"To be too certain of anything is the beginning of bigotry." -- Novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah

Saturday, August 31, 2019

What Does Medicare Cost?

     I was surprised when I read in a recent poll from eligibility.com that about half of the people surveyed believe Medicare is free. Is that what you thought?

     We who are retired know it's not true. So for the uninitiated -- or the forgetful -- here's a run-down of how much Medicare costs us.

     Part A covers hospitals, nursing and other medical services. This is the part that's free -- as long as you've met the work-related requirements to qualify.

     Part B covers outpatient care and medical supplies. The standard rate for Part B is currently $135.50 per month. The rate is graduated by income, so higher earners pay more. If an individual earns more than $85,000, or a retired couple makes over $170,000, the rate is $189.60 per person per month. And it goes up from there. For individuals who earn more than $160,000, or couples above $320,000, the rate is $433.40 per person. For most of us this charge is automatically deducted from our Social Security benefit.

     Part B also comes with a deductible of $185.00. And after the deductible is met, Medicare only pays 80%, leaving us responsible for 20% of the cost.

     Parts A and B do not cover drug costs. So there's a Part D for prescription drugs. The cost for Part D varies depending on how comprehensive the plan is, but the average cost runs around $33 per month. And again, higher earners pay higher premiums.

     Since Medicare doesn't pay for everything, most retirees also purchase a supplemental plan of one sort or another from a private insurance company. How much it costs varies with how much coverage you get and the company you buy it from. Just by way of example, I get mine through AARP and United Health Care, and currently pay $184.34 per month. B has her own supplemental plan through Cigna. Some retirees (not us) can still get this coverage from their old employer.

     You can also sign up for a Medicare Advantage Plan which typically packages Part A and B with a drug plan. These offerings are often less expensive, but may restrict which medical providers are available to you.

     One Medicare pitfall is that if you don't sign up right away, at age 65, you face penalties that will increase the premiums for the rest of your life. If you're already enrolled in Social Security at age 65, then you will automatically be enrolled for Medicare Parts A and B. But if you're not taking Social Security, then it's up to you to sign up. (However, if you're still working and covered by an employer plan, you may be able to delay Medicare without the penalty.)

     There is another option for people who can't afford to pay for Medicare. Medicaid provides health coverage for certain low-income people, including the elderly and people with disabilities. Check out HHS.gov to you want to see if you qualify.

     One last thing to consider in planning for medical bills in retirement is that neither Medicare nor Medicaid covers everything. Medicare doesn't cover dental work, glasses or contact lenses, over-the-counter drugs, or long-term care. Other policies are available to cover at least some of these expenses. But long-term-care insurance is increasingly hard to find and complicated to negotiate.

     Who said there's no free lunch? Some attribute the quote to Depression-era New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia, others to economist Milton Freeman. Still others say it goes back to the 1800s practice of offering a free lunch in bars to entice people to buy more drinks. Who knows? But at least so far, there's no free medical care.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

What Are We Doing?

     Blogger Laura Lee Carter asks an interesting question. She first reminds us that we are living much longer than our great-grandparents or even our grandparents. The average life expectancy for a woman born in 1900 was 52 years, for a man just 48. We don't realize how young most of our forebears were when they died.

     But life expectancy has increased some 20 years since the early 1900s. The average 65-year-old American today can expect to survive well past 80. So the question is: What do we do with all this extra time?

     Unfortunately, not all of us use the time constructively. Rates of binge-drinking and suicide are up among the elderly. But most of us have a more positive experience. As Laura says in Boomers: What Are You Doing with All Your Extra Years? we get more involved in everything from cooking and gardening, to meditation and yoga, to all forms of freedom and creativity.

     So what are Baby Boomer bloggers doing these days?

     Rebecca Olkowski with BabyBoomster.com wonders: What happens if you are a woman over 50 and suddenly find yourself single? If you don't have a pile of money, she suggests, you might think about alternative living options. In House Sharing: A Trending Solution for Baby Boomer Women she explores this new trend and concludes that it makes sense for more and more Baby Boomers.

     Carol Cassara at A Healing Spirit is focusing on some other transitions, like job changes, empty nest, divorce, widowhood, retirement. Any life transition can be challenging, she acknowledges, and so in Ways to Make a Transition Work for You she offers four strategies to turn these sometimes difficult moments into opportunities for discovery.

