"Begin at the beginning," the King said gravely, "and go on till you come to the end: then stop."
This advice has stood me in good stead ever since I first heard it. For our Senior Class Play, the 1971 graduating class of Luverne High School performed "Alice in Wonderland." The other day I found myself thinking that I should have read Lewis Carroll's book before that time, but then, I wouldn't have appreciated it earlier. There are no coincidences.
So, to begin... Today is Thursday, February 21, 2013. Why did I choose this date to begin? Well, I didn't. I mean, I didn't choose the date on purpose. It's just that there's no time like the present, and I've been putting this off for long enough. My goal will be to write something every day for a year, mainly for the sake of maintaining discipline. The ulterior motive is to get to the point where writing is not only a way of life, but also hopefully a means of earning some money.
Today's topic is "Retirement."
A few short years ago, I was really looking forward to this time in my life. I wanted to be free to get up and stay up as late as I like. I wanted to be free from the time constraints and energy demands of a job. I wanted to have time to read good books and expand and hone my writing. Above all, I wanted to be free to travel.
Now that I've been retired for nearly two years, I see that retirement can impose its own constraints. Actually, that's not quite true. It's not "retirement," per se, that imposes constraints, but rather, it's the way we have structured our lives up to that time that creates the constraints within which we must live.
If you have worked until "full-retirement" age, saved money since the day you started working, wisely invested in the stock market, bought a house and paid off your mortgage, and paid off all your debts, you might not have too many constraints. And if you've managed to preserve your health and carefully nurtured your relationships with family and friends, you have a few more options open to you. Above all, if you have carefully considered and worked toward a specific goal for your retirement years, you will have avoided some of the constraints that could keep you from achieving that goal once you are actually retired. If you have not done these things, then you will have created some constraints, many of which will be hard or even impossible to overcome.
It's true that I've worked most of my life, since the age of 23 or so, but I did not work all in one place - or even all in one country! I certainly never thought much about saving money for the future. If I had money - and there were times when I had plenty - I spent it, knowing that there would always be more later. When I lived in Japan, I did learn about saving money to buy what I wanted, because at that time, credit cards were not in use among the general public. The experience of having to save up for things instead of buying on credit did serve me well later on in life, but the fact that I never really saved much money is the source of one of my most stringent constraints now that I'm retired. At this point, I despair of ever being able to save money again.
I did have one savings account that I put a bit of money into each month - a lady sat me down when I first started teaching at St. Paul Public Schools and told me I would be glad I did. She was right. That entire account was just enough to buy a used car outright when my trusty Lumina finally decided that it no longer wanted to run. Bing-bang-boom. I do have the car, but the money is gone. So much for my savings.
The retirement income itself is pretty paltry - even combined with the Early Retirement Incentive money that they added on. I finally attended one of those retirement seminars late in my career and realized in shock and horror that "full retirement" does not mean the same as "full salary." For teachers, anyway, at most, one can hope for maybe half of what you used to make when you were working. That's if you work until full retirement age. According to the Social Security website, for those of us who were born between 1943 and 1954, the full retirement age is pegged at 66. For those born between 1955 and 1959, the age gradually increases in two-month increments. For those whose birth occurred in 1960 or later, the full retirement age is set at 67. There is talk of raising that to 70 at some point.
Retirement benefits for public school teachers are figured on the basis of your number of years of service, your age at retirement, and your salary (the figure that is used as your gross salary on your W-2 form) - they use an average of five years, and they take the highest five salary figures. Those of us who got our master's degrees early enough to pay off our education loans well before retirement had a good head start there. But I didn't start teaching until I was in my mid-thirties, and the first two places I taught, i took the accrued retirement benefits with me in cash. That meant that I had only accrued 18.5 years of service, even though I worked for a total of over 30 years. I retired at the age of 58, which counted against me. The only reason I retired so early was that I knew the Early Retirement Incentive was a one-time offer and I new that my health would give out soon if I didn't stop and rest. (Having to recuperate not only from cancer, but from the TREATMENT for cancer has created some added constraints.) The net result was that I am making only about 20% of what I made the year I retired. That's a HUGE drop, and as you can imagine, there has been a huge impact on my lifestyle. The Early Retirement Incentive has been a Godsend, but it's tied up in an IRA, and difficult to take out.
On the plus side, the smartest thing I ever did was to get into a debt management program, which paid off debts accumulated from three different credit cards. Before I went on that program, I managed to pay off my car loan and close down all the department store credit cards that I once owned. Those were really the best decisions I ever made, and they have served me well in retirement. I now have a credit card, but I have managed to keep the credit limit low so that I will never again get so deeply into debt that I can't see my way out. While I was in debt management, my experience of having living on a cash-only basis in Japan proved to be invaluable. I was paying so much per month to toward the debt that when I finished, I was able to buy outright a pair of hearing aids, a new computer, new glasses, and a bridge for a tooth that had to be pulled before I underwent chemotherapy.
The financial constraints mean that I can no longer just walk into a store and buy whatever strikes my fancy. I have to ask how much something is every single time, and I have to weigh carefully whether I really need it. Travel is nearly out of the question. Even road trips have to be planned very, very carefully, and I end up spending months recuperating, financially, from any extended travel. While I still occasionally buy books, I have to depend a lot more on the local library. I'd love to get a Kindle and take advantage of the reduced price for electronic books, but frankly, the hardware is beyond my means at the moment.
So those are the financial constraints. The other major constraint has been my health. I'll go into that in more detail in another blog post, but suffice it to say right now that many things are off the docket now because of my health, including extended travel or even getting a part-time job. Both my finances and my health caused me to decide to move to South Dakota, the place where my parents and one of my siblings live. This state has no state income tax, which saves me a few hundred dollars a year. Also, living expenses here are much lower than they were in the Twin Cities, in Minnesota. The abrupt move meant that my social life was suddenly cut off, except for my online life. The upshot there is that I have hundreds of friends online, but almost none in-person, except for a few people I've met recently in special-interest groups. At present, those people are still just acquaintances, rather than friends.
I guess the other major constraint that I created for myself was my lack of a specific goal for retirement. If I had put some time and effort into a hobby or volunteer activity, I might have had more of a focus for my retirement years. Instead, especially with the abrupt move to a different state, I found myself with virtually nothing to do. The fact that I was hospitalized with not one, but two pulmonary embolisms within two days of my moving date did not help matters. For my first few months in South Dakota, I found myself not only with nothing in particular to do, but with no energy to do anything, to boot.
A dream I had a while ago described my situation with a perfect analogy. I was holding a colander and I had put in all the things that I wanted to do during retirement into it. My spiritual guide took the colander and shook it, hard. With a sinking feeling, I watched as most of what I had put into the colander dropped through the holes. My spiritual guide handed back the colander, saying, "That's what you have to work with." The colander represented the constraints that I have created for myself. The remaining contents of the colander represented the building blocks of my new life.