You Can Keep Your Advice to Yourself, Thank You

If I thought advice would cease once I turned in my notice at work, I was mistaken. Everybody, it seems, has expert advice on what I should do, where I should go, how I should maximize my Social Security, etc.

Here’s some of the well-meaning advice I’ve gotten.

On my 401K: Leave it alone and let it grow; pull it out and invest in an IRA; cash it out and buy a house so you won’t have a mortgage.

On all the free time: take up a hobby; travel (did they miss the part about my Social Security being about half of what I’m currently making?); get a part-time job (what was the point of retiring?); make a bucket list and then start going down the list; take a gardening class (that works really well on my apartment balcony); spend more time cooking; take up bicycling.

On extending my money: Become a vegetarian; take the bicycle to the store to save gas money; walk to the store; give up Starbucks (not a chance); move to a cheaper apartment (already on my exploration list); get all your doctor/vision/dental appointments done before you leave work so you don’t have to use Medicare; use as little air conditioning as possible (that’s a real winner in Vegas’s 116 degree heat); read only free online books; drop everything except basic cable; pay extra on all credit card payments (I actually agree with that one); cut out the monthly family dinner (not likely since it may be the only socialization I’ll have left).

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I’m kind of tired of it. Ultimately, I’ll make the decisions that fit my personality and lifestyle and, right or wrong, I’ll either be fine or I’ll learn from the mistakes.

 

Desperate for Conversation

The closer I get to retirement, the more nervous I find myself and that surprises me because I’m usually pretty good with change. This one though — well this one is a huge change that will impact my life, for good or bad, until I die. That’s worth getting nervous about, right?

Up until a week or so ago, I was getting excited about the prospect of doing whatever I want, whenever I want – sleeping late with no alarm; eating better because when I have the time to prepare and cook, I like it because it doesn’t feel so much like working after work; giving my house a thorough cleaning at a leisurely pace; spending as much or as little time as I deem fit on my novel; upgrading my company, Scentsibility and putting in some quality marketing time; sitting out on my balcony at odd hours and watching the wildlife and the clouds; napping in the afternoons; etc.

But now? There’s a man who comes into the Starbucks I frequent who’s retired and he’s the garrulous type who’s looking for anyone that glances in his direction. Aaaaand he’s off. I find myself trying not to catch his eye as he sits eating his oatmeal, eyeing likely suspects in his vicinity. Is that going to be me one of these days? Can’t you just see my seventy or eighty-something shriveled face sidling up to a young, twenty-something in line and saying, “My aren’t those adorable jeans. Did you buy them around here?” How far do you think that’ll get me?

Elderly woman sadly looking out the window, a black-and-white phSo, that’s what got me got me to worrying about my retirement instead of looking forward to it. I took stock of how many people I’d be likely to talk to on a daily basis once my usual work buddies are gone. Um, maybe two. That scares me a little. I already talk to my cats but I don’t think that qualifies. I don’t fancy being the sad old lady who sits in the house and stares out the window all day.

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Then there was the little old man in Albertson’s who stood off to the side staring at me as I checked out the special on guacamole. I eventually decided not to buy it and meandered off. Very shortly, I heard, “Excuse me.” I turned to see the little old man following me over to the produce section. He wanted to know why I hadn’t gotten the guacamole. My instant impression was that he didn’t give a hoot why I hadn’t bought the guacamole; he just wanted to talk to someone. So I stopped. I told him it didn’t seem to have enough stuff in. He said, “What stuff? Guacamole is just guacamole.” I assured him they were all different and I actually liked to make my own with avocado, jalapeno, tomato, onion, cilantro and lime juice. He thought that over, nodded and sauntered back toward the display.

See, that could be me in a year or two – randomly stopping people in the grocery store just to hear a human voice. That scares me. I can hear you saying, “So get out and do something.” I’ve thought about that, too. I’m not accustomed to sitting around much. I’m very active (always have been) and typically have a to-do list a mile long of things I want to do and places I want to go. But then there’s the retirement budget. It’s going to be a game changer with a whole new set of rules (none of which I’ll know in advance). I doubt that I’ll have enough money for travel or to spend on trivial keep-myself-busy projects. Where does that leave me?

I’m still aiming for optimism but I find myself vacillating between ultra excited and secretly terrified.