     Jennifer of Unfold and Begin has been thinking about her mother, who as the exception that proves the rule, would be celebrating her 100th birthday if she hadn't passed this past January. In Why Is There Pie in My Creativity Prompt? Jennifer shares one of her Mommyisms that made life with her mother so interesting.

     Kathy Gottberg of SmartLiving 365 is using much of her extra time to travel. She understands that not everyone likes to travel as much as she does, but in A Rightsized Way to Travel she explains how if you do have a desire to travel, yet only seem to find excuses not to do it, then you should consider the benefits of rightsizing -- not just your home, but the rest of your life as well. Rightsizing sometimes involves trade-offs, but the benefits bring opportunities for more freedom and fun, and offer you the time to meditate and relax, exercise and eat healthy, laugh and dance, spend time with friends and the people you love.

More freedom and fun 
     Meryl Baer of Six Decades and Counting certainly likes to travel. But in Lost Then Found she acknowledges that there can be some bumps in the road. Sometimes our mind and memory play tricks on us. And so she relates how, after coming home from a trip to Scotland, she simply could not locate a key item in her luggage -- an item that she'd placed in a safe and secure place (or so she thought) before she left -- and in so doing demonstrates that Baby Boomers haven't lost their sense of humor.

     Meanwhile, Laurie from Musings, Rants & Scribbles turns her attention to marriage -- or the challenge of living full-time with anyone, I suppose. "Like Sisyphus rolling that rock up the hill, only to have it tumble back down," she says, "my husband and I have been having the same arguments year after year. They've become as predictable as the sun rising, and, although small, these issues never seem to get resolved." And so in Do You and Your Spouse Keep Having the Same Arguments? she confesses: "Here they are in no particular order . . . "

     How can you not want to find out what those arguments are about, in no particular order?

     As for her part, consumer journalist Rita Robison examines How to Reduce the Amount of Plastic You Eat. If you care about the environment, or your health, you should be concerned about the microplastics that are everywhere, including at times even the rainwater, and so Robison offers some tips on how to reduce the amount of plastic you ingest into your body.

     And as a final note, if you care about the environment, you might want to check out the latest recommendations from Energy Star about the settings on your air conditioner. Some people are startled to find that they should be much higher than they think. And if that makes you uncomfortable, well . . . I guess that's what shorts and short-sleeve shirts and percale sheets are for.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

How We Can Save Money

     One way B and I save money is by paying our bills on time. We never (well, almost never) pay a late fee on a utility bill or tax bill, and every month we pay off our credit cards on time -- so no interest, no penalty.

     As an aside, we have several credit cards ... which is probably not the best way to do it. But both of us agree, we'd rather pay one bill for $500, and then a second bill for $700, rather than have to swallow one bill for $1200 all at once. I realize this makes no financial difference ... but don't you agree, it makes it easier?

     Here are a few other ways to save money. Some of them B and I practice (although, as you'll see, I don't necessarily hold us up as paragons of frugality). Others I've recently read about, or heard about. Feel free to add some others, since we could all benefit from saving a few dollars here and there.

     Vacations. Travel is expensive, and so the best way to save money is to stay at home. But we want to visit the grandkids, or go to the mountains or the beach, or take a long-dreamed-of trip to Europe. One strategy we use is to go out of season -- the beach in November or February. We have also cultivated connections. We rent the same house on Cape Cod every year, from a woman who hasn't raised our rent in the past four years. We use a rental agency in South Carolina that periodically offers seasonal or longer-term specials ... and we jump on them. One thing we do not do is frequent miles. We've never been able to figure out how they pay off. (We get cash back instead).

     Restaurants. One way to save is to go out for lunch instead of dinner, when the fare is less expensive. Unfortunately, we don't really eat much of a lunch. But when we go out to dinner we often share a plate, or skip the drink, or go for the chicken dish instead of the steak or lobster. Also, to be honest, we are not really gourmets ... we do pizza as much as anything else, and we avoid any restaurant that sports tablecloths. Also, on the rare occasion we go out for coffee, it's Dunkin' Donuts, not Starbucks.

     Transportation. We recently got our Senior Fare cards for SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority), and so we can ride for free -- which we did just the other day. We still have two cars; but we're talking about downsizing to one, because we hardly ever use both of them at the same time. Has anyone done this?

     Gambling. We don't gamble. That includes the state lottery.

