Saturday, August 11, 2018

The Ten Commandments of Retirement

     Most of us are familiar with the Ten Commandments, even if we don’t remember them all, or follow them all. But they are universal truths, going back as far as the ancient Mesopotamians around 1000 BCE, who had laws incorporating the same sentiments as those later found in the Bible.

     The Ten Commandments may be a good place to start in advising us about any aspect of our lives, even retirement, although they have to be adapted to make sense in 21st century America. So here are the Ten Commandments for retirement, as inspired by our philosopher ancestors.

     1. Save for retirement. Most of us have Social Security, and some of us have a pension. But benefits can be changed, and besides, nobody ever promised that Social Security would provide anything more than a safety net. If you want a comfortable retirement, start saving early in life, presumably with an employer program or an individual IRA, and resist the temptation to rob your retirement fund to buy a new car or new boat.

     2. Invest your money. Experts recommend you have up to ten times your annual salary socked away by the time you retire. That’s almost impossible to do by saving alone. But if you invest early and consistently, you can grow your nestegg 5 to 10 percent a year, which is a realistic way to achieve financial security. If you're in your 60s or 70s, keep on investing, because you may have to finance another 20+ years of living expenses.

     3. Do not retire too early. Social Security offers a siren call when we first become eligible for benefits at age 62. In Greek mythology the Sirens were beautiful creatures who lured sailors with their enchanting music to wreck their ships on the rocky coast. Similarly, if you start taking Social Security early, you receive a smaller monthly income for the rest of your life, leaving you exposed to a shipwreck on the rocks of unexpected expenses.

     4. Downsize. You no longer need a big house to shelter your family. You may no longer need two or three cars to ferry the kids to school or soccer practice. So consider downsizing your home and your possessions -- especially if you broke any of those first three commandments.

     5. Eat right. When you’re retired you have more time to take care of yourself. So make the effort to buy and prepare healthful foods, and make sure to get the nutrition you may have neglected when you were too busy working and raising a family.

     6. Get some exercise. A reasonable amount of light-to-moderate exercise will extend your longevity, so you’ll be around long enough to collect on the Social Security you’ve been paying for your entire working life. Exercise also makes you feel better by improving digestion, soothing aching joints, and increasing energy levels.

     7. Hold your family close. Your kids are out of the house, but that doesn’t mean they should be out of your life. Loneliness is one hazard of retirement, so make an effort to stay close to family -- especially your grandchildren.

     8. Make new friends. Old friends will die or move away – or perhaps you will move away. Wherever you find yourself, try making new friends, for a strong social network supports both physical and mental health as you get older.

     9. Do something you like to do. Loneliness is one threat in retirement; boredom is another. So after you retire, recommit to your long-time hobby, or find a new one. Become active in your community; find a part-time job; volunteer to help those in need. Do something to make you want to get out of bed in the morning and take part in the bright new day.

     10. Make sure to . . . Wait a second. Look who I'm talking to here ... a lot of people who have more retirement experience than I do. What's your favorite retirement commandment?

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Feeling Guilty?

     Cape Cod has a fragile environment. It's just a spit of sand sticking out into the Atlantic ocean, with enough tourists in the summer, you'd think, to weigh it down and swamp it in Nantucket Sound. Hurricanes and Nor'easters have eroded some of the beaches. And since most of land mass has an elevation less than 50 feet, when the glaciers start melting, Cape Cod will be very vulnerable.

     Many people here think of themselves as environmentalists. Bicycle paths crisscross the landscape. Every town has protected some conservation land from development. People pick up after their dogs. A lot of homeowners go without air conditioning. The local ice-skating rink claims: "Our ice comes from the sun."

A windmill in Falmouth, MA
     I've actually seen a few solar farms on the Cape, which is a surprise since there isn't all that much sun here. And I've counted at least a dozen windmills spread out among the trees. There's plenty of wind on Cape Cod, and so those practical New Englanders have put it to use.

     I recall reading a book, Cape Wind by Robert Whitcomb, during one of our previous visits to the Cape. A consortium was proposing to build a wind farm out on Nantucket Sound, maybe 10 or 12 miles offshore. It would have produced almost enough electricity to replace the oil-and-natural-gas-burning electric generation plant on the Cape.

     However, the Cape Wind project ran into a lot of opposition. It would interfere with boating traffic; it would endanger migrating birds. But most of all it would spoil the view of the well-heeled waterfront property owners in and around Hyannisport.

