Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Would You Do This at a Restaurant?

     I saw an article recently, and it made me wonder . . .

     A piece called Definitive Proof that People Lie About Food Allergies was posted on July 17 at the website The Bitchy Waiter. The waiter criticized a self-important restaurant guru for recommending that people claim they are allergic to a food, when they really just don't like it. But the server knows that diners are lying when they claim they're allergic to something -- gluten for example -- and then they order a piece of cake for dessert. "It’s annoying and it does a disservice to those who are actually allergic to something because it makes servers think that allergies aren’t really that big of a deal."
     Many people want to eat healthy when they eat out. And so some of them, it seems, just lie to the server about allergies in order to get what they want. Someone doesn't want butter on their food, for example, so they tell the server they're allergic to butter. In other words, they lie, and then the server wastes their time typing in all the modifications into the order which then "goes to the chef to alert the kitchen so they can make sure to not cross-contaminate any of the pans. The kitchen will go through all the trouble to make sure no butter gets near your precious digestive system." But, later on, when the server sees the diner putting butter on a roll, the server will know they made it up. They lied.

     Then, when someone comes in to the restaurant who has a true severe allergy, maybe the waiter won’t take it as seriously because they saw the other diner lying about their butter allergy. "Allergies are a big deal," the server went on to say. "But you know what isn’t a big deal? Not liking something. It only becomes a big deal when you don’t like something and then you tell your server you’re allergic to it when you’re not."

     Other ways to annoy the waiter and waste their time and hold up everyone else in the restaurant:  Insist on no iceberg lettuce in your salad; ask to see an ingredient list for the soup; mix and match various items from different entrees, ordering the cod, but asking the kitchen to prepare it the way they prepare the tuna and plate it with the vegetables from the chicken dish; or just ask the chef to create something special for you that's not on the menu.

     Some people may not like the bitchy waiter. The waiter's job is to serve the customer; so they should just shut up and do the job.

     But I'm with the bitchy waiter. Let them do the job, without harassing them. You want something that the restaurant doesn't have on its menu? Then go to a different restaurant. You want to eat healthy? Don't go to a restaurant at all. Eat at home. It's always healthier to eat at home.

     We used to go out to breakfast with a certain couple that were friends of ours. They would bring their own bottle of real Vermont maple syrup, making sure to tell everyone how horrible the restaurant syrup was -- just liquid sugar with food coloring. Yuck! How could anyone stomach that stuff?

     Okay, at least this couple didn't cause any extra trouble in the kitchen. But, I mean, come on. They were insulting people who worked there as well as other diners within earshot who were happily slurping up their pancakes with restaurant syrup. Why be an obnoxious food snob? It seems to me that people have plenty of opportunities to eat their own real Vermont maple syrup at home. Loosen up a little bit.

     But maybe I'm wrong. The only thing I ever ask at a restaurant is whether there's blue cheese in the salad. I can't stand the taste of blue cheese. But I never claim I have an allergy.

     I saw another item, from the New York Times over the weekend, called Hundreds in Detroit Protest Over Move to Shut Off Water. The piece reported that the city of Detroit, in an effort to save money, decided to turn off water to customers who were overdue on their bill (while also offering assistance for customers with "demonstrated financial need."). In March, when about half the city's customers had outstanding balances amounting to $118 million, the department interrupted service to 15,200 customers. More than half of those who were cut off paid their bills within 24 hours, and their service was restored.

    Maybe I'm stretching it, but doesn't it seem that the half of the people who paid their bills as soon as the water got turned off are kind of like diners who claim they have a food allergy when they don't? In each case, they are taking advantage of a situation, taking advantage of other people.

     The people who didn't pay their bills really could pay -- they just didn't. But the other half, those who still didn't pay their bills, probably have real financial difficulty. They are like the real allergy sufferers who get in real trouble because of the fake allergy sufferers. After all, they're now the ones without water.

     At least, that's the way I read it. But maybe you see it differently.


Friday, July 18, 2014

Beyond Red and Blue

     I did a post last month called Let's Keep 'Em Honest about how media pundits, who are often professional partisans, play havoc with the rules of logic in order to make their point of view seem more believable. They make a personal attack -- calling someone insane, or loony, or just plain stupid -- instead of addressing the substance of an issue. They exaggerate the other person's argument, or use an extreme example, in order to make their own argument sound more reasonable. And they constantly (and often deliberately) confuse correlation with causation -- saying one thing follows another when there is no logical connection.