     Clothing. B spends a lot on clothing. I spend almost nothing. It averages out.

     Entertainment. I play golf in a league, which always negotiates a better rate than the normal greens fees. I also play ping pong for $5 a night at the senior center. B does a lot of her entertainment at her church, which is largely free. We also get the senior rate at our local movie theater. However, I did just spend a fortune to buy two tickets to the quarterfinals at the U. S. Open in a couple of weeks. Don't do that if you want to save money. (I'm guessing it's a similar story for football tickets, but I don't know for sure, I've never been to a professional football game.)

     Souvenirs. See above, the item for clothing.

     Haircuts. According to Brandongaille Marketing the average man's haircut costs $28.30 -- plus tip, presumably. I go to an old-fashioned barber shop located in the parking lot of a mini-mall, and I pay $17 plus $3 tip for $20 total. I honestly don't know what B pays (what, you think I'm gonna ask her?!?) but she doesn't go to the fanciest place in town, and her hair looks great!

     Storage units. In my opinion, keeping stuff in a storage unit only means that you haven't made the hard decisions. And not making decisions costs you money. We rented a storage unit for a year, when we were between moves, and that lightened our wallet by over $200 a month. Fortunately, we now have that monkey off our backs.

     Gym membership. Well . . . it all depends on whether you use it or not.

     Grandchildren. B sends her grandchildren a book every month. (Remember, she's a retired librarian.) That may sound like a lot, but really, it's only a few bucks. I don't have any grandchildren yet, so my cost so far is $0.00 per month. But my first grandchild is on the way, and B thinks I'm going to be a pushover. We'll see . . .

Friday, August 16, 2019

Should This Couple Downsize?

     We were at a wedding reception recently and sat down with another couple from our old hometown. We know them, but not too well. They are a few years younger than we are, and they live in a big house in one of the pricier neighborhoods in the area.

     Of course, they wanted to know why we moved to Pennsylvania, and so we filled them in on our recent move to downsize to a smaller home, in a place where the cost of living, and especially the tax burden, is considerably less. They were interested in our experience and eager for advice.

     They had raised their three children in a New York suburb. Now they were rattling around in their big house and thinking about downsizing. They had vacationed on Cape Cod a number of times, and were thinking about moving to the area. In fact, they had been on the Cape for a couple of weeks this summer, and had seen a cottage one block from the water that they liked.

     "It's a really nice little place," said the wife, "with two bedrooms upstairs and a bedroom downstairs with a bathroom. We'd take the downstairs bedroom, so we wouldn't have to do stairs, and then the kids could stay upstairs when they came to visit."

     "It's smaller than your house in Westchester?" I asked.

     "Oh yeah," said the husband. "We'd be going from 3500 square feet to 1500 square feet. But what do we need more room for, at this point?" he asked rhetorically.

     "But I don't suppose things are much less expensive in Cape Cod," I ventured.

     "Oh, you'd be surprised. Not income tax. But the real-estate tax on the Cape Cod house is less than $5,000, compared to over $15,000 for our current New York house."

     "But what about our friends?" the wife wanted to know. turning to B. "Do you keep up with your old friends in Westchester? And were you able to make new friends?"

     So we explained how we'd considered moving into a planned community, with a clubhouse and a pool and built-in social groups, where we would almost automatically make new friends. But in the end we decided we wanted to be in a real town, with sidewalks, where we could walk to the restaurants, movie theater and library.

     How did that work out for you? they wanted to know.

     It was probably a little harder than moving to a place where your social life is already set up for you, we explained. But B has met plenty of people through church and the local women's group. And I joined a golf league and found a place where they play ping pong once a week. And we both have become involved in our senior learning center where we've met some like-minded people.

     Then we told them we get back to Westchester three or four times a year and meet up with old friends for dinner or some other occasion. A few friends have come to visit us in our new digs. It's a 2 1/2 hour drive, so they can do it in one day if they don't mind a five-hour round trip. Or several have come down and stayed overnight, either with us or at an airbnb.

     They brightened up when they heard about that, since they figured they'd have no problem attracting their old friends to come visit them on Cape Cod, even though it is a little farther away from home -- about 4 hours. And they liked the idea of  settling in a town. The house they were interested in was one block off the main street, near a church they could join.

