January 29, 2016

Are We Changing How and Where We Want To Live?

Sun City's housing spirals
The Phoenix metropolitan area is where the first retirement community was built. On January 1, 1960 Del Webb opened Sun City and that model for the 55+ community has continued to this day. Just over a year ago I was invited to spend a few days at the company's newest version, Sun City Festival, and write about my experiences. If you missed the original post, click here.

Since that time some articles and research reports have crossed my desk that have piqued my interest. Certainly, the Sun City model and all its various counterparts around the country continue to attract a steady stream of buyers. At the same time, there appears to be an important shift in how and where some retirees want to live and build a satisfying retirement.

When Sun City opened is was quite a trek to downtown Phoenix. The more recently opened Sun City Festival community is even farther removed, though suburban shopping and services are within a dozen miles. But, what appears to be happening is a growing interest in living closer to a city. 

This is not necessarily to be closer to a higher concentration of restaurants, entertainment venues, and shopping, though that may be part of the appeal. Rather, a majority of retirement community residents now say they expect to be working, at least part time, after retirement, and don't want a long drive. Isn't it interesting that retirement can now include working and a commute, two of the major reasons someone retires in the first place! 

There are retirees who do want to ditch the green lawns and sameness of a typical suburban neighborhood for the excitement of an urban environment. Many cities are seeing condos designed for a wide mix of ages pop up in the urban core. In the case of Phoenix, the availability of light rail, having 12,000 ASU students downtown, and a burgeoning entertainment district have resulted in over 2,000 additional housing units recently opening up in the city core. Many are targeted at empty nesters and the recently retired professionals. 

Another trend that is taking hold is a shift away from the appeal of golf or tennis as the primary recreational activities in these communities. No one is predicting the end of these sports in these locations, but reports indicate personal fitness and being able to enjoy nature without a club and bag or racket are growing in appeal. Fitness centers with both equipment and classes as well as extensive hiking and biking trails are essential in the "new" retirement communities. 

In a recent study by Merrill Lynch and Age Wave reported by CBS News, two-thirds of the retirees questioned say they prefer to live in a community that is diverse in the ages who reside there. The age-restricted community may be on its way to the dustheap, as the thought of living with only those of retirement age is rapidly losing attraction. This finding doesn't surprise me. Comments on this blog have pointed to this trend for quite some time.

There was one particular finding in the research that does surprise me a bit: downsizing is not as popular as I thought it might be as we age. In fact, if family and relatives are nearby or visit often, a new retirement home may be larger to accommodate extra get-togethers. As a good example, Chuck from Tennessee, a regular reader and commenter, moved into a bigger retirement home. But, I'd guess that the majority of comments on this blog on this subject like the idea of simplifying and downsizing as a welcome step in retirement. 

Of course, I guess I shouldn't register surprise: I ended up moving to a bigger home when we decided to move close to the grandkids. Betty and I thought we wanted a smaller home, with less yard to maintain and a simpler lifestyle. That wasn't what happened, and thank goodness. With almost weekly family dinners of 7-13 people, game nights, football parties, and croquet in the backyard, a small house and a smaller yard would not have allowed us to enjoy all this quality time together.

Back to the research study, the desire to "age in place" for as long as possible remains a powerful motivator. The majority of us attach more emotional value to our house that its actual monetary value. The equity we may have is not worth more than the memories and feeling of home.

I should also note other living options that have been explored in other posts: living full or part time in an RV, being a snowbird and living for part of the year in a different climate, co-housing and sharing space with others, opting for an apartment or condo in the heart of a city as an alternative to a life in suburbia, or even living part time on a cruise ship!

Obviously, what is liberating is this freedom to spend all or part of our retirement in a setting that best suits us at this point on our satisfying journey. Whether it is a traditional retirement community, a house on wheels, a bigger home, a smaller home, the same home....we make the choice.