     For example, I saw a report recently from a conservative pointing out (correctly) that gun violence has gone down over the last 20 years -- which "proves" (although it doesn't prove any such thing) that there is no need for any gun regulation.

     Meanwhile, accounts from liberals picture some tattooed and armed-to-the-hilt middle age man flashing his arsenal and daring some pinko commie to try to come and rip his guns from his red-blooded American hands (the extreme example), as if to prove that all gun owners are one small step this side of crazy.

     There is a website called Punditfact, a project of the Tampa Bay Tribune and the Poynter Institute, that checks the accuracy of claims made by pundits, columnists, political analysts, and other people in the media. After doing an overall analysis, the site determined that some 60 percent of comments made by FOX News hosts and personalities were mostly or outright false. They also calculated that 46 percent of the punditry made on MSNBC is also mostly or completely false.

     So if you're relying on these sources to support your own views, then you are making a big mistake.

     A new study by Pew Research has determined that people who are active supporters of both Republicans and Democrats have become more polarized. Why? Because Republicans listen to FOX News and other conservative commentators who distort many facts. And Democrats listen to MSNBC and read left-of-center publications, which also twist logic, and are selective with their facts, to try to support their own point of view.

     Partisans only talk to people they agree with; and because of that, their views are reinforced, leading them to agree with one another more and more. Pew Research determined that now, more than ever, you can predict what a politician will think about any issue, if you just know what he or she thinks about one issue, because more than ever politicians follow the accepted group think of their own kind.

     But Pew Research also determined that while the highly partisan groups, which dominate the major political parties, have become more extreme, the majority of the American public has not. The partisan groups of both left and right together make up 36 percent of the public. But the current political landscape includes a "large and diverse center," representing 54 percent of the American public. (The other 10 percent are classified by Pew as completely disengaged -- they don't pay any attention to political or social issues).

     Since the partisans are more vocal, more aggressive, more actively involved, they make up a bigger slice of the voters, and a majority of political volunteers and party donors. Nevertheless, on hot-button issues such as abortion, gun ownership and immigration, a clear majority of Americans does not fall into the "always" or "never" camp, but has a more comprehensive understanding of the issue and takes a more centrist position. This majority believes both President Obama and Republican leaders should compromise to address the country's problems.

     Pew Research has parsed the political spectrum into several more nuanced political types. If you're interested, you can go to the Political Typology Quiz to see where you fit in. Caution though: I took the quiz and came out a "Next Generation Left" -- and I don't have to tell you, I am not the Next Generation. Nor am I particularly left, though this category is classified as one of the middle-of-the-road types.

     Anyway, perhaps the solution to the polarizing of our political system, and the decoupling of politics from the concerns of regular people, should rest with us Baby Boomers and retired folks. According to a recent U. S. Census report, Americans over age 65 were the only people who voted in higher proportions in 2012 than in 2008. Some 72 percent of this age group actually voted in the 2012 election, a greater voter participation rate than any other group.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Too Lazy for Gardening

     This post is inspired by DJan who recently graced us with some nice photos of her retirement garden, which flourishes in the moist, moderate climate of Bellingham, WA. And I have seen plenty of other pictures from bloggers that show wonderful, colorful gardens from Vermont to Florida, from Arizona to Hawaii. I recently read that gardening is one of the top ten most-favorite activities of retired people -- behind traveling and family time, but ahead of golfing and fishing.

     So I thought I'd post some photos of my own landscaping efforts. I admit they're relatively modest compared to the cornucopia of vegetables and flowers and perennials that garnish some other retirement sites. But the truth is, while I like to garden, I am too lazy to be a good gardener.

     My brother-in-law, in Pennsylvania, plants two huge gardens -- he has an acre of corn and beans and squash out front, and another half-acre plot in the back with tomatoes and herbs. And the whole place is framed by sunflowers and other decorative plants. He's a teacher. And he spends almost all his spare time -- probably 20 - 30 hours a week, from April through October -- taking care of that garden.