     So, thinking about Cape Cod, I asked them if they liked to sail or go fishing. No, they said. They liked being near the water. But they were not big on boating or fishing. But the husband already had his eye on a golf course -- he'd played it once, and saw that there were several leagues. He felt he could find a group of guys to play with. He even thought he might get a part-time job at one of the golf clubs, in the golf shop or working on the course.

     Still and all, they were having second -- and third -- thoughts about moving from the home where they'd lived for 25 years, where they raised their kids and where their kids stored all their old toys, stuffed animals, high-school reports -- and the athletic gear they hadn't used in years but assured their parents they would use again, just as soon as they got a chance.

     But, like us, they have kids who have left home -- one in Virginia, one in New Jersey, and one on the West Coast. And they didn't have any grandchildren yet, so they didn't feel the urge to move to be near any one of the kids. Besides, they said, you never know when the kids are going to move again for a new job. None of them had bought a house yet; and they'd all moved at least twice since leaving college. They figured if they moved near any of the children, the kids would only up and move away again.

Our garage after we moved
     But still, the wife thought maybe they should wait to make their move, until they did start to have grandchildren. That way they could move near the new family that would be more likely to stay put.

     And the kids themselves were resisting the idea of their parents moving to Massachusetts. They wanted to have a home base when they came back to see their friends, several of whom were still around, or if they wanted to take a trip to New York City.

     And this couple also found the prospect of downsizing rather daunting. They had a four-bedroom house with a finished and furnished basement -- and probably very little of it would fit into a smaller New England home. And they had shelves and shelves of their kids' books and trophies and toys and equipment. Were they ready to deal with all that, or insist their kids come home and deal with it?

     When the reception was over, after the speeches and the cake and the dancing, we said goodbye to our friends and wished them well. On the way home, B and I talked about them, wondering if they were really ready to make the big move, or if they were just dreaming.

     We know that, despite all the people we know who move to the Sunbelt, or the articles we've read about downsizing, that in the end most people choose to stay where they are after they retire. A Freddie Mac study from a couple of years ago showed that over 60% of older homeowners said they would prefer to age in place, rather than move to new quarters. It's the easiest option. You don't have to say goodbye to your friends. You don't have to find a new place to live. You don't have to clean out your basement or garage or attic, and confront your kids about leaving behind their childhood home.

Downsizing? It's never over. -- my closet today.
     I remember when my first wife and I sold our family home, soon after our daughter went away to college. My daughter was devastated. "What do you care?" I asked her. "You've moved away, and you're in college now."

     "I know," she said sadly. "But I've lived in that house my whole life. It's my home."

     That certainly gave us pause. But in the end we had to do the right thing for us, which was to move to smaller, cheaper quarters because it was a turbulent time, in the post-9/11 political and economic atmosphere. Or, to put it bluntly, I was losing my job, and we had to consolidate our finances.

     Anyway . . . we thought that this couple was serious about moving. They seemed to have things figured out, as much as possible, and I also noted that the woman got a gleam in her eye when she talked about that house they were interested in. That's usually a telling sign.

     We'll be interested to find out, next time we're back home in New York, if these people made the move, or decided to stay where they are, at home in their familiar community.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

The Song Is Over

     We know from raising children that the days are long, but the years are short. So it is with vacation. The days are long and languid. But suddenly, before you know it, the time is gone and we have to go home.

Just thought this was cool: License plate map posted in Cape Cod restaurant

     Then we must say goodbye to that interlude in life when we leave behind our day-to-day concerns to float on a tide of fun and friends and family and . . . way too much food.

In the sand at Harwichport beach

     So it is with us. Our time on Cape Cod has come to an end. We are spending a couple of days around Boston with family, and then the long car ride home.

Evening sky over Nantucket Sound

     But we have some memories. We have some photos. It's been a good vacation, so we go home refreshed and renewed, ready to settle back to our usual routine.

The day is over

     And, really, aren't we glad to land back home to resume our real, normal lives? There's always next year. But, for now, the song is over . . .


Thursday, August 8, 2019

The Perfect Food

     So we finally made it to our favorite ice-cream stand, called Sundae School, located in Harwichport, Mass., with two other Cape Cod locations, one in Dennisport, the other in Orleans.

     Sundae School ice cream is advertised as home made. I don't know exactly what that means. But it's rich and creamy, without being overly thick or solid (like Haagen Daz or Ben & Jerry's which in my opinion are so thick they leave you gagging). And the flavors are true and authentic. The coconut tastes like real coconut, not artificial. The mint tastes like real mint, without the toothpasty overtone that some mint ice cream has.

