Should You Join AARP?

This article was originally posted in February 2014. It is still one of the most read posts on my blog, so with a little editing, I’m reposting it today.

During the last year I’ve read a few articles posted on other retirement blogs and in magazines asking this same question. Should you join AARP? All of the articles, like most information about retirement, focus on the financial aspects of becoming an AARP member. In other words, are the discounts on travel accommodations, insurance and restaurants worth the $12 per year membership fee? Every article ends up saying for the most part you can get the discounts anyway just by virtue of your age as many companies give senior discounts starting at age 55 or 60. So, instead of flashing your AARP membership card, simply flash your driver license with birth date and you receive the discount without spending an additional $12 a year to obtain it. If you’re looking at AARP strictly for discounts, this is probably true, unless you’re in the 50-54 age range, in which case, joining AARP at 50 may get you some discounts you won’t otherwise receive. But, I didn’t join AARP for the discounts. And, I think there’s a financial aspect being overlooked in these articles.

When Ethel Percy Andrus founded the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) in 1958, I was only knee high to a grasshopper, just learning how to spell in Miss Niles’ first grade class. Spelling ‘retirement’ wasn’t even on my radar much less what it meant. For Andrus, however, it meant taking up the cause of aging persons seeking dignity, quality of life and, yes, health insurance.

In 1958 she saw a need to expand the organization she founded in 1947 for retired teachers seeking health insurance. At a time when health insurance was pretty much non-existent for older Americans, Andrus approached many insurance companies looking for one that would insure retirees. While many view AARP as started by insurance companies to sell insurance, I beg to differ.   As Andrus lobbied insurance companies to cover retirees, I believe AARP started out as and still is, a lobbying organization for older people — retirees, seniors, persons of independent means. Whatever you want to call us.

AARP is a voice for us in Washington and even some other parts of the world. Spending $23 million a year on lobbying efforts and with nearly 40 million members, it is one of the largest lobbying organizations in the United States. AARP makes American seniors a powerhouse to be reckoned with and listened to. Having graduated from Miss Niles’ first grade class to baby boomer rabble-rouser, making my voice heard in Washington, even as I age, is the main reason I shell out $12 per year to be a member of what is now officially only known by the acronym AARP.

Yes, I like the discounts I use from time to time. I like the magazine and newsletter I receive. And, since I’m also on the information highway, I like receiving financial, health and lifestyle newsletters in my email inbox. I particularly like their advice on movies made for adults (get your mind out of the gutter…they’re referring to intelligence and maturity). How else will I know which flicks are trending now and worth watching? Yes, I could trawl the web, Google this or that, and probably come up with the same info. But, being a little on the lazy side, I’m willing to shell out the $12 for someone else to do it for me. And, included in this bargain is a membership for your spouse, no additional charge. But, the biggie…a gargantuan lobby.

While some believe AARP’s agenda is too liberal with its focus on hunger, income, housing, health insurance and isolation, the organization certainly keeps the needs of older people in the minds of our politicians. With today’s political agenda of budget cutting and wish to eliminate items like Social Security and Medicare or at least drastically alter these programs, there could not be a more relevant reason for joining AARP.

And, with the money and sheer numbers, it’s enough to make any aspiring politico think about what could happen in the voting booth. With a family history of longevity on my side, I figure I have about 30 years left on this planet. And, being part of a generation who is used to having its way in the world, I have no intention of leaving my voice behind with the workplace. So, when I read about the financial ups and downs of paying out $12 a year, that’s $1 a month, I think there’s a financial component not being addressed. Just think if there was no AARP. Do you think our friends in Washington would hesitate to rip Social Security and Medicare to shreds? I don’t know the answer to that. But, I do know I’m not willing to chance it, not for $12 a year.

For more information about joining AARP, go to http://www.AARP.org.

Medicare & Me

If there’s anyone out there still thinking your information is private, I’m here to tell you it’s not. The health insurance companies started filling my mailbox with information on Medicare at least six months before my 65th birthday. They have apparently been watching and anticipating my big 6-5 along with the United States government. Despite the overload of information everything was as clear as the road before you on a foggy night.