     But me? My efforts are too sporadic. And if there's a shortcut to be had, I take it. If there's a step to skip, I skip it. And that doesn't work when it comes to gardening. (Not home repairs, either, but that's another story.)

     The result? I planted this garden out back. We got one lily.

     I don't know what the problem is. But it can't be the soil, or the climate, because here are the lilies growing in my next-door neighbor's yard:

      I know when you put in flowers, preparing the soil is a crucial step. But it's hard! I never dig the holes deep enough. I forget the fertilizer. I do give the new plants plenty of water -- but I don't follow through and continue to water them until they get firmly established.

     That's why I do best with naturally occurring, locally indigenous plants. When we moved into our house, I found several scraggly bushes at the edge of a small patch of woods out back. I transplanted them to the side of the house. Then I strutted over to B and crowed, "Now, that's what I call landscaping!"

     And she replied, "Well, that's what I call pricker bushes!" Okay, they may not be pretty. But now, a few years later, they do look healthy, don't they?

      There's another indigenous plant that I can grow. Except it is not so much indigenous specimen as it is an invasive pest. I spend almost as much time cutting down these vines as my brother-in-law spends tilling his tomato patch.

      Now B has put a few planters and a window box out back on our deck. I think she has a slightly greener thumb than I do. Plus, she does it right. She got some potting soil; she waters them regularly; she placed them in just the right spot, where they get sun . . . but not too much sun.

     She even weeds the window box. Weeding? What's that all about? I hate to weed. Besides, aren't weeds just naturally occuring indigenous plants, ones that suburban dwellers simply fail to properly appreciate? For example, look at these indigenous purple flowers blooming in my lawn.

     But the lawn is another story altogether, perhaps one for another blog post. Meanwhile, I walk the dog every morning, and every morning we go past my other neighbor, who really knows what he's doing when it comes to gardening.

     But, really, now . . .  don't ya think he's kind of showing off!

Friday, July 11, 2014

Is Long-Term-Care Insurance for You?

     Many Baby Boomers ask:  should we get Long Term Care insurance to help pay for our personal needs if, for whatever reason, we find ourselves unable to take care of ourselves?

     I related my own experience purchasing a LTC policy in two previous posts:  The Basics of Long-Term-Care Insurance and Are You Getting Alzheimer's? I'm happy to report that my medical history was apparently good enough to suit the insurance company. So I was accepted for the policy.

     I now have the dubious honor of paying a little over $2,000 a year, for the rest of my life, in the hopes that my insurance company will still be around and will agree to pay for my care if and when I need it.

     But those two posts just cover my own experience. I thought I'd go to an expert to offer a more objective, overall view of LTC.

     So I consulted Jeremy A. Kisner, president of Surevest Capital Management in Phoenix, AZ. He is a Certified Financial Planner and Chartered Retired Plans Specialist, with a degree in economics from UC Santa Barbara. He also writes an informative Weekly Insight blog that covers various aspects of personal finance and retirement issues.

     So here's what he says about LTC:

LTCNo Good Solutions?

You would think that with 10,000 baby boomers hitting age 65 every day, Long Term Care (LTC) insurance sales would be booming. They are not. In fact, sales of traditional LTC insurance have been declining since 2004.

Why? In part because the policies are expensive. A decent policy for a 60-year-old couple now costs in the range of $6 - $7,000 per year. Also, insurance companies have become more selective about who will qualify for a policy, since companies are only now getting a good grip on the true costs of claims. Many companies have stopped issuing policies, because they have not proved profitable. A decade ago, over 100 companies offered LTC insurance; now there are fewer than 20. Those that remain -- such as Genworth, American General, John Hancock -- are charging more and have more stringent underwriting (no, Obamacare does not help you get long-term-care insurance).

Many people who buy LTC insurance assume their premiums will remain level for the rest of their lives. But that's not necessarily true. Insurance companies do have the ability to raise rates on in-force policies. Some people have never had their rate raised. But others have seen significant increases, forcing them to reduce or even terminate their coverage.

Do You Need LTC?

