 days covering 5,000 miles and eight western states. 

Named The Drive Till You Drop Road Trip we saw the country, experienced bizarre weather including some flooded roads,  lived together in close quarters for almost a month and not only survived but prospered.  

We even managed to handle a major adjustment without a meltdown. When we were as far away as we could possibly be from Phoenix (Port Townsend, WA) our eldest daughter called to tell us our third grandchild was coming early and asked when would we be home. The answer was "as soon as we can." The return 1,500 miles was covered in just over two days and in time for the birth of Kassi.   

When we were able to catch our breath, unpack, and download thousands of photographs, we asked ourselves was it worth it? What did we learn? Quite a lot, actually:

Compromise and patience. For something this involved, we began planning 6 months before leaving in late May. Thank goodness for the Internet, AAA's maps, and the phone's GPS.  With a set limit of days away and so many places we could see, there was a lot of compromise involved. After some give and take on both our parts, we developed a viable itinerary. Of course, some of that careful planning was tossed out the window as we raced home for the birth.

Even the best-made plans need to be adjusted. Consistently rotten weather for a good portion of the trip forced us to re-route and re-plan on the fly. In late May we didn't expect to encounter snow, hail, sleet, days of heavy rain, fog, and temperatures in the 40's. We certainly didn't pack for it. A laptop and WIFI allowed for last minute reservation changes....along with a little luck and a lot of prayer.

Seeing America up close and personal is a thrill The country looks totally different from the window of a car than from the window of an airplane. Small towns are often interesting, welcoming and attractive. People are generally friendly and helpful. Tell them you are on a long road trip and everyone expresses envy. Little known attractions and historical sites are everywhere. With the freedom of a car, we were able to stop where and when we wanted.

Seeing your traveling partner up close and personal is a treat. There is no better opportunity to learn more about your traveling partner and yourself than being in close proximity for 25 days. My wife and I both came home feeling the time together was a tremendous bonding experience. Even after so many years of marriage, we discovered new things about each other than will help us with whatever lies ahead.

Time away from routine is important.  The change in your schedule, the different foods, sights, and sounds can act as a tremendous dash of refreshment. Having someone else do the cooking and cleaning is hard to turn down. I knew there were things happening at home I'd have to deal with upon our return, but while away it seemed like someone else's life.

Creating forever memories is priceless. We finally decided to take the trip because we began to worry we'd run out of the ability or opportunity if we kept delaying. Now, we have the satisfaction of doing what we set out to do, and creating memories that nothing can take away from us. The money we spent was an investment in us and worth every penny (lots of pennies!).

We like small vacations. A weekend away or even two nights out of town is a tremendously invigorating experience. But, this road trip was unique. No other trip to Europe or Hawaii or wreck-diving in Bermuda came close to being as intense a learning experience. I would heartily recommend one as part of your journey in building a satisfying retirement.

What about any trips you have taken that proved particularly memorable, either good or not so good? Where did you go? Was it worth it?

June 23, 2019

My Projections: Was I close?

A handful of years ago I contributed an article for the book, 70 Things To Do When You Turn 70. At the time I was 64 but took a shot. I assumed that I would be be doing many things differently six year in the future, but exactly what was impossible to predict. Retirement had taught me that all my great plans were in a constant state of flux. My only requirement was to open to them. Like everyone else I was still working on the answer to common retirement questions even a dozen years after I began this journey.

Now that I am 70 I took a fresh look at that book to see what the other sixty nine contributors had to say. I expected to find some fresh ideas or perspectives. What I had forgotten was a dash of "elder" humor included. A sampling:

Elaine Madsen said, "The first thing to do when you turn 70 is to plan on being 80."

Samuel Eyser noted, "Some men drink. Some men womanize. I play the Trombone."

One of my favorite authors, Mary Sarton, who lived to be a feisty 87, had her thoughts included in the book: "In answer to the question, "why is it good to be old?' I said because I am more myself than I have ever been. There is less conflict. I am happier, more balanced [and] more powerful." 