The front door

     In other words, Sundae School has the perfect ice cream. Which in my book means it has the perfect food.

     The first night I had a cup of mint chocolate chip. That's my favorite flavor of the moment. B had a strawberry sundae with hot fudge, whipped cream and a cherry. B is my wife, and she loves me. But she loves me more when I buy her some ice cream draped in spoonfuls of hot fudge. (But she wants everyone to know, she it was a small sundae, not the large . . . "It's not even a real sundae," she told me daintily, "it's just one scoop with hot fudge.")

Where the fun begins

     The second night I decided to really indulge myself. Because we're on vacation. Because I'm worth it. Because we only do this once a year. I ordered a butterscotch sundae with marshmallow topping. A real one, not just one scoop. And I ate the whole thing, with no regrets (minus the obligatory bite that my wife always takes).

     B just had a small cup of strawberry ice cream. So I guess you can tell, her favorite flavor is strawberry. Mine is, as I said, mint chocolate chip, followed by vanilla (usually with rainbow sprinkles), and then regular chocolate chip. I also like peach ice cream, when they have it, but peach ice cream is hard to find.

The piece de resistance

     I'm sure we all have our own favorite flavors, and our own favorite local ice-cream stands. But in case you think I'm just bragging, on its website Sundae School points out that it was named one of the "Best Ice Cream Spots in the U. S." by Food and Wine magazine. And it was ranked #5 in the country by USA Today.

     Which begs the question: What was rated #1? A place called Moomers Homemade Ice Cream, in Traverse City, Mich.

     Hmmmm.  Maybe next summer we should plan a trip to Michigan . . . unless you have a better idea.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Our Favorite Restaurant

     I recently ran across an article online asking "Do You Spend More Time Planning for Vacation than Planning Your Finances?"

     I used to spend more time on my finances, back when I was working and supporting a family and saving to send my kids to college and hopefully put aside a little for retirement as well. But today, now that I'm retired, I must admit I spend more time planning our vacations.

     Most of my income now is automatic. I won't ever get any more raises or promotions. I'll just receive my Social Security, and an automatic withdrawal from my IRA. (Sorry, Tom . . . no pension for you.)

     Since there's nothing I can do about my finances, why spend a lot of time on them? But there's plenty to do about vacation . . . in part because I have more time to actually go on vacation. And even though we often go back to the same spots, we still have to figure out where we're going to stay, what we're going to do, where we're going to eat.

We pull into the parking lot ... anticipation!

     But when we arrive on Cape Cod, where we go for a week or two every summer, there's no question. The first night, we head straight to Kream N' Kone in Chatham, Mass.

Bellying up to the counter

     Now maybe your dream restaurant involves tablecloths and dimmed lighting and waiters and fancy embossed menus. Ours features picnic tables out in the parking lot, counter service, and a menu in large type displayed up on the wall.

Wide selection of refreshing drinks

     Maybe your dream restaurant features various steaks and chops, grilled salmon or swordfish, or gourmet variations on risotto or artichokes or asperges blanche.

Clam chowder ... or "chowdah" as they say here on Cape Cod

     Our favorite restaurant offers clam chowder, fried clams on a hot dog bun, piles of greasy onion rings, vats of creamy cole slaw. And for dessert . . . well, they have pretty good soft-serve ice cream at Kream N' Kone. But instead we plan to stop of at Sundae School on the way home, for the best ice cream cone you can ever find in New England . . . actually, on the whole East Coast . . . actually, probably in the whole United States.

Yes, there's a hot dog bun under there somewhere

     And the total cost? Well, let me tell you, the most I ever spent for a restaurant dinner was $328.00 for four of us. I got a gift certificate to this fancy restaurant for $100 and thought, B and I will never spend $100, even though the restaurant had tablecloths and dimmed lighting and waiters and fancy embossed menus. So we invited another couple to come along. "On us," we told them boldly.

     But the restaurant was a lot more expensive than we anticipated. And we didn't count on them having two glasses of wine. But we . . . well, we invited them out to dinner. So what could we do? At least we were out of pocket only $228 because of the gift certificate.

     But dinner at Kream N' Cone was $27.00.

     I have had cheaper dinners. But never a better one. Only problem: we were so full we couldn't even stop for ice cream. So we'll leave Sundae School for tomorrow.