 

Freedom or Boredom

1464810432178This whole retirement thing is a bit tricky. I, like many before me, have spent decades talking about all the fun things I’ll do when I retire, not least of which is not having to set an alarm and then function on someone else’s time for the majority of my day. And the older I get, the more I’ve felt like life is passing me by while I’m stuck inside following someone else’s rules.¬† I didn’t notice it so much when I was younger because in my 20s, 30s, 40s and even some of my 50s, it still felt like I had hundreds of hours left to do what I wanted – to rebel and head out on my own, to forge a different life in another part of the world and explore, explore, explore.

I managed a little of that. When I was dancing, I got to see South Africa, Egypt, Finland, Sweden, Japan, Hong Kong, England, Italy, France, and Thailand. In a brief search for a retirement place, I checked out Panama and Costa Rica. But the funny thing is, the closer I get to retirement, the scarier it looks and the less adventurous I get.

Why is that? There are any number of reasons. I get less adventurous because moving two cats to a foreign country is problematic and then what if I hate it; I’ve developed chronic issues as I get older that require care, which makes me worry about leaving the country; I’d be an older, single female living amongst strangers and hoping they’re nice to me rather than viewing me as the odd one out and an easy target; and the hassle of traveling isn’t nearly as fun as it used to be. Things that never bothered me before, now do: Did I pack everything, did I leave early enough to get to the airport, will I find an overhead bin to put my carry-on in, will I hold up everyone behind me (none of whom offers to help) while I try to stuff my bag in that overhead bin, will I find my way through the airport to my connection in time, will the taxi driver screw me around on my way to the hotel, will this be the one hotel in the city with a bedbug problem … and on and on.

As for retirement being scarier the closer I get, I have a short list of what ifs:

  1. What if I get bored with the things I think will entertain me? I have a long list of things I’ve always wanted to tackle but what if I go through the list in the first few months and then none of them appeal to me any more?
  2. What if I get so used to sleeping late and with nowhere I have to go, resort to sitting around staring at the television or the computer screen, putting on weight and becoming more and more sedentary (which would, of course, mean that my chronic back problem will only get worse and my joints more creaky)?
  3. What if I decide I can’t live on my Social Security and I need to find a part-time job? At my age, very few places are likely to want to hire me and then I have to wonder if I should’ve retired in the first place.
  4. What if I get lonely? There’s an older gentleman who comes into the Starbucks where I go to write who, as I’ve heard him tell people, comes in every single day (like I’ll soon be doing) and sits very quietly until he can insinuate himself into someone’s conversation, where he then proceeds to spend far too much time talking to them. Will I end up like that – desperate for human conversation?
  5. What if I die? I’ve heard countless stories about people who were looking forward to retiring and then died within a few months of doing so. One of my co-workers and her husband both retired so they could travel the country. They were excited about this new path in their lives. They bought an RV and planned out their route around the United States. He died roughly two months after retiring. I don’t know why that happens so often (or at least often enough to have caught my attention) but I sure as hell don’t want to be one of the statistics.

So I suppose the basic issue is whether or not the dream will be all it’s cracked up to be. Looking at your dreams and realizing that they might be just that and nothing more, can put a serious dent in the rest of your days. It makes you pause and go through the retirement check list one more time to assure yourself that you’ve thought of everything. Then you just have to say: You’ll be fine. Repeat after me: You’ll be fine.

 

Fixer Upper?

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Knowing I would have very limited funds once I retire, I dreamed up all kinds of scenarios in which I could plunk down my 401K and walk away rent-free. Then I would be able to live off my social security and not feel like I had to go back to a living style that was acceptable back in my college days when everything in life was a big adventure. Since I know I won’t have enough money to buy my dream home outright, I came up with the idea of purchasing a cottage in a foreign country at a ridiculously low price so I would have enough left over to develop a backyard hideaway garden.

I turned my attention to a show that would help me do that in a foreign country where the cost of living would stretch my retirement dollars far farther than I can do here at home. That was the basis for that first trip to Costa Rica and the one the following spring to Panama. Not having any idea of safe areas to check out or how to find a reputable realtor and being a fan of all the shows that appear to help you find a home, I sent an email to see if I qualified to get on it. Stupidly, I thought they actually found a reputable realtor for me and then I’d just have to make a decision based on the choices that were presented to me. What was I thinking? The response I got said, “I just wanted to get an update on your moving situation. Do you still have interest in being on the show? I ask because we are currently looking to cast people who are very close to closing on/renting a home or are already living in one.” He went on to say, “Furthermore, you would receive monetary compensation for appearing on the show ($1,500).” Say what? So the real incentive would’ve been $1,500 and the opportunity to see myself on television? I crossed that one off my list.