Marshall Duke wrote, "...if indeed there is a battle between nature and nurture, nurture may have its day, but in the long run, nature always wins. And, that needs to be OK."

Of course, there are those folks who insist on trying to keep our bodies in semi-shape. Edna Levitt urged us to squat when we turn 70. Some explanation is required. For those of us she calls 'vintage adults' her advice is to do three sets of 12 squats while standing at the kitchen counter waiting for your morning coffee to brew. Several large muscle groups are used, and our rear porch (butt) gets some toning, too.

June Lands reminds us that Wolff's Law keeps it simple: Use it or lose it.

Allan Schwartz made a very important point: "The stereotype of people who are aging is that they become less flexible in their attitudes and opinions. Speaking for myself, it's become easier to admit my mistakes. Perhaps that's because I no longer worry that asking for help or seeking clarification will be perceived as a sign of weakness. Ego and pride are no longer associated with not knowing."

I like Patricia Rockwell's suggestion that we become detectives, curious about what life has to offer.

In his contribution, Robert Rector echos that feeling: "The sun is still above the horizon, though not by much. But, I'm not ready to say goodbye yet. Like a six-year-old, I'm still searching for worlds to explore and adventures to be had."

A quote from 96 year old Alyse Laemmle says, "Never run out of responsibility; if you don't have one, find one. Find a cause and knock yourself out for it."                

Ilene Little recalls one of my favorite movies, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. She writes, " I loved that movie for its portrayal of scenarios where high-spirited seniors resist the efforts of 'well-meaning' relatives to organize their lives."

"Becoming 70 is a chance to open new doors and enjoy life to its fullest," says Susan Kersley. "Recognize with gratitude that you are able to have opportunities to make a difference in both your own life and the lives of those around you."

Carol Osborn provides a perfect closing quote for this post: "When it comes to planning for your later years, the most important part is knowing what you can have control over, what you must accept, and as Reinhold Niebuhr put it, 'the wisdom to know the difference."

When I wrote my piece in 2013 I really didn't know where my life and attitude would be. I am happy to report in the intervening years I am satisfied with how things have evolved. Frankly, I was wrong: I am doing much of what I was doing 6 years ago, but more satisfied and content with the pace of things and my place in it all.

Life is good.

June 19, 2019

If I Am Retired Have I Stopped Working?

Let's start with two definitions:

Retirement means "The period of life after leaving one's job and ceasing to work."

Work means "an activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result."

Most of us think of "work" in a much more specific way: "an activity or physical effort done in order to earn money."

But, that isn't the literal definition of the word. And, that is part of the problem with the whole concept of living a satisfying retirement: the words are mis-defined. Retirement has nothing to do with no longer working. It has to do with no longer working at a particular job or career for money. But, nowhere should it be assumed that retirement means no more work.

Do you play golf? I am willing to bet you'd say that the game involves work, both physical and mental, even if you ride a cart for 36 holes.

How about growing some of your own vegetables? I know from our recent experience: this is work! Forget check the need for watering for even one day and things start to wilt. Don't pull weeds and your efforts suffer.

Do you exercise? Sorry, but even with an endorphin "high" that is work.

Do you flower garden, read, paint, build furniture, play a piano or a banjo, cut the grass, attend a Spanish class, write a blog, travel, basically do anything other than sit in a chair 18 hours a day staring at the wall? Then, you work....at something.

Retirement does not mean not working...it is supposed to mean working at something you enjoy. It is a life reimagined or redefined.

Now, let's pause for just a moment and admit a very common reality: folks who have retired from one job may start another. Whether that employment is full or part time, self-employed or working for pay for someone else, the economic realities of the world can require additional income to lead the type of life someone desires.

Is that person still "retired?" I suggest it depends. If I spend 25 hours a week writing this blog to satisfy my creative urges and manage to earn a little extra money through those efforts I consider myself retired. I am not writing Satisfying Retirement for the money. The dash of extra cash is a nice side benefit but it isn't a motivator.

If, on the other hand, I go back to my part time tour guide job I would think of myself as partially retired. That job would be taken with money as the primary motivator. There are side benefits, but I certainly wouldn't do it for free.