Even the federally provided booklet Medicare & You didn’t clarify the subject. I consider myself a reasonably intelligent person. However much I thought I understood the government’s booklet, there was still a doubt, a HUGE doubt, that I had indeed grasped all the nuances. Convoluted doesn’t begin to describe it — Parts A, B, C, D, F, G and more.

Fortunately, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute I attend at Furman University offered a course last fall in Understanding Medicare. I signed up. With each class dedicated to a lettered Part, the fog began to lift. The idea that it takes an hour and a half to explain Part A and so on is ludicrous. I wondered what people who don’t have access to a course do to understand and make an informed decision.

As my mailbox continued to hold offers from all kinds of insurance companies and agents, some of which I had never heard of, I piled their correspondence and applications on my desk. My strategy was to sift through them after finishing the class. However, our instructor recommended going with one of the five large, well-known carriers in the state. Since that made perfect sense to me, I eliminated all the rest. My pile shrunk by two-thirds, making the task less daunting.

If you are already receiving Social Security, you don’t need to apply for Medicare. You are automatically enrolled. Keep your eyes open for the government envelope carrying your Medicare card for Parts A and B. It does not look official! I almost threw mine out thinking it was from yet another unheard of insurance company. If you are not receiving social security, you have to apply for Medicare; you have 3 months before your 65th birthday and 3 months after to do so.

Since Part A is provided by the government, courtesy of your Medicare taxes while working, and Part B is provided by the government and paid for by a monthly premium from you, what you are really looking for from insurance companies is prescription drug coverage and supplemental insurance. Part A provides hospital coverage and Part B provides coverage for items such as doctor visits, flu shots and walkers. There are deductibles and co-pays, which is why you are getting supplemental insurance coverage also known as Medigap. You are not required to get supplemental insurance, but if you don’t, understand you will have to pay deductibles and co-pays from your pocket.

Some people opt for Part C known as the Advantage Plan, which means you have private insurance and do not use the federal government’s Parts A and B. The insurance company receives what the government pays for Part A as well as your Part B premium. Not all insurance companies have Part C plans. Most Part C plans have a co-pay for doctor’s visits. The real caveat is you have to use in-network providers including your primary physician. So Part C can be a problem if you travel, have a medical issue and your primary physician is not there and there is no in-network hospital. You will end up paying out-of-network rates and most likely have to pay the difference from your pocket. This is why I didn’t go with an Advantage Plan.

Note: If you travel to foreign countries be aware that Medicare does not cover you outside the United States. If you go with the Advantage Plan Part C ask for a copy of the policy before you apply and read it. In fact, read whatever policy you decide to buy. Knowledge is power!

Part D is prescription drug coverage. What company you choose for Part D will depend upon your prescriptions. Different companies have different tiers for drugs. Deductibles and co-pays vary from company to company along with which tier they put a drug into. Make sure you review what tier your drugs are in with each provider and what your out-of-pocket cost will be in addition to the cost of the coverage.

I went with Part F as my supplemental insurance. Part F covers deductibles and co-pays for both doctors and hospital stays. I can go to any doctor or hospital I want and don’t have to be concerned about “What if something happens while I’m traveling?” I do not have to be in-network. I also have 80% hospital coverage if I’m in a foreign country and have a medical issue.

The other letters such as G, L and N are simply other versions of supplemental insurance. You have to read about them in order to make the best choice for your individual situation. If you don’t have access to a course, I recommend calling AARP (800-272-2146) to speak to a United Healthcare agent as I found their agent to be the most knowledgeable, articulate and willing to spend the time reviewing the intricacies of Medicare. I receive nothing for making this recommendation to call AARP.  I did not go with United Healthcare as I chose to stay with the carrier I’ve had for the last 25 years even though they cost $3 a month more for my premium. This was one time I wasn’t leaving my comfort zone.

All of us in the United States will have to go through this process as we approach 65. I doubt it will become any less convoluted in the future. I hope this small explanation helps. For more information go to SSA.gov or medicare.gov. And good luck!

Money Blown

While I received a lot of positive comments on last week’s post, “What’s Your Relationship With Money?”, I also received more negative comments than in the last 3 years combined, including some very personal dings at me. Why? It seems some people see ‘blow money’ as money blown.  I stand by my belief that blow money is important and here’s why.