January 25, 2016

39 Years and Counting

Sometimes I look at the woman sitting near to me on the sofa or in the car, across the table in the restaurant, or next to me in bed, and have a powerful thought: I simply cannot picture my life without her presence. Later this year we will have been married 40 years. I realize that is 60% of my life and 65% of hers. We have lived together much longer than we have lived apart.

Together we have made and raised two incredible daughters. We have lived in ten different houses in four different states. Our homes have been blessed with five different dogs (sorry, Bailey, but you weren't the first). a few rabbits, fish, a mouse or two, and an occasional bird that flew down the chimney and deposited soot all over the ceilings. 

We have traveled the world and found places that call to us in that special way that certain locations do. We have settled in the desert for over 30 of our years together and learned to live with over-the-top heat all summer and Christmas time spent in shorts in the backyard. Betty still misses the vibrant green that is not part of the desert.  Being so close to family instead of maple or oak trees has been a trade off she is willing to make, as long as we take occasional trips to see "real trees."

A few weeks or so ago we were watching a movie about a woman who was single, after many years of marriage. She was struggling with how the dating environment had changed and what she should do to meet new people. Pretty much simultaneously, we turned to each other to state that if one of us dies (a pretty safe bet), there would be no attempt, absolutely no interest, in finding another companion. This relationship has been so complete and satisfying that its power and memories would make searching for another quite pointless.

I can't think of anything else that could speak so fully to the power of a lasting relationship. Being alone would be preferable to being with someone else. Being alone would be the willing choice each of us would make. Our faith tells us we will be together again. Until that time, we would patiently wait and remember.

Before 2016 gets too much older I thought it a good time to declare my love for my wife and everything she has meant to me. Here's to a great year together, sweetie.

January 21, 2016

What Should It Take To Become President?

After a post late last year, Are We Really So Afraid?, a reader asked me to develop a job description for the office of president. The silliness of the debates, the sound-bite approach to picking a leader for our country and the difficulty in finding information that hasn't been pushed through a particular political or social filter made this a fascinating request.

After all, someone who applies for a position of leadership in a large company must be able to prove why he or she has the experience and temperament to get the job done. For a position with as many direct consequences on our daily life, shouldn't there be as careful an examination for president?

If we look at the last several decades, the answer would seem to be, No. Our Chief Executive is picked on emotional reactions or ideological feelings, the ability to raise huge sums of money, and having powerful friends both inside and outside government. Experience in managing people, effective decision-making, the ability to compromise for the good of all, and a moral center that prohibits losing sight of who and what we are as a company (or country), are great for the CEO of Intel or Google but don't seem to be part of how we choose a president.

So, in all humility, I offer the following as a basic job description for the office holder of the U.S. Presidency. This list is not all inclusive, but maybe a good start for discussion:

1) Understand that the president is the leader of all 320 million of us. The politics that gets someone elected cannot prevent that person from governing in a way that benefits us all. Purely partisan decisions must be left behind when entering the White House. 

2) Understand that democratic governance often requires compromise. That is how our system is designed to function. Unless we are willing to adopt an autocratic form of government, there must be the ability and temperament to compromise. Sometimes unpopular, hard decisions are required. At other times, they are counterproductive.

3) Understand the United States is part of a world economy and collection of 195 countries. Many have no interest in being like us. Some actively dislike us. Some are our friends when it suits their interests, or ours. Maybe it worked in the past, but today we can no longer tell others what to do and expect them to toe the line. To protect our interests you may have to act in a way that makes others angry. At the same time, cooperation and recognizing the rights of others to make their own choices are essential skills. 

4) Understand that over the long haul building bridges works better than building walls, though sometimes the person with the biggest wall wins.

5) Understand how our system of government functions. Being an "outsider" is an attractive trait when some are angry at a dysfunctional establishment. Not having a strong knowledge of the rules of the game and how things are accomplished will lead to gridlock and a frozen system, or being taken advantage of in a way that puts all of us at risk.

