September 27, 2016

When a "Normal" Retirement Doesn't Work

For many of us, a satisfying retirement follows a pattern that seems almost preordained. We work for several decades. We live a "normal" life, spending more than we should at times, but careful to set aside money for the future. We try to control our human urge for instant gratification and do our best to live within a budget. Eventually, we leave the world of work and begin to experience the freedom of this new phase of our life.

Social Security starts. Medicare eases many of our worries about health expenses. We travel some, spend more time with family, satisfy our creative urges, volunteer in a way that gives back some of our blessings, and often see growth in our spiritual life. In short, our retirement is what we hoped for.

Unfortunately, not everyone lives this picture. A post a month or so ago dealt with grandparents becoming parents. That topic generated some excellent comments. Most of us expect that the daily parenting part of our life is over as we approach retirement age. But, for too many, it is not. Dreams of a very different future are put on hold or ended.

What about having to retire due to an unexpected job loss or an Enron-type collapse that wipes out someone's nest egg? How about folks that lived either paycheck to paycheck, just scraping by, or stitched together a series of part time jobs, just trying to stay afloat? The image of a normal retirement life isn't part of their reality.

A reader asked if I could pass along some thoughts about retirement and those who must take a different path through this stage of life. That was an excellent suggestion and one that prompted the post about grandparents raising children. 

I will readily admit that my retirement is comfortable. I am living pretty much the way I thought I would be at this stage of my life. A few early struggles over financial worries and time management are the worst I have experienced so far. So, for me to offer advice to others in very different situations makes me somewhat uncomfortable. I have some thoughts based on what I have read, researched, and seen, but not on personal experience. I  may be way off the mark. I can offer some thoughts and then hope you will add your ideas and suggestions. 

* For someone who has serious financial restraints, housing is likely to be a major problem. A typical home or condo may be out of reach. In many parts of the country affordable apartments are hard to find. What are alternatives? Roommates and shared housing are reasonable options. The tiny house movement is a possibility. Park Models at RV parks offer security and comfort at at reasonable prices. Certainly manufactured housing, either purchased or rented, can be an option. Staying with relatives may be a reasonable choice. 

*Many skills and experiences lend themselves to participating in the barter and exchange economy. An estimated $12 billion in services are exchanged in the U.S. every year without cash. A family member of mine exchanges a 60 minute massage for hairstyling. Both ladies benefit and no money changes hands. Maybe you have training as a nurse or adult daycare worker. Is it possible to exchange that experience for room and board?

There are folks making enough money to make life more pleasant by selling household items or collectible on ebay. Buying things at a local flea market and then reselling them is common. Over 2 million people visit the web site every day, all looking to buy or sell.

* The quickest way to make money is spend less of what you do have. I hope I am not minimizing the real problem some of our fellow retirees face. Choosing between food or prescriptions is not a theoretical choice for too many. Living through a hot summer without air conditioning can be life threatening as we get older. 

Even so, most of us can find something that we can live without. What we may think of as a necessity may be a luxury when times are tight. After all, when we were growing up there were three TV channels, no cell phones, and a meal out was a special treat. We didn't feel deprived. 

* Retirement is not a forever state, if you can't afford it to be. There is absolutely no shame in going back to full or part time work. You will be thought of an a successful entrepreneur if you turn a hobby or skill into a business that generates any level of income. Don't get discouraged if some form of ageism discrimination makes things more difficult. 

* It is hard to make sense of a situation where health care is unaffordable by tens of millions of our citizens. The Epipen uproar is only the latest example of putting profits before saving lives. For the truly poor, Medicaid, guaranteed treatment at the emergency room, and other government programs are available. They are onerous and sap one's dignity, but they will keep someone alive. It is the lower and middle class that gets shafted in this country, and I don't have an answer. If someone is forced into early retirement, any employer-provided health care coverage is gone. Meals-on-Wheels may provide the only decent food someone receives all week.

The pre-Obamacare model didn't work. The post-Obamacare model is failing. Health care that is based on maximizing profits and minimizing contact with people who really need a doctor is simply ridiculous from any perspective. Frankly, this is not a political issue. This is a moral and ethical embarrassment. A society has a responsibility to provide an essential service like health care to its citizens that can't afford decent care. Build a few less jet fighters and keep men, women, and children alive and productive.