A LTC event is the single biggest risk to your retirement plan. It's estimated that at some point in their lives 7 out of 10 people will require long-term care  -- non-medical care that involves helping a person eat, bathe, dress, walk. In reality, the majority of this care is provided by family members, often with a heavy emotional toll. Home health care agencies are the second most common provider of care, and the nursing home is generally considered a last resort. The costs of these options can easily run into hundreds of thousands of dollars, and Medicare does not pay. Once you have spent essentially all of your money, Medicaid will kick in, but that could leave a surviving spouse broke and virtually nothing in your estate.

If you are single, you have to spend all your non-exempt assets -- including investment accounts, savings accounts, retirement accounts and the cash value of any life insurance policy -- down to $2,000 before Medicaid will pay your bill. If you're married, the spouse can keep up to the "community spouse resource allowance" which is set by your state -- ranging from $23,448 to $117,240. Exempt assets include your wedding ring, one car, your house. 

LTC Insurance, like other forms of insurance, is designed to transfer financial risks from the individual to an insurance company for a fee. So who can benefit from the policy? People with over $2 million in investible assets tend to self-insure. They can afford the average LTC event without wiping out their life savings. People with low net worth, under $200k in investible assets, tend not to buy the insurance because the costs are too high. They will spend down whatever money they have until Medicaid kicks in. It is the folks in the middle who have the toughest decision.

What Is Your Situation?

Traditional LTC insurance makes sense if you are in decent health and have surplus income from pensions, Social Security, and other sources. The most common age at which people buy LTC insurance is 57. 

Here's how it works. First, policies do have an elimination period (typically 90 days) during which the insured has to pay out of pocket, before the insurance kicks in. Once benefits are triggered, the policy typically offers a daily or monthly maximum. If your daily maximum is $200, but your care is $250, then insurance covers $200 and you pay $50. Most policies are reimbursement policies. Indemnity policies are better because once benefits are triggered, the insurance company automatically pays the amount of your coverage (ask your LTC agent to explain the difference in more detail).

Some LTC policies only pay if you go in a nursing home. Others will also pay for at-home help, as long as you meet the requirements. Naturally the policy is cheaper if it only covers a nursing home. However, I would never recommend such a policy. Four times as many people are receiving care at home compared to the number who are in nursing homes. Some policies have 100% coverage for home health care, meaning the daily limits are the same whether you are in a nursing home or receiving help at home. Other policies may limit the at-home payment to 50%, as home health care is usually (but not always) less expensive.

Finally, many people worry about what might happen to their insurance company over the next 20 or 30 years. But insurance is possibly the most regulated industry in America. Companies have to have their product approved by every state in which they issue policies. They have to keep reserves, and they also pay into a state guarantee fund which makes good on policies if the insurance company were to go out of business. In reality, when a company gets into trouble a stronger company buys them out, sometimes with financial help from state guarantee funds. Insurance companies do occasionally fail, but I have never heard of a client not being able to collect on their life insurance, annuity or long-term care for that reason.

Are There Other Options?
Some people in the middle turn to hybrid products, rather than traditional LTC,  such as life insurance with a LTC Rider. These policies enable policy holders to use the death benefit while they are still alive to pay for LTC costs. There are also annuities with LTC riders that will double the monthly payout if the owner cannot perform two of six activities of daily living. Lastly, there is always the reverse mortgage, which enables homeowners to tap their home equity. Funds from a reverse mortgage could be used to pay for long term care, or to provide money for a surviving spouse.

Life insurance with an LTC rider makes sense if one of your financial goals is to leave money behind (assuming you dont use it all up for your care). You either need funds to buy a policy or you may already have a life insurance policy with cash value that could be exchanged for one with the LTC rider. The annuity is the best option if you already have health problems and would not qualify for traditional LTC or life insurance. Annuities do not have any health underwriting.

The LTC decision is a very important part of your overall retirement plan. Many people avoid it until it is too late, because the insurance has become too expensive or medical conditions limit your choices. I strongly suggest working with a professional who can look at your entire financial picture and help you think through your options. There may not be a "perfect" choice, but with a little work, you can find the best solution for you.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014


     Not much going on in our lives this week, except to watch the rain. We took a trip over to the Hudson River, where we took refuge in a riverside restaurant . . .

     Later, when we got home, the thunderstorms arrived . . .