Or, what if I had the ability to build wood cabinets and coffee tables and sold them? I would be working with a passion of mine: woodworking (this is a made-up scenario!) and generating income. Because I choose to use a talent and enjoy it, I would consider myself retired with a lucrative hobby.

I know, this is splitting hairs and it really doesn't matter how someone is "categorized." The individual determines how he or she feels about his life or control of her time.

The point is much broader: retirement absolutely does not mean we stop working. We work at something until we die. It is part of being human. We do stuff.

So, the next time someone asks how come you aren't bored by not working, educate him about the meaning of the word. 

The hardest working "retired" person I know: Betty refinishing a door

June 15, 2019

The Worst Thing That Could Happen

....rarely does.

We are experts at imagining all sorts of improbable scenarios, outcomes of decisions gone terribly wrong, undiagnosed diseases, or catastrophes of all shapes and colors.  As Mark Twain said, “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened."

Sure, unpleasant things happen to us. Our bodies act as if the warranty has expired and begin to break down. Loved ones and friends die with unpleasant frequency. Financial plans and expectation are met with a cosmic laugh. The path forward suddenly seems to be leading us into a dark forest.

Buit, for most of the time, for most of our lives, and for most of our worries, when we ask the question, "What's the worst that could happen," it becomes obvious that the worst isn't really much of a likelihood.

Or, the "worst" isn't really all that bad. If the computer dies and I lose 5 years worth of emails, I won't miss 99% of them. If the car develops a fatal hiccup, I can afford another. It will knock my carefully crafted budget for a bit of a loop, but compared to something really serious, that doesn't begin to reach the level of "Worst."

The good news (see how I injected an optimistic tone into a discussion of pessimism?) is we are  prone to assume bad outcomes. Studies show at up to 70% of our mental chatter is negative. Maybe when we were cave men and women, believing the saber tooth tiger had us on the menu kept us violent and alive. Whatever the reason, you are not unique in this regard.

Psychologists call it a cognitive distortion, a habitual and unconscious way of thinking that isn't based on reality. In this case, assuming the worst, is our distortion. While there might be an underlying personality cause, in many cases we just have to break the habit of assuming the worst outcome.

Another phase to describe this condition is catastrophizing: everything will end poorly, we will be blamed, guess I'll go eat worms.

For those of use in the retirement stage of life, "the worst that could happen" is not something we leave behind, like a paycheck. Health problem, relationship issues, financial meltdown...you name it and we can worry about it.

Writing in Psychology Today a few years ago, Meg Selig, offered three alternate thoughts to help us break this self-perpetuating cycle:

  1. It’s not happening now. Focus on that
  2. Whatever happens, I can cope. I am stronger than I think I am.
  3. I am causing my own suffering. Could I stop? 

The worst that could happen may actually occur. We live in a very unpredictable world. But the odds are exceedingly low. To spend our mental energy on spinning a web of what ifs just doesn't pay off.

June 11, 2019

The Value of An Education

Carnegie Library Syracuse University
I was raised with the very firm belief in the requirement of a college education for success in life. There was never any question of my going somewhere after high school. The cost of my four years at Syracuse University was equal to what one year at a major university costs today. But, in the late 1960's and early 70's  my parents sacrificed to make sure I had both the opportunity and a debt-free start to my future. I did work full time as a radio DJ during my senior year to cover my costs. When I got that diploma it came without a bill.

What we called Junior Colleges, or community colleges today, provided a more cost-sensitive way for many  to further an education after high school. Since the core classes that virtually everyone studies during those first two years are pretty much the same, the choice of a local two year institution for much less money was a wise choice. With good grades it was usually possible to transfer your credits to a four year university.

Of course, plenty of people made a very nice living and were quite content following a path that didn't include college. Working in the trades, starting one's own retail business, following in dad's footsteps...all were legitimate career paths. It was very possible to build a solid life with just a high school diploma.