6) Understand the geopolitical world situation. The mix of religions, ethnic groupings, history, changing alliances, and an inner-connected world is a complex system that does not respond to simple solutions.

7) Understand the history of the United States. How and why we were founded, the mistakes and accomplishments in our past, and the moral character our citizens believe in must guide decisions and leadership choices.

8) Understand that during your term you will face unending criticism from constantly shifting portions of the citizenry. You will have to make tough decisions that might be politically wrong, but ethically right. You will do things that some people hate, and some may love. You cannot take it personally. You are trying to lead a society that has become fragmented and ethnically diverse. You will never please everyone. Also, understand that in 4 or 8 years you will be out of a job. You are going to be replaced, so stay humble.

What did I overlook?

January 17, 2016

My Word for 2016: Consistency

For the last few years I have chosen a specific word for the year. That is, I pick a word that summarizes some of my goals or aspirations for the coming 12 months. in 2015 my word was "move," which turned out to be quite appropriate: I moved away from a neighborhood Betty and I had called home for nearly 30 years. My dad died in March, prompted several moves on my part to deal with my parents' estate and the obligations that come with death. While on vacation in Portland in August I suffered a mild heart attack, triggering a move in my lifestyle to one designed to keep me above ground (!) for as long as possible.

For 2016 I have settled on consistency. Defined as a steadfast adherence to certain principals, consistency can be applied to several important areas of my satisfying journey through retirement:

  • Health - To protect my heart, increase my overall energy level, maintain the appropriate weight, and remain as vibrant as possible, my approach to my health must be consistent. I can't walk a few miles a day and ride my bike this week, then come up with excuses to slack off next week. That double cheeseburger with bacon is calling my name; I must pick up a fork and have a salad, piece of chicken, or fish instead. While an occasional splurge is fine, a consistency in making health a priority is essential.
  • Finances - As I write this the U.S. financial markets have had a horrible few weeks. Triggered by a slowdown in China's economy, a non-stop fall in oil and commodity prices, unease over the world's response to various terrorism threats, and maybe the uncertainty of our political future, stocks have fallen enough to get my attention. Even so, my approach to managing our financial resources must keep the big picture in mind, consistently sticking with the plan has worked for several decades. Adjustments, yes. Panic, no.
  • Relationships - Betty and I are in our 40th year together. We moved about 25 miles to be within a few minutes of our grandkids and family. Our in-laws now live 3 minutes away after their recent move. Our youngest daughter spends quality time each week with us, at a movie, out to dinner (I know, watch what I order!), or simply spending time together at our home or her place. With my parents now both dead, and Betty's parents passing 25-30 years ago,  I realize even more than ever the importance of a close, nurturing, consistent family relationship.
  • Staying mentally active - A week ago Betty and I signed up for a new streaming service from Great Courses. In the past I have purchased several of the educational company's DVD courses on a variety of topics and always enjoyed the material. Now, hundreds of the catalog offerings are available for a set annual fee. I can stream what I choose, and as much as we want,  to the TV, tablet, or even cell phone. We have already picked half a dozen to start us off. The typical segment of most courses is 30 minutes, perfect to watch while we have lunch.
  • Spirituality - My faith is important to me. I have seen the effects on my life when I am listening, learning, and responding on a consistent basis. I have also experienced how things tend to go bad or become less pleasant when that consistency is missing. I will freely admit there has been a loss of focus in this part of my life over the last 6-7 months. Some of it has been the move to a different part of the area, thus leaving behind our church and friends. Part of it has been the upheaval that comes with a household move. And, part of it has been laziness. It is easier to skip a church service, not read the Bible on a daily basis, and slack off on prayer time. This year that must change and become a regular part of daily life.

Consistency doesn't mean being static or content with what is. This year, for me, it means an active approach to my satisfying journey. It means staying focused on what is important and what gives meaning to my life.

Do you have a word, or a guiding principal for 2016?