Blow money is simply my term for my and Martin’s personal allowances. It could just as easily be called allowance money, retirement enjoyment money, don’t want to be on my deathbed with regrets money, bucket list money, hobby money, exercise money, good health money, leisure money, entertainment money or anything else I decide to call it.

In life, I’m a planner. We also planned money for an occasional new car. We planned money for vacations. Some people may see those items as wasted money. When Martin and I reviewed our retirement resources and budget with the financial planners, it included a line item for personal allowances. If calculating our numbers showed us having enough money to take us into our nineties, blow money, inflation and all, there is no reason to forego a personal allowance.

Money blown

Money blown?

Martin spends most of his blow money on bicycle and motorcycle gear. As someone bicycling 80 to a 100 miles per week, he’s put nearly 8,786 miles on his current bicycle. Yes, he loves bicycling so much he keeps a log of the miles he does each week, weather and any other conditions, which affect his time.

Money blown or money well spent

Money well spent

He is in such great physical shape, with a resting heart rate of 52 beats per minute, that a medical doctor friend once joked, “With a heart like that, you’ll live forever!” We all know that’s not true, but it points out just one of the benefits of bicycling. Money blown on bicycle gear? It’s cheaper than a heart attack, which can easily run into the six figures and kill you! I love my husband and want him to stick around as long as possible. Money well spent.

Much of my blow money is spent on my gardens. I never met a plant I didn’t like _ well, maybe poison ivy. Not only does gardening keep me in good physical condition, the garden is my goto place for stress relief. After a tough day at work, there was nothing like coming home to a beautiful garden to relax or dig in the dirt. When I’m tending my gardens, I feel like I’m doing God’s work, taking care of nature and providing a place for birds, bees and butterflies to flourish. I also spent $300 on the Clemson University Master Gardener Program, so I could learn more about gardening and pass that information on to others in my community as a Program volunteer. Money blown on gardening and volunteering? Money well spent.

Money well spent

Money well spent

I also spend my blow money on an occasional lunch out with friends. While some may see this as a waste of money to eat out, I see it as nurturing my relationships with my support group. As we age social interaction becomes increasingly important at a time when we may have fewer opportunities to socialize.

According to the Rochester University Medical Center, the benefits of strong social ties include:

1. Potentially reduced risk for Alzheimer’s, some cancers, cardiovascular problems and osteoporosis;

2. Lower blood pressure; and

3. Reduced risk of mental health issues such as depression.

Many of the people I socialize with are long time friends, but some are also more recent friends encountered in art and writing classes _ more blow money expenditures. Money blown breaking bread with friends? Money blown taking classes to open new neural pathways and meet new people? Money well spent.

Money well spent

Money well spent

As we age, keeping our bodies strong, our minds sharp and our social network alive are important not only to our longevity but also our quality of life. Martin and I live an amazing retirement life filled with activities we enjoy, good friends, old and new, and a healthy, happy marriage. While we enjoy a lot of activities together such as hiking, cooking and art, we are not joined at the hip. We go our separate ways for many other activities and blow money helps us do that without infringing on joint items in our budget. We have no disagreements over money!  Money blown on a harmonious relationship?  Money well spent.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with having a budget line item that includes a personal allowance, even if you are single. As one of my wise readers pointed out, a budget gives us the permission to spend without the fear of spending too much. After all, what’s the point of saving all this money if you don’t get to enjoy your retirement? I personally don’t want to be at death’s door and say, “Gee, I wish I’d taken that art class or gone out to lunch with my friends more often.”

Money blown? Money well spent!

What’s Your Relationship With Money?

Money

Last year at a home and garden show, as I walked through an RV on display, a sales rep started his pitch to get me to buy one.

I laughed, saying, “Only if I want to be a bag lady when I’m ninety and I don’t.”

He said, “Well, that’s a pretty funny answer. Don’t think I’ve heard that one before.”

Though I’m the one who made the joke, in truth, I didn’t see anything funny about it. While I have enough money to be comfortable in retirement, doing some fun things on this part of my journey, I don’t have enough for frivolity on a big-ticket item, especially one which will depreciate with time.