Since I wanted to be an on-air radio performer, college wasn't really a requirement. But, in my social circles,  there wasn't even a debate: get that degree, list it on your resume, and your future is solid. As my parents noted more than once, when I "outgrew" my DJ lifestyle I'd be set for a grownup job. Today, the situation is so different I wonder if I would have selected the same path that had been predestined for me.

Approximately 70% of high school graduates continue in some form of higher education. Just a high school degree means a tough path forward. But, that education after high school isn't necessarily in a typical university setting.

With experienced plumbers, electricians, carpenters, or HVAC technicians able to earn incomes well in excess of what many white collar workers bring home, spending time in technical schools or learning a trade as an apprentice is a perfect choice for many. A computer-savvy young adult can skip a "formal" educational path and find employment quite readily. His or her skills are very marketable.

OK, so with that background, I am circling around to my question: is a college education always worth the cost? The average for tuition, room, board, supplies, and incidentals for a four year public university is between $25-$45,00. Want an Ivy league education, or attendance at a prestigious private school? How about $55-$67,000 per year.

We are aware of the number of young people who leave college with a lifetime of debt. We have been reading of wealthy parents who pay enormous sums of money to simply get their prodigy into a well-ranked school. For those caught, that can result in fines, jail time, and the expulsion of their child. Such is the net result of attempting to cheat the system.

A recent research study showed 95% of grandparents believe it is important for their grandkids to get a higher education Yet, our influence in this is probably a bit limited. We may be able to voice our opinions about what the educational path of a grandchild might look like, but the final decision will be made by the parents, with input from the young adult. If we have the resources, we may be able to help cover some of the costs, either voluntarily or after "hints" from the parents. The same study says 21% of us give money to be used for a youngster's tuition.

But, doesn't that beg the question? Even if a college education can be paid for, should it? Is the path to success always through the ivied halls of an institution of higher education? If the young adult will leave with a sheepskin and a looming debt, is the cost-expense ratio still in his or her's favor?

Sure, wanting to become a doctor, lawyer, teacher, scientist, or other endeavors that require specialized knowledge equals four, six, or even eight years of schooling. But, a liberal arts education with a degree in English Lit, International Relations, or History? Does that on a resume equal solid employment?

I come from a family deeply involved in higher education. My answer remains, yes, college is important. But, my reason why it is important has changed. Being away from home at a four year school should do two things: teach someone how to manage the art of living and responsibility, and to develop the ability to think and reason. College isn't so much about any individual class. It is about learning how to learn, how to think on one's own, and how to begin to form a world view that is not just a copy of one's parents.

The actual degree means much less today. Electronic resumes emphasize experience and personal skills. Educational achievements are often listed last. Someone will be hired based on what they have done, what skills they possess, and how they help an employer achieve goals, not because the 3.7 GPA from State U.

So, go with me for a minute. If what I just wrote is true, then gathering life experiences is the real path to success. Working well with others matters. Being computer-literate, knowing how to use Excel, understanding the use of social media for promotion and marketing.....these are the skills that may get someone hired.

Is a four year education after high school required for everyone? If your grandchild decides that type of environment (and cost) isn't best for them, would you support that choice, and more importantly, feel good about it?

My bottom line straddles the fence a bit: college can be a time to learn to develop one's independence and function in an adult world. It is when one can use the priceless gift of time to learn how to think.

At the same time, it can saddle someone with debt and give them freedoms they are not equipped to handle. Four years in college may actually delay a young person's career path if their skills are not enhanced by a standard degree.

So, here are my questions to you: 

1) If you attended college, was it worth it to you and your family? Did the skills you learned directly apply to your employment? Did you get a return on the investment of time and money?

2) If a grandchild asked for your opinion about attending college, what would you say? If that child decides to skip the university path, would you feel disappointed, worried for their future prospects, or supportive of that decision for that particular person?

3) What is the value of a college education today? How much debt is it worth?

June 10, 2019

Nine Years and Counting!

Today, June 10th, marks the ninth anniversary of Satisfying Retirement. Over 3.3 million views, in excess of 1,000 post...I am as surprised as anyone I am still at this! 

So, just a thank you for your support, comments, ideas, and constructive criticism that has made this process a creative joy.