Then I turned my attention to domestic fixer upper shows, figuring maybe I could afford a cheap Craftsman that could be renovated within my budget to look like a new home and I’d still have some left over to plant that garden. I found tons of great bargains but then the problem was that I didn’t know what sort of neighborhood they were located in. Solution? I decided to take three days of PTO from work, fly to the city and have a realtor show me decent fixer upper areas. What could go wrong with that plan? Well, I’ll tell you. I found a realtor online and sent an email. She answered me by telling me what the average fixer upper in the city sold for which, of course, was contradictory to what I was finding online. I replied that I had found lots of affordable properties online and she didn’t bother to answer me again. I guess she wouldn’t have gotten as much as she was accustomed to by helping me out so I wasn’t worth her time.

Ok, I thought. I’ll rent a car, take a list of the neighborhoods with me and just start asking around in the hotel and restaurants. The only other issue is that I wasn’t really sure I wanted to live the city I was contemplating. As it turned out, one of my cats got violently ill the day before I was due to fly out and I ended up cancelling the trip to care for her. I’m one of those people who doesn’t believe in coincidences and decided that city wasn’t meant for me.

I have a co-worker who tells me I’m over thinking things and I just need to decide on a place and go. I might have done that in my twenties, figuring everything would turn out alright, but I’ve lived just long enough to know that the devil’s in the details and things don’t always work out well. And, if I can make them turn out better by doing some research and planning ahead of time, why wouldn’t I? I think it’s important for me to look at what the weather’s like most of the time wherever I go (I’ve lived in Vegas long enough to hate too much cold weather). Is the property in a safe area? Am I close to good medical care? Do I know anyone there? Is it a green part of the U.S where I can develop that dream garden? What’s the cost of living in that state? Can I afford to live off my social security? And, maybe a stupid concern but, what sorts of insects and bugs are there? How much rain will there be?

So the bottom line is that I’m still toying with ideas on how to accomplish my goals on very little money and getting nowhere fast.

 

Costa Rica Anyone?

Since I’ve lived in apartments for decades and won’t have a huge 401K saved up (savings is a whole other issue), it occurred to me that having rent (or even a mortgage), might drain what I’ve accumulated rather quickly. My thoughts turned to living in another country, one where the cost of living is considerably cheaper. I browsed through lots of issues of International Living magazine, and decided to start early and visit one country each year – Costa Rica, Panama and Belize.

The idea was to put my 401K down to buy a small cottage, but one with land for the garden retreat I covet, and then live off my social security. I have an aromatherapy company that I could put a lot more work into once I retire and pursue some writing goals but I certainly can’t count on that as a steady or even satisfying supplemental income. I have to look at retirement as being solely social security and 401K. Not good. I retired today, after the government takes out its 20% from the 401K, I will have a little over $100,000 and that’s it.

It’s also a little different looking for retirement destinations and homes when planning to buy as a single woman. I have to think a lot about location, not only for being close to healthcare but also for safety.

The next consideration is where to go once in the country when you don’t know anything about it – the weather, food, touristy or liveable, beautiful but isolated, travel methods, etc. For my first destination, Costa Rica, I relied heavily on International Living magazine and Frommer’s Easy Guide to Costa Rica. With limited funds available for the trip – I used my income tax return), clearly the amount of time I stayed was also limited. So the next question is: How do you decide where to go within the country and how do you get from Point A to Point B? Taxi, bus, car, fly? I booked a hotel near San Jose and a car and then got online in search of expats in Costa Rica who might respond and offer some tips. I found a couple relatively near where I would be staying and asked if I could buy them coffee and sit down for an hour or so to ask some questions. Without hesitation, they responded that, yes, they’d be willing to meet and I should have my driver follow the directions they gave me. My driver? I thought it was telling that it never even occurred to them that I might be driving so I decided to do more leg work about driving conditions. I decided to cancel the car and use an in-country company to hire drivers to get me from one location to the next. But that ruled out the trip to meet the expats.