A "normal" retirement shouldn't be our goal, regardless of our financial or health status. I will argue with anyone that retirement is a unique experience for each of us. At the same time, the reader raised the question of how our less-fortunate citizens can deal with the problems that confront them.

I hope a few of the things noted above are helpful. I strongly encourage you to add your thoughts to this important discussion. 

September 24, 2016

I've Changed my opinion about....

......The Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. Now, before you shoot daggers at me, I will add that the system we had before Obamacare was a dismal failure, too. Sick people were denied coverage. Life-saving tests were unaffordable for many. Insurance companies could decide a treatment was not warranted and people would die. Those without employer-provided policies who didn't have any dreaded "pre-existing conditions"  faced back-breaking premiums, deductibles, and limitations. Bankruptcies happened.

So, where are we? The unfettered for-profit system prior to 2010 was a train wreck. The ACA is headed to a future where premiums are too expensive to pay because competition has disappeared. Health care companies have figured out they are better off walking away from customers if they are too sick. The fines for not have health coverage are so low that many younger people are better off paying the penalty rather than hundreds of dollars a month for coverage with huge deductibles and a tiny network of providers. Some states have only one company in their health exchange. That is a guarantee for failure.

Some will argue the answer is obvious: make Medicare an option for everyone. The system works. There is fraud, sure, but there is fraud in the private model, too. There is fraud in Social Security but I've never met anyone who wants that essential service terminated. Heavens, there are billions of dollars of waste and fraud in the Pentagon, but we must have a defense system.

With tens of millions of additional customers and no more need for subsidies,  the government could afford to increase what is paid to providers. Drug price negotiation would become standard practice. Medicare has few exclusions and even fewer limits on coverage. Those who need it could get it.

I think there would still have to be some form of private option. We are just too independent and fearful of total government control to make Medicare the only health insurer. The insurance companies would be happier because the healthier people would probably choose a private company, allowing for lower premiums and a decent share of the market. Medicare Advantage programs and Medigap policies would still be available.

Obamacare was pushed through a very reluctant Congress. The law was massive, poorly written, and based on conclusions that have not come true. As structured it will not survive much longer. But, if it collapses do all the people who were unable to get insurance before, or excluded from life-saving procedures, get tossed under the bus again?

Like a few other hot button topics in today's America, health care remains a subject whose mere mention can trigger more heat than light. I really hesitated to write this post for fear of a tsunami of "I told you so" or "this political party or that does or does not have any answers."

The point of this post is actually more of admitting that changing one's opinion about something important can be admitted publicly. Humans change their minds and change their opinions on a regular basis. But, I am convinced that too often we refuse to admit those changes for fear of what others may say and think.

So, I am putting myself on the line here by saying I have changed my mind about the Affordable Care Act's ability to solve our healthcare problems.

I trust you to not throw me to the wolves.

Want to learn more?

Top Healthcare Issues This Year

Can Obamacare Survive?

September 21, 2016

An Average Life? Aim Higher

Average means ordinary or usual. Average is what many people aspire to be. Don’t rock the boat, don’t stand out, don’t make waves. I’m guessing you want more. You want each day to be special, to mean something. You’d like your life to follow a path that you create.

Here’s the answer: ignore common wisdom. Just forget it. Common is average. Your life can be more by being different. Here are 4 ways to break from the pack and create a satisfying retirement lifestyle that is under your control.

1) Short cuts usually get you lost. Too many people figure they know how to get something for nothing. Hard work is for suckers. The path to glory and greatness lies through other's efforts or money. Don’t bother perfecting your skills. Don’t waste time learning what you need to know. Look for the easy way. Look for the shortcut. Just don’t be surprised if you find yourself in the forest with no way out.

There are no shortcuts on the road to a non-average life. You have to want it enough to work hard for it. You accept there is no way to bypass the effort involved. You see the sign for the shortcut, and choose the other path.