I must add that the civility and graciousness of the vast majority of blog comments and emails means I haven't had to go to more restrictive  procedures or spend too much time deleting spam and hate messages. In today's blogosphere that is no small thing.

If you are so inclined, I'd love to read any comment you care to leave. What are your favorite parts of this blog, and what could you live without? Are there any posts that have stuck with you over the years, posts that helped you over a retirement hurdle of some kind?

Bottom line: thanks for 9 years. The tenth year of Satisfying Retirement has begun!

With fondest feelings,

Bob (and my wife of almost 43 years, Betty)

June 7, 2019

I Turned 70. What is Age-Appropriate Now?

The usual definition of something being age appropriate involves a decision whether certain activities or media (like movies or video games) may be deemed suitable to someone of a certain age. Often used by parents to help filter what their children are exposed to, a PG movie, for example, may be a bit too intense for a 7 year old, but entirely age appropriate for a child who is 11. Of course, that child is itching to see the PG-13 movie all her friends rave about.

Beginning a dating relationship is obviously an example of a decision, based on the young person's maturity level, of when unsupervised time together at a dance or movie is appropriate. Being a dad of two daughters, I know my answer was when they turned 30, but that didn't go over too well (just kidding!).

So, what does any of this have to do with a satisfying retirement? A lot, I contend. I would like to suggest that we miss out of all sorts of experiences and fun, growth and opportunities by not doing something because it isn't "age appropriate" to a 70 year old man or 75 year old woman, or whatever. We allow ageism to dictate what we are willing to do, how we look, and how we live.

We may be concerned what others might think. Maybe we are afraid of injury. Perhaps the financial cost seems too high. We would have to expend too much energy, either mentally or physically.

Frankly, at our age we should be very unconcerned about what others think. If someone is still trying to impress the neighbors with a huge house, expensive sports car, or vacations in the south of France, then this message will shoot right over that person's head. Having these things isn't wrong, unless the motivation is to make one look "appropriately" well off in the eyes of others.

We tend to associate people our age with words like settled, stable, predictable, or safe. How many retired, or almost retired folks, would you describe as adventurous, devil-may-care, unpredictable, or daring? How many are gutsy?

Too few, I would guess, and that is a shame. When else in our short time on earth are we as free to push against the restraints, take a risk on a new lifestyle, or try something and not worry if we fall flat on our face.

If we fail at something, so what? If the move to the mountains in Spain doesn't work, come home. If the karate lessons leave you unfulfilled, sell the white outfit to someone else. If trying to salsa dance leaves your hips out of whack, take up line dancing. If your efforts at Haiku poetry leave others scratching their heads, assume they have dandruff.

There are several folks who read Satisfying Retirement on a regular basis who I would classify as being unconcerned about being "age appropriate" in the eyes of others. Whether due to a high energy level and willingness to try everything while still physically able, or leaving a comfortable home in the suburbs to live their dream in the mountains, these people are taking their best shot.

A woman uprooted herself and moved 1,000 miles from her home to be closer to family and try on a new lifestyle. Still another took classes and tests to fulfill a dream of becoming certified as a professional mediator. Yet another moved from a big city to a seaside location that has a strong pull on her and her husband, a pull that must be acknowledged. Yes another person I know is now leading African safaris, a dream she has held for years.

Importantly, the whole question of age-appropriateness doesn't have to center around a physical challenge or change. Going to a poetry slam at a bookstore, tackling an online course in Greek history, putting together a coffee table book of photos you shot at the park or beach...these all fit my definition. 

Deciding to watch all the Avenger movies in chronological order so you can talk about them with your grandson, taking chess lessons, replacing the 30-year-old hair band T-shirts in your closet with something more colorful or simply, different, fits the goal, too.

My book, Living a Satisfying Retirement, is filled with stories of people, just like you and me, who took a leap of faith toward a new life. Were they being "age appropriate?" I don't know. But, I do know they didn't care. With more of our life behind us rather than in front of us, what in heaven's name are we waiting for?