We all know money does not buy retirement happiness anymore than it buys happiness at any other time in our lives. But, it sure does help. When I talk to most retirees about money, their largest concern is outliving their money. I certainly get that.

All of us have emotional buttons when it comes to money _ negative ones like jealousy, fear, depression, anxiety, even anger or positive ones like stability, empowerment, enjoyment. Whether or not we have money in retirement or the money to retire in the first place probably depends upon our relationship with money over our lifetime thus far. Yes, we all have a relationship with money.

My relationship with money has a checkered past. I grew up in a household without a lot of money, one of the reasons I like a fully stocked pantry. It’s a security blanket for me. So is having money in reserve. But, I didn’t learn that until after a lot of years in banking watching and listening to a lot of people about their relationships with money.

Referring to that relationship, Will Smith once said, “Too many people spend money they have not earned to buy things they do not want to impress people they do not like.”

Ain’t that the truth! Impressing the neighbors, friends and family, complete strangers, keeping up with the Joneses? Retirement or nearing retirement is not a time to continue any unhealthy relationships with money. If you haven’t figured it out already, now is the time to zero in on your emotional relationship with money, so it doesn’t derail your retirement or plans to retire.

Fortunately, along with my banking lessons, I had mentors, who had money, who talked to their employees about money.  I came to understand that money is nothing more than a tool in life. It costs money to live and it makes life easier, but it is not the money which brings happiness. That comes from having a good family, good friends, good health, a spiritual connection and, of course, meaning and purpose for your life. Money is simply the tool, which can keep that good life humming along.

The flip side of spending, spending, spending is hoarding money. If you are not spending on something you truly, truly would enjoy, not because you don’t have the money, but because you are afraid to spend the money, that can also show a problematic relationship. Striking a balance between the two extremes yields a healthier relationship with money as well as life itself. We also want to have some retirement fun!

Martin and I still have a budget AND we still give ourselves an allowance. We still call it our “blow money” meaning we can blow it on whatever we want, no holds barred, no negative comments from the other about what it was spent on. The feelings of empowerment and enjoyment derived from this freedom while maintaining our financial stability should not be underrated.

I worked hard to reach my retirement goal. The reason I strived to save enough to retire is so I wouldn’t have to work to pay for a roof over my head or food on the table. Money is the tool that gave me the freedom to do what I want with my days. Finding meaning and purpose in my life has had more impact on my happiness in retirement than any amount of money.

My feeling of security derived from having money in reserve is a positive emotion about money. Had I purchased the RV, jeopardizing my future security, I undoubtedly would have felt negative emotions _ angry with myself, depressed, fearful. Understanding why we are spending money or not spending it, what emotions the spending triggers in us, goes a long way in helping us make informed and, hopefully, wise choices in retirement.

THE AWARD

Last week I received my award letter. After paying into Social Security for over 40 years, I’ll start collecting Social Security benefits in 2014. Applying for my benefit was relatively painless. I won’t say it was seamless as there were some glitches. But, applying online in the comfort of my home instead of having to drive 27 miles to an office, take a number and sit in a crowded waiting room for the next available agent was much easier, even with the glitches.

Looking back, the glitches were minor irritations due, in part, to my naively believing the federal government would have their web site totally updated at year-end and their staff ready to handle the call volume at the holidays. After the Affordable Care Act fiasco, it was downright silly of me to expect the Social Security web site to be glitch-free at year end. You see, everything I read about when to apply for benefits, including information on http://www.socialsecurity.gov said I could apply at 61 years, 8 months. I was actually at almost three months prior to my birth date so I thought I was well within the time frame. At least until I reached a certain point in the online application where I inserted my birth date and hit the first glitch. Informed that I was not yet old enough to apply, I counted the months using what else but my fingers. I re-checked what I read on their web site. No, my eyes still worked…61 years, 8 months. So, after being kicked out of their system completely, I decided to call the toll-free number. That’s when I met up with the second glitch.