     One opponent of Cape Wind was Sen. Ted Kennedy, who of course had a family compound in Hyannisport. Senator Kennedy eventually met his maker. But the Cape Wind project has not. While there is still no sign of a windmill in Nantucket Sound, apparently plans are still going forward for a wind farm sometime in the future.

     Meanwhile, there are already a number of windmills scattered across the landscape. So good for the Cape Codders who are progressing along the lines of clean energy, energy independence, and intelligent use of natural resources.

     But of course, nothing is ever quite so simple. Every year the town of Orleans holds an end-of-summer bonfire on Nauset Beach. It's a spectacular sight and lot of fun for the kids. But it seems like enough smoke billows out from the wood fire to cause global warming all by itself.

     I also noticed a conflicted attitude toward automobiles on the Cape. I saw many a Toyota Prius (50 mpg) and Honda Insight (40+ mpg) on the streets of Falmouth, along with other smaller cars that probably get 30 mpg. But there were also plenty of Jeeps (20 mpg), Chevy Tahoes (18 mpg), and Ford Expeditions (16 mpg).

     In other words, a lot of Cape Codders choose to ignore any warnings about air pollution or global warming, and they seem unconcerned that we derive a lot of our gasoline from the dubious practice of fracking, while we still import a lot from our frenemies in the war-torn Middle East.

     I figure, if you drive an SUV, you're a libertarian who believes that people should be able to do what they want, without restrictions on their freedom and despite any consequences to others. But  everybody, no matter what their political belief, agrees on one thing. They want to be able to drive 70 or 75 mph, not 55 mph, and they don't care that it burns up more gas that way. (A typical car engine is most efficient at around 50 or 55 mph. If you get 30 mpg at 55 mph, you will be getting about 25 mpg at 70 mph.)

     I know, I know, you're in a hurry. And gas is not that expensive. And what difference does one car make? But according to mpg for speed, if the national speed limit were set to 55 (as it was in the 1970s) it would save 1 billion gallons of oil per year.

     Of course, I'm like everybody else. I don't want to live near a nuclear power plant; I don't want anyone fracking in my backyard, and I don't want them drilling for oil in the Arctic. But I also want to be able to drive wherever I want, whenever I want . . . and not have to pay too much for gasoline.

     Most of us try to be good. As for me, I console myself that I don't drive an SUV; I drive a sedan and I don't drive as fast as many other people, so I get a little over 30 mpg on the highway. But let's face it, convenience often wins out over conscience. And I wonder. Cape Cod is a nice place to visit. But will it be swamped under water when our 16-month-old grandson wants to come here 20 or 30 years from now?

     P. S. For those who want to follow up on the topic, the New York Times Aug. 5 Sunday magazine devotes the entire issue to an article "Losing Earth" by Nathaniel Rich which focuses on the causes and dangers of climate change.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Simple Pleasures

     B and I are vacationing on Cape Cod for two weeks. We're renting the same house we rented last year. We're here by ourselves right now, but soon some family will be visiting us.

A portrait of the harbor
     B and I have been coming to Cape Cod ever since we met, about 15 years ago. By that time she had already been to the Cape a few times with her kids. On my part, I first came here when I was in college, and have been coming back almost every year ever since.

     We like the salt air, the picturesque towns, the shoreline on Nantucket Sound, and farther out, the more rugged beaches along the Atlantic Ocean. And, not incidentally, our favorite ice-cream shop just happens to be right around the corner from our house. And a half mile the other way is George's Fish Market. We had steamed lobsters for dinner last night.

My crib sheet
     We've read a few books. I reviewed the signal flags that I learned last year. And as we rode our bikes past the local Congregational church, B told me the difference between a graveyard and a cemetery. A graveyard is located at a church; a cemetery is not.

     A few people actually live out here year round. We have friends, originally from the Boston area, who have lived in Falmouth for over 25 years. They raised their two kids here.

Graveyard at Harwich church
     But most of the crowds on the Cape consist of vacationers -- some families and a lot of retirees. In some ways, it's a fairly insular group. Almost all of them come from the Northeast. Actually, almost all of them come from Massachusetts. There are some people from Connecticut, and then there's a smattering of outliers from Maine to Maryland, from Ontario to Ohio. I saw one California license plate -- I bet those people grew up in Boston.