Oh, and in the interest of full disclosure, this post is directed squarely at me. I can write about it, but do I live it? I think I am getting better. My soon-to-be 39 year old daughter made me fill good recently when she noted, "you are not like any of the other retired people I know. You do stuff, you try new things."

That was encouraging, but also a little sad, since what I do is what virtually anyone could do: get out of the house and try something new, go to a new coffee house or restaurant, see a live play, take advantage of the free concerts in the park or open mic night, get a rescue dog to love.

We don't have to dye our hair purple, though we can. We don't have to attempt physical feats that will result in injury, though our physical limits may be more self-imposed than real. We don't have to eat dinner at 4pm and go to bed at 8pm, unless that makes us happy.

Age appropriate behavior is too often defined by others and treated as gospel by us. Society has placed enough restrictions or limits on how we enjoy our life. Let's not add more to the boundaries.

June 3, 2019

Managing Your Own Investments...Is That Wise?

Retirement Financial Planning can be a puzzle

You've heard the line about only a fool has himself as his own lawyer. Of course, there are some situations that require a professional, whatever that might be.

A surgeon if you have a tumor to be removed or fireman to rescue you from a burning building come to mind as good times to get someone else's help.

How about managing your retirement financial future, the protection and growth of your monetary resources? Is that best left to others?  Should we put our ego aside and admit others might have something valuable to offer?

Or, if we have the inclination,  a strong financial background,  and nerves of steel, should we manage our own money, our own future? Besides the cost paid to an advisor or management company, there are decisions made that may not be what leave you feeling comfortable.

I have taken both approaches. When I started making enough money to invest a little and plan for my future, I handled things myself. Of course, in the good old days, everything was much simpler. For most of us, investment options were limited to CDs, bank savings accounts, stocks, and bonds. Even though mutual funds started in 1924, the modern era for investing that way really kicked off in 1975 with the launch of the Vanguard Fund.

As everything became more complicated, the amount of money involved grew, and I had a wife and eventually children to think about, I began to feel uncomfortable. Zero coupon municipal bonds, indexed funds...other choices became available. At that point, I hired an advisor who had come highly recommended by others at work. For a few years things went very well. My savings and investments accounts were growing. I had a Keogh account to build for future retirement needs. 

Then, I received a letter from the IRS, rarely a good thing. I was informed that one of my investments was fraudulent: shares in something had been sold and resold to generate a tax loss. Unfortunately, the shares that were bought and sold had already been bought and sold by someone else. My advisor had involved me in a scam. He certainly didn't do so on purpose, but it is fair to say I lost confidence in his judgment. Also, I lost close to $10,000 in back taxes and penalties.

At that point, I revisited my decision to hand over my financial future to another. However, it was obvious the investment world had started to pass me by. The stakes were higher. And, I was traveling almost constantly so there was little time to focus on all of this. I found a fellow who understood what i wanted to accomplish. He knew how much risk I was willing to take. He sent me background material and suggestions but never executed an order without my approval. It was an excellent relationship. Sure, he made some bad choices that cost me money. But, overall, we both won.

A few years ago he was approaching retirement; I would be assigned to a younger broker/advisor. Not willing to "break" in a new person to my desires, I switched again, this time to someone my parents had used for years. She had produced solid results, in up markets, and down. She understood their risk tolerance and their goals. She was old enough to know her stuff but still a decade away from retirement, so I signed on. It has been a very beneficial relationship.

There is one fellow who is a regular reader who has taken a different tack. He manages his own portfolio. He has the time, the interest, and the knowledge to handle things on his own. I imagine Chuck is already formulating his comment to this post!

I can see advantages to both approaches. I understand the importance of control and hands-on involvement in managing one's retirement investments. Also, I understand the idea that someone who invests other peoples' money for a living can spend time on research and investigation of options.

The experience with the advisor who got me sideways with the IRS taught me to pay attention to what someone else is doing with my money. I remain very comfortable with the broker I have and plan on staying with her.

How about you? Do you handle some or all of your own investments? How has that worked for you? Or, are you in the "let the professionals handle it" camp? Have you ever been burned like I was?