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Retirement 101

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This month marks my 14th year in retirement. Given all of the attention lately about the problems associated with retirement, especially for the aging boomers, perhaps this would be an appropriate time to share my own experiences and observations regarding the subject. Much of what I have to say may be too late for the leading edge of the boomer generation, for proper planning should start long before age 60. However, I believe it should be useful for the next wave–assuming they heed the advice or that their advisors steer them in the right direction.

Most of the lessons that I have learned worked for me, but as with most things, those lessons may not appeal to everyone. But–that’s life!

The best advice I ever received were the words of Mahatma Gandhi who said, “Live your life as if you were going to die tomorrow, plan your life as if you were going to live forever.” Gandhi’s words are also one of the best arguments for buying whole life (or equivalent) that I have ever heard.

In my view, planning for a fixed date, or age, for retirement is mostly a waste of time. I say that because as we age or as our circumstances change our attitude about retirement changes or evolves. A much better strategy is to plan for a date when you can afford to retire. Once that has been achieved then it is a great comfort to know that you can quit any time you wish. It means that you are working voluntarily rather than because you have to. That feeling of independence makes work more pleasant, and so much less stressful, that the urge to retire abates and you extend the date to hang it up. In my own case, I reached the point where I could afford to retire before I actually did, and those extra work years were some of the most satisfying of my entire work career.

So the real trick is to determine what you have to do to reach your target afford date. First and foremost, I believe, is to ascertain when and how you can become debt free. By that I mean, your target date, you have no home mortgage to pay on, no car payments, and no continuing balances on credit cards. When you are debt free, you know your income is all yours to spend.

There are many strategies to accomplish the foregoing but I offer a few tips that worked for me. Use pay increases to retire debt rather than raise standard of living, which most often raises your debt level. One of the best strategies we employed was to each month make an extra payment on the principle of our home mortgage. This technique is very easy to follow, particularly in the early years of a mortgage, and may enable you to pay off a 30-year mortgage in ten or fifteen years.

Despite the fact that this worked well for Gladys and me, there are critics that say such a strategy is ridiculous. Their theory is that one should keep a high level of mortgage and invest the funds elsewhere, kind of a takeoff on buying a term and investing the difference. That may work for some people–but for most, a disciplined plan that you follow each month works best and is a sure thing rather than speculation. I have no real problem with speculation, but I do it with excess funds not household money.

I also believe one should purchase cash value life insurance as early in life as possible and keep it. It is the only insurance that satisfies the mandates of Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy–the possibility of an early death coupled with the need to plan for a long life. If accumulated cash values were not used for emergencies, college education or opportunities, they will be available for retirement or long-term care. In my own case, the largest part of my income today comes from annuitized cash values of personal and pension life insurance. The one whole life policy left, with almost 80% cash value, is there for long-term care if needed. I love annuities–it is a great comfort to know that as you spend this month’s income, your checking account will refill next month and for the rest of your and your spouse’s life.

A few miscellaneous observations may also be in order. Most people who flunk Retirement 101 do so for one of two reasons (or both). Most commonly, they are broke, or badly bent, and have to go back to work to supplement their income. But almost as often they flunk because they are bored. Endless golf is paradise for some but not for all. I remember a conversation with one of my wartime buddies when he said, “When you are playing golf and you wish you were home mowing the lawn–it’s time to quit.” So it is important to develop other interests–community service, politics or a hobby that holds your interest. Travel is also great–but it takes dollars, which will only be available if you planned your “afford date” well.

One final observation that has been important to me–but again, not necessarily for everyone: Stay out of retirement communities. A recent newspaper article cited the fact that people whose friends were obese tended to become obese themselves. The conclusion–if you don’t want to be obese, quit hanging out with fat people. To some extent, I believe the same principle applies to hanging out with old people. We live in a wonderful neighborhood with lots of young couples and kids that are a constant source of joy and inspiration. Maybe when we are a bit older (I’m now 83) we will seek the quiet retirement community, but now–life is great and retirement is wonderful.


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