     There's also a contingent of retirees from Florida. (Most of them are originally from New England as well.) They spend summers here, but make sure to maintain their residency in Florida to avoid the heavy Massachusetts taxes. So you see a lot of Florida license plates dotting the landscape.

We went swimming in Seymour pond
     Honestly, the weather hasn't been that sunny (hence, the reading). We spent an hour the other night standing out in the rain waiting for a local baseball game to begin. It never did.

     But one afternoon we did go swimming in one of the kettle ponds, the bodies of water left behind by the glaciers some 18,000 years ago. We also rode the Shining Path bike trail from Falmouth to Woods Hole. We saw a summer stock production of Altar Boyz, which was a hoot. And a performance by Hyannis Sound, a college a cappella group that sings its way around the Cape for the summer.
Looking across to Martha's Vineyard

     None of this is very sophisticated. One of B's nephews, a high-school principal from New Jersey, is coming to visit for a couple of days. He and his wife just got back from Paris. I doubt we'll measure up.

     But we like the simple pleasures -- hanging around in shorts and t-shirts, slurping clam chowder and licking ice-cream cones, riding bikes and playing in the sand.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

If We're So Rich, How Come We're Not Happy?

     We are better off in almost every way than at any time in history. Yet to read the headlines -- even to talk to your friends -- you'd think the world is coming to an end.

     Jeremy Kisner, an investment adviser with Surevest Wealth Management of Phoenix, AZ, recently addressed this phenomenon, and, I think, put the world in better perspective. I am summarizing (another word for stealing . . . but with his permission) his thunder here, but for more wisdom direct from him, you can go to jeremykisner.com.

     Kisner reminds us that the world has improved dramatically over almost any time frame you can consider. But it doesn't always feel this way because negative headlines attract eyeballs and sell advertising. Granted, there are tons of very real problems. Nevertheless, Bill Gates nailed it when he said, "Headlines are what mislead you, because bad news is a headline and gradual improvement is not."

     Human progress occurs because every day a few billion people go to work and figure out ways to improve living standards. Individuals do not always recognize the gradual improvements. But one place you can see the progress is in the stock market which has been going up for most of our lives (with, granted, a few bumps in the road) and is near all-time highs.

     People get scared reading the news -- North Korea, Iran, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, refugees, economic disparities, global warming -- and then they get even more scared thinking about the things that might go wrong. But meanwhile, people buy more things, companies grow, wealth is created, and billions of people live longer and better lives.

     Here are a few of Kisner's examples of human progress,:

     Life expectancy: Consider this: If you were born in 1900, you would have had a 23% chance of dying before age 20 and a 38% chance of dying before age 45. Kids born today have about a 1% chance of dying before age 20 and a 4% chance of dying before age 45.

     Modern Conveniences: When our grandparents were born, virtually no one had electricity ... or telephone or indoor plumbing. They didn't have a car and couldn't fly in an airplane. Today, 85% of the people in the world enjoy the benefits of electricity. And two-thirds have a cellphone.

     Poverty: Twenty years ago 29% of the world population lived in extreme poverty. Today it's only 9% . . . and the rate is still falling.

     Crime: Violent crime has been on a downward trend in the U. S. since 1990. Almost 14.5 million crimes were reported in the United States in 1990. By 2016 that figure was under 9.5 million.

     Retirement: Some 90% of 65-year-old American men who were still alive in 1870 were working. Today only about 20% of 65-year-old American men are still working ... and many of them are working by choice not necessity.

     Housework: The average family spent 11.5 hours a week doing laundry in 1920. That has fallen to 1.5 hours a week as of 2014.

     Safety: Americans became 95% less likely to be killed on the job over the last hundred years. Seat belts, air bags and other safety features have brought down auto fatalities from 50,000 a year in the 1970s to about 37,000 today, despite more cars on the road. The auto fatality rate per 100,000 people has dropped from 25 to 11 -- less than half what it was in the 1970s.

     Disease: In the past century, vaccines and antibiotics have brought miracles for modern medicine. Just since 1990, the control of infectious disease has saved the lives of an estimated 100 million children.

     Food. Between 1961 and  2009, the amount of land used to grow food increased by 12%, but the amount of food grown has increased by 300%.

     Kisner maintains that people who think the best days for America, and for our economy, are behind us are essentially saying that human innovation is going to slow down or stagnate. He says that doesn't seem likely, at least over the next 20 to 30 years. Don't you agree?