January 13, 2016

Palm Springs and Movies: The Perfect Combination

We didn't get to use the table..too cool and wet!
Betty and I are just back from a week in Palm Springs. For the second year we joined friends Mike and Tamara Reddy in this desert community for the International Film Festival. 

Started in 1989 by then mayor, Sonny Bono, the festival is held over an 11 day period each January. An estimated 130,000 people enjoy close to 200 different movies from 60 different countries, screened from early each morning to late each night. We stayed just six days, but that was plenty to get our fix of new films (that aren't named Star Wars).

Snow on the mountains just west of downtown Palm Springs

The weather was cool (actually downright cold at times!)  and on-and-off very wet so we didn't do very many outside activities. Even so, the time with good friends doing something we enjoy made the lack of warm sunshine not a problem. 

The RV was snug and dry, the furnace and hot water heater worked well. Towards the end of the week, the sun came out and Betty took some beautiful photos.

The first movie we saw was so good, I could have made the whole trip just to see that one film and be satisfied. The Carer was an engaging study of a famous actor approaching the end of his life, fighting against aging and its limitations. His latest caregiver is a young Hungarian woman who helps him love again and share his knowledge of his craft. The cast's performances ring true and create characters that you know and care about by film's end.

In a special moment Betty and I got to meet the actor, Brian Cox, who starred as the aging performer. I shook his hand and complimented him on his performance and the power of the film. He graciously thanked me and Betty for our thoughts. If The Carer comes to a theater in your town I highly recommend it. There are a fair number of F-words, but no sex or violence.

Rams was our next film. It is a moving story of two brothers who are sheep herders in rural Iceland and haven't spoken in 40 years, even though they live  within 50 yards of each other. The discovery of a deadly disease forces the destruction of all the sheep in the area and pits the two brothers against each other until dire circumstances force them to work together, and eventually save each other's lives (we think!). Powerfully told and photographed, Rams was a story that stuck with us well after its conclusion.

A Pakistani film, Moor, was the most intense of the films Betty and I saw, and the one that left us torn in our reaction to it. It was a multi-layered, complex story of the destruction of the train system in rural Pakistan and its effect on families. Ultimately, Moor became a lesson in moral decision making and the powerful impact of poor choices on others. Slow to get going, this movie was beautifully shot and edited, and eventually became a memorable experience. 

Next up was The Good American, a true story about a handful of people who had discovered a better way to break codes and analyze intelligence coming from our enemies in ways that could have prevented 9/11. But, politics and money interests meant the ground-breaking work was ignored, then destroyed.

Eventually, the people were investigated and threatened with imprisonment, all for finding a way to protect this country from terrorist attacks. Excellent graphics helped, but the movie was slow paced and predictable. The fact that the best ideas don't necessarily see the light of day should come as a surprise to no one.

Sherpa was the visually stunning, true story, of a 2014 avalanche that killed 16 of the Sherpa guides who were preparing to take a group of climbers to the summit of Mount Everest. Documentary filmmakers were actually present when a massive ice fall killed the men. 

What had begun as a study of the Sherpa lifestyle suddenly became the story of a revolution of the Mount Everest industry. After decades of poor pay and incredibly dangerous work, the tragedy was the final straw that prompted Himalayan guides to demand changes to how they were treated and utilized. The movie was moving on so many levels and was so much more than just the aftermath of a disaster.

Our last film was Heavenly Nomadic. Betty loved its portrayal of the rural lifestyle of a family living in a yurt in Kyrgyzstan, struggling with death and promises of a different life. While a beautifully photographed film, I found it slow and plodding. I must admit I almost nodded off a few times. But, that is what is so much fun about film festivals. Each of us had different take-aways from each of the movies we saw. Time after each film was spent sharing reactions and insights.

We will be back next year for another special time with friends and films.

Betty going Hollywood with snappy hat and scarf

Me, too!