I found that my hotel was not the optimum location for seeing the city so I hired a driver to take me around San Jose. I did some sightseeing and quickly decided I would not be retiring in San Jose. Then I had him drive me around an area that’s supposedly popular with expats and didn’t like it any better. So now what?

I booked a tour to see one of the volcanos, an artisan community and a coffee plantation and discovered that, although I’d figured it would be an interesting day but wouldn’t give me any information I’d need about retiring there, I was wrong. Driving through the local towns and the countryside, gave me a good idea of the types of homes that were common and a sort of “feeling” about the lay of the land and the sort of community where I might want to settle.

There are numerous beaches around¬† Costa Rica that most expats tend to flock to. Not me. I’m more a mountain, birds, butterflies, babbling creeks type of girl so I had my eye on the mountain areas. I loved Monteverde and its lush hillsides but ultimately figured it wouldn’t work for me. It’s a steep location and the older I get, the harder that would be and a local driver told me they have one pharmacy and one medical office but the nearest hospital was about a 2-hour drive down the mountain. If only I were 20 years younger. I’d jump at the chance to live there. But I’m not 20 years younger and I can’t afford to be blind to the consequences of my choices.

That apparently didn’t apply to my decision to zip line while there. I’ve always thought I might like to do that and so I took the plunge and booked a zip line tour. I was the only person signed up that morning (maybe that should’ve told me something?) and discovered that even though the little practice run at the bottom of the mountain was fun and thrilling, it was an entirely different picture when we took a tram up through the clouds to the top of the mountain where, I discovered, I would need to traverse 7 different lines to get back down to the bottom. Walking out on a platform above the cloud line where it’s completely silent and you can see some sort of village wwaaaaayyyyy down at the bottom is ever so slightly more intimidating than a practice run where you’re at treetop level. Nevertheless, I went for it and it was exhilarating.

I discovered that most of the Costa Ricans I met spoke pretty decent English and although I like the idea of a country with no army, when I asked one of my drivers what would happen if Costa Rica were ever attacked, he laughingly responded, “Hello America.”

So many things to consider: how long would it take to build a cottage if I just bought the land? How long to clear the land? Where are the optimal areas for nice breezes, mild “winters” (a term they don’t really use) and great temperatures? What sorts of insects might take over my home? How will my two cats acclimate? Do I need to learn to drive a stick shift? Am I in a safe area but not close enough to my neighbors that they can see what I’m having for breakfast?

I loved Costa Rica and had a wonderful 5 days but I didn’t want to make a rash decision and anyway, hadn’t thought to hire a realtor to show me around. I figured I’d need more than 5 days for that so might have to return. But that’s how you learn, right? Lots of things I accomplished but lots of things I didn’t.

The next year would be Panama. I’ll tackle that fiasco in the next blog post. In the meantime, I’m no closer to a decision about when or where to retire.

 

 

Retirement Considerations

First and foremost is the decision of when to retire. Here are the financial considerations I’m juggling:

a) If I quit before I turn 66, I won’t be able to collect my maximum social security benefits. I can work part-time, which certainly gives me more freedom, but there’s a limitation in how much I can earn and when I finally reach 66, the social security benefit does not increase to the maximum I would get if I waited. Yes, once I hit 66 I can work as much as I want but then what was the point of retiring?

b) If I quit when I hit the magic 66, I get the full amount of my social security benefits and I can supplement them by working as much or as little as I like. That’s very, very tempting but they make it even harder to quit by offering increased benefits each year I continue up to age 70. Having more to live off of is attractive but do I really want to work until I’m 70? No, not really. And the fact that I work in hospice and see lots of people in their 50s and 60s dying makes me realize I can’t know how much time I’ll have to enjoy that time off so why wait?

Just writing this down makes me realize I’ve already crossed the work-until-you-hit-70 scenario off the slate. Of course, it’s nice to think about other things I might be able to do to earn money – write the play I’ve been dabbling with, pen the series of novels I have in mind, spend more time on my outside company and try to build it up, etc. – but I can’t depend on those outlets. I have to assume I’ll be living off social security and that’s a shock to the system (hash tag: why didn’t I start saving sooner?).

The next post will discuss the challenges of finding a retirement destination and whether or not to purchase a house or condo, rent or buy some land and build a cheaper, smaller place to live.