     But that begs the question: With all this good fortune, why is everyone so disconsolate?

     We live in a society with the freedom to make our own decisions -- and our fundamental belief is that freedom to choose makes people happy. The more affluent we become, the more choices we have and, in theory, the happier we should be. The problem is that the average American in less satisfied with their lives, and clinical depression has exploded in the past 30 years, while our economy and standard of living has grown.

     Why? Kisner points us to the paradox of plenty. Now, there's no question, there are some benefits to more freedom of choice. But there are negative effects as well.

     Paralysis. The more options we have, the more difficult it is to choose, and we end up procrastinating, or just freezing up. For example, an analysis of over 600 corporate retirement plans showed that the more mutual fund choices a company offered in its 401k, the fewer people participated in the plan. This is because the task of selecting the right funds became overwhelming. There's more choice, but people actually end up poorer.

     Second guessing. The more options we have, the less likely we are to end up satisfied with our choice. For example, assume there are three salad dressings. You know you don't like bleu cheese or honey mustard, so you pick Italian, and you're happy. What if there are 24 salad dressings? You are likely to be filled with doubt that you picked the best one, regardless of which one you pick.

     Escalation of expectations. With all our options, we expect to find the "perfect" choice. When our choice is less than perfect, we are less satisfied. And then, instead of blaming someone else for the shortfall -- the producer, the provider, whoever -- we blame ourselves, because we somehow failed to make the right choice.

     For more on this paradox, you can go to a TED Talk by Barry Schwartz, who explains the theory further. But the bottom line is this: Material affluence enables more choice, but it frequently makes people less happy.

     This doesn't mean we should all take a vow of poverty. It means that we will all be better off if we keep the following in mind: Most of us are better off than we think. But less can be more. Don't be paralyzed by the pressure to make perfect decisions. Don't blame yourself when the solution you choose is not perfect. Don't feel bad if there's some "new thing" that you either don't want or can't afford. And share more with other people.

     As with most things in life, good can be good enough, and acceptance of that can lead to greater life satisfaction. And . . . don't pay too much attention to those negative headlines.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

With Our Thoughts We Make Our World

     It's the middle of the summer doldrums, yet this week seems to have brought out a positive attitude among Baby Boomer bloggers.

     Kathy Gottberg is at the beach right now. But that does not keep her from thinking about her blog, SmartLiving 365, and how she inspires people to face and then overcome their challenges. So she offers a selection of you-can-make-it quotes that will help us through the summer. My favorite? Well, perhaps you can guess, but my favorite doesn't matter. Check out her post and decide what's your favorite.

     Along the same lines, Sue Loncaric from Sizzling Toward 60 & Beyond shares thoughts on why It's Never Too Late to Embrace Life. The topic should resonate, if you just challenge yourself to finish this sentence for your own life: "It's never too late to . . . "

     And while Gottberg and Loncaric inspire us by word, Meryl Baer inspires us by action. She admits to not being a computer geek, or even particularly computer literate. However, at times she tries to help her 93-year-old mom troubleshoot her computer issues. The latest problem was easy to figure out, but not so easy to fix. Read about the dilemma, and how they handled it, in 69,000 and Counting.

     And speaking of challenges, Laura Lee Carter got evacuated from her home for a week while an outrageous wildfire terrorized her small, rural Colorado county. In case you've never been evacuated with 1800 government personnel invading a county of only 5000 people, she decided to share her experience in Home Again: All's Right with my World!

     In If You Could Save Someone's Life, Wouldn't You? Carol Cassara of A Healing Spirit interviews Elaine Schock, the wife of a man who received a diagnosis of Stage IV HPV-related cancer. But not all was lost, and Schock's participation in his treatment proved hugely significant in his remission.

     On The Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide, Rita R. Robison might inspire us to use less energy ... and save the planet. She cites the states that are the most expensive, and least expensive, for energy, including electricity, gasoline, home heating. FYI: Wyoming, Connecticut and Georgia are at one end of the spectrum, while Oregon, Washington and Colorado are at the other. Click on What Are the Most and Least Expensive Energy States? to find out where your state stands.

     And finally, lest we forget the most inspiring story of all, Rebecca Olkowski turns to the rescue of the 12 boys from a Thailand cave by a group of courageous divers facing almost insurmountable odds. Her post is about How to Overcome Tough Challenges in Life, and she draws lessons from the harrowing Thailand experience that we can all use in our own lives.