Waiting in lines....and waiting some more

Beautiful outside seating area at a downtown restaurant

No longer a movie house, but a big part of Palm Spring's history
Fascinating water fountain
Pretty walkway downtown
The usual suspects

Until next year

January 9, 2016

Here Come Those Holiday Bills - Now What?

The holiday bills from credit card companies will soon start to pile up. All that spending and giving, partying and enjoying friends and family was fun, but now the not-so-fun part of your satisfying journey starts. How are you going to handle all those bills, along with the basics that must be paid, like heat, food, gas, and clothes?

The most important message I can communicate in this post is that a financial decision can be short-term. That is, some of the ideas I list below may not be necessary for any longer than it takes you to get back on top of the financial mountain. Don't say to yourself, "Oh, I could never live without this or that. They are too important to my happiness."

I'm not here to judge whether that is a legitimate position for you to take. One person's necessity is another person's extravagance. But, too often when we think of cutting back we picture it going on forever. Faced with such a future, we often can't take that step. So, just remember, what you choose to do now doesn't have to be permanent, just long enough to get back to an even keel.

Keep a budget
This will always be first on my list. Keeping a budget makes a person much more conscious of how money is being spent. Having a monthly limit for each category helps rein in spending. One fail proof method is to put cash into envelopes for each category. When the money is gone, stop spending until next month. If the envelope is empty before several months' end either the amount budgeted must be increased or spending for that expense must be cut back.

I used the envelope method for years until I was comfortable with my budget-setting skills. Today, I use software as my "envelopes." When the amount in a particular category has been spent for that month, I stop (usually!).

Cancel Unnecessary Services for now

Find your newspaper or magazine subscriptions heading into the recycling bin every day with most of it unread? Do you find you watch less TV than you once did. Do you find you stream very few Netflix or Hulu movies? Do you find yourself cleaning up after (or before) the cleaning people? Cancel what you can and reassess after the holiday bills are taken care of. You may discover you don't even miss some of those services.

Cut Way Back on Going Out to Eat

We used to allocate almost $300/month to dining out. It was a reward after being on the road many days each month and was one of my family's favorite forms of entertainment. That spending pattern extended into the first year or so of retirement.

Now, the dining out budget is just over $150 a month. If we are careful and make a few of them a lunch instead of a dinner that works out to about once every 5-6 days. Suddenly, the meal away from home becomes more of a special treat, something we look forward to. I know couples who spend that much (or more) in an average week. If we did, dining out would cease being special and the money would be wasted.

At a few points in my career our dining out budget was zero. When I was between jobs or things were not going all that well we simply stopped eating in restaurants until the situation improved. It caused no harm and didn't leave us feeling deprived. It was simply a necessary, short-term step.

Coupons and Discounts are Your Friend

I receive many e-mailed discount coupon offer available: Groupon, Goldstar, Living Social, ..some I don't even remember the names of. I delete at least 90% of them, but restaurant or vacation deals get used. 

Our supermarket lets us "price match." They will match any special price offered by any other supermarket in town, By checking prices on Wednesday we design our shopping list for Thursday and save money. Rarely are national coupons a better deal than the generic house brand, unless there is no substitute. Then, a coupon is used.

Cut Out Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, etc.

Is Dunkin' Donuts, Einstein Bagels, or a coffee shop a regular for you? Stop going until you can afford it. Make your coffee at home. Donuts are bad for you so your body will thank you. Yes, I know Starbucks offers free WiFi, but then so does your home. 

Stop Carrying Extra Cash

How does this fit with the suggestion to use cash in envelopes? If there is little or no extra cash in your wallet impulse purchases might be reduced. It is wise to have a few $20 bills tucked away someplace for an emergency cab home or similar problem. But, carrying hundreds of dollars with you makes it much too easy to spend a little here and a little there.