2) Experts often know less than you. Our society worships experts. If someone is an expert, whatever he or she says must be better than what you think or believe. You would be wise to stop worrying and just do what they say, buy what they recommend, and live how they have determined is best.

Bunk. An expert is often self-declared. He may have no track record or experience to have earned that label. She has no idea what works best for you in your unique set of circumstances. Consider that maybe you are the best expert there is in figuring what is right for you. Stop listening to every talking head. Start listening to yourself.

3) Newer isn’t always better. We upgrade, replace, or redo out of boredom with the old. Commercials have convinced us our life will be a whole lot better with the latest whatever. Newer is always better. Our clothes will be whiter, our teeth brighter, and our home life more pleasant.

Not true. Today’s appliances are made to fail, whereas the stuff from 20 years ago would last forever. Computers will work just fine years after Microsoft wants you to upgrade to a new OS that makes all your drivers obsolete. With decent care, your car can easily go 125,000 or more and be fully paid for. To resist the constant call to buy what is new and improved takes above average will power.

4) You can’t spend your way out of debt. This is not what our consumer society wants you to do. The average American household spends 133% of what it earned. I’d suggest there is a very direct correlation between that fact and the recession of not that many years ago. Our entire way of life is built on credit, for housing, cars, education, giant TVs, vacations…everything. Sometimes credit is helpful and necessary. Few of us can buy a home with cash in our pocket.

The problem arises when we attempt to fund our day-to-day lives with credit we can’t pay back. Your life is out of your control. Decisions you make are predicated on how you can balance this bill against that credit card, against that obligation. Your entire lifestyle can collapse overnight if you lose your job. The solution is so obvious it seems almost silly to say it. But, with the average American household having total credit card debt of $16,000, apparently not.

You were made to be more than average. You have the potential to excel and exceed expectations. It just takes above average will power, determination, and a clear vision of what you want to accomplish. Ban good enough from your vocabulary.

September 18, 2016

Adult Coloring Books

Color me surprised. 

Last year over 12 million adult coloring books were sold in the United States. There are coloring books for adults in bookstores, craft shops, and on-line. There are adult coloring clubs, Facebook groups, and Instagram pages. Groups gather for community and conversation with coloring groups in most cities across the country. If this is a fad, it is a pretty healthy one. 

Frankly, I was completely in the dark about adult coloring books, until a few month ago when my daughters showed me some of the beautiful art work they had created. I was given a few pages to try. While the results don't make me a Van Gogh, I was pleasantly surprised that they didn't look terrible. Of course, like paint-by-numbers, it is pretty hard to make serious mistakes when what you are doing is coloring in open spaces. But, choosing the colors that go together is, well, artistic! I did find it enjoyable to focus on the page and shut off all other thoughts for awhile. 

So, I started to do some research. Google responded with almost two million search results. Heavens, this is a big deal! I am learning that all sorts of people color and for a whole range of reasons: relaxation, meditation-like calmness, or following a long suppressed artistic urge.

Serious medical folks claim coloring can have therapeutic potential to reduce anxiety and help someone focus. A story in the Washington Post recounted the story of a woman who found coloring helped her deal with the grief of losing her infant son. She needed something different than just words and prayers to help her. The story also includes a reference to a woman who used the process of coloring to help her with confidence in controlling hand tremors.

While I didn't find a direct connection between adult coloring book users and someone who is has an artistic streak, I would think that isn't such a large leap. Julia Cameron, author of The Artist's Way and her latest, it's Never Too Late To Begin Again, deals with the subject of being a shadow artist. To her, that is someone who sees him or herself as an artist but life took them in another direction. Maybe coloring with pencils and markers helps satisfy that need.

Recently, Timber Press  sent me three adult coloring books to review. I have yet to put ink to paper, but I did find them interesting. They are alittle different from other adult coloring books I have seen. These include background information about the subject of the page and the names of what you will be coloring. One of the book contains several blank pages after each section so it is possible to add one's own sketches and then color them in.

I'd be interested if you take part in this activity, or know someone who does. August 2nd was National Coloring Book Day. I missed the celebration, but may be joining the crowd now.

Satisfying Retirement was provided with the coloring books at no cost, and for review purposes only.