If possible use your debit card for local purchases so the money comes right out of your checking account and you instantly see the purchase on your on-line account. Or, if you prefer, take the cash from the grocery envelope when you go food shopping. One caveat: use credit cards instead of debit when buying something on-line. That provides you with more protection if something goes wrong or your account is hacked. 

Remember, you may not need to take all of these steps and none of them need be permanent. After the holiday bills are paid, decide what should be reinstated and what you never really missed.

January 4, 2016

Most Read Posts of 2015

Last year was an interesting year. After deciding I had written all there was for me to say about retirement, I shut down the blog in late April, only to restart things in early July, albeit with a somewhat different focus. Instead of writing exclusively about the various aspects of retirement, a change to Satisfying Journey allowed me to take a look at other topics and things that sparked my interest.

As 2015 came to a close I was interested to see which blog posts were the most read. Would they be ones I had written before the April shutdown, or after the relaunch in July? Or, maybe would there be no discernible difference in appeal. Which topics were most attractive?

Certainly the April stoppage did affect the number of folks who were still around in July. Daily readership fell by 40%. That was to be expected. And, since I write because I enjoy it and am building friendships through the comment/response process, the dip in visits didn't bother me. Even so, I wanted to know which part of the year had the greater appeal to folks.

The most read post of this past year was the April 27 post in which I announced the  end (temporarily, as it turned out) of Satisfying Retirement. It also generated comments that ultimately convinced me to sit back down at the keyboard. I missed writing, but I also missed the regular interaction with readers who made me think and helped me on my own retirement journey.

The post just before the one above, was actually the second most popular of the year. Is Retirement an Outmoded Concept raised questions about the viability of retirement in the future. The comments were generally in agreement: retirement is very much alive for our generation, but our kids or grandkids might live in a society where that is not true. We may be heading back to a time where those who are able will work as long as physically or mentally possible, not by choice but by necessity.

The fictional connection between George Harrison's life and mine was the third most-read post. I had just finished a fascinating biography of the former Beatle. He had enjoyed the fruits of being one of the most famous and richest people in the world, only to realize that his life was empty and unfulfilling. He became desperate to get away from being defined only as a Beatle. 

He discovered that "money can't buy you love" or contentment, but he couldn't tear himself away from that part of his past. He spent the last several years of his life searching for something that would make him happy and complete.

The remaining Top 10 posts of the year included:

4.   Is Financial Security a State of Mind?
5.   Another Eat Your Vegetables Article About Retirement
6.   Retirement and Your Social Network
7.   Life Is What Happens While You are Making Other Plans
8.  The Stigma of Being Poor
9.  The Gift That Keeps On Giving: Parental Financial Planning
10. Are We Really So Afraid?

What was obvious after completing this project was that several of the most-read posts dealt with typical retirement topics that had been the mainstay of the blog for the five years prior to my shift to a broader, somewhat more personal approach. 
 Even though I make it clear I am not a financial advisor, posts that deal with money and navigating the potentially troubled waters of retirement finance remain very popular. Two of the posts where I opened up the door on some "heavier" subjects (being poor and fearful) also racked up strong readership and comments.

Thinking about 2016, this look back helps me plot a course forward. While posts about my satisfying journey will continue to be part of this blog, clearly readers are not tired of my thoughts on the traditional topics of our finances, health, relationships, living decisions, and travel. That type of post will continue, and probably make up the majority of articles I write. I think you have given me permission to occasionally deal with weightier subjects, too. That is good. Somethings there are things going on in our world I just can't keep quiet about.

If you would, please leave a comment about a topic or area of concern that is of great importance to you. Your input will be quite helpful as I begin to plan for next year.  

In the meantime, I hope your holiday season was a good one. I pray that you will find joy, comfort, and well-being in this brand new year. As you read this Betty and I are in Palm Springs for the International Film Festival. I will have some comments on the films we saw when we return in a week or so. But, in the meantime, my reaction to your comments may be a bit delayed since I am in an RV 280 miles from home.