As with almost every other call center these days, I received an automated response where I had to play 20 questions and couldn’t override their system by pressing zero. Trying to be patient (a tough order for me) I drilled down through the questions until I reached the magic moment (at last) where a human being should come on the line. Instead, the automaton told me there was no one available to take my call at that time so try again later and, without so much as a ‘do you want to hold for the next available operator’, the blankety-blank machine said, ‘goodbye’ and hung up. Frustration does not even begin to cover how I felt at that moment. Obviously, my tax dollars were not at work and neither was anyone else. The holidays, I fumed.

So, my first word of advice is do not, I repeat do not, apply for Social Security during the Christmas/New Year holiday season. For starters, it’s year-end when all systems are being updated to comply with new laws or policies and, to make matters worse, nearly everyone wants time off to spend the holidays with family. Short-staffed and up against the wall with new year changes, customer service becomes yet another government oxymoron. The update causing my glitch? You guessed it. You can now apply for benefits at 61 years, 9 months, not 61 years, 8 months. Well, the good news is at least SSA updated even if they didn’t make it immediately clear on their web site. And, the Monday after New Year’s I did reach a live human being after playing 20 questions with the automaton. This leads me to my second word of advice.

After telling me I should now be able to go back into their system and finish my application, the operator told me what the SSA would need in order to process my application. She told me I would receive a letter requesting certain ORIGINAL documents and I should not to go to a Social Security office with my birth certificate and marriage license. You see, Social Security is already too busy with too many people going to the offices. Instead, she advised, I should mail these documents!!!! Do NOT mail any of your precious proof to the SSA. I received my award letter and was not required to present any documentation whatsoever. But, being a cross your t’s type, just to be sure, I called. According to that SSA rep, if you were born in the United States, the SSA already has all your records including copies of birth certificates, marriage licenses and military service. Even if they do ask for it, do NOT let your precious documents out of your hot little hands. My new friend also mentioned how the SSA receives documents without proper account identification (social security number) and those documents end up in a sort of black hole, never to find their way back to the rightful owner and delaying claims.

Since receiving my award letter, I’ve spoken to other people who had no glitches whatsoever. Everything went as smooth as silk. Somehow, I always end up being the test case. But, hey, if everything aways went well, I might not have any advice to pass on. As it is, I hope all goes well for those of you out there who have yet to log into http://www.socialsecurity.gov and make your claim. As for me, after 40 years in the making, I’m looking forward to celebrating my first deposit.

SHOULD YOU JOIN AARP?

During the last year I’ve read a few articles posted on other retirement blogs and in magazines asking this same question. Should you join AARP? All of the articles, like most information about retirement, focus on the financial aspects of becoming an AARP member. In other words, are the discounts on travel accommodations, insurance and restaurants worth the $16 per year membership fee? Every article ends up saying for the most part you can get the discounts anyway just by virtue of your age as many companies give senior discounts starting at age 55 or 60. So, instead of flashing your AARP membership card, simply flash your driver license with birth date and you receive the discount without spending an extra $16 a year to get it. If you’re looking at AARP strictly for discounts, this is probably true, unless you’re in the 50-54 age range, in which case, joining AARP at 50 may get you some discounts you won’t otherwise receive. But, I didn’t join AARP for the discounts. And, I think there’s a financial aspect being overlooked in these articles.

When Ethel Percy Andrus founded the American Association of Retired Persons in 1958, I was only knee-high to a grasshopper just learning how to spell in Miss Niles’ first grade class. Spelling retirement wasn’t even on my radar much less what it meant. For Andrus, however, it meant taking up the cause of aging persons seeking dignity, quality of life and, yes, health insurance. In 1958 she saw a need to expand the organization she founded in 1947 for retired teachers seeking health insurance. At a time when health insurance was pretty much non-existent for older Americans, Andrus approached many insurance companies looking for one that would insure retirees. This, folks, is what AARP started out as and still is, a lobbying organization for older people. Retirees. Seniors. Persons of independent means. Whatever you want to call us. AARP is a voice for us in Washington and even some other parts of the world. Spending $23 million a year on lobbying efforts and with nearly 40 million members, it is one of the largest lobbying organizations in the U.S. AARP makes the aging in America a powerhouse to be reckoned with and listened to. Having graduated from Miss Niles’ first grade class to baby boomer rabble-rouser, making my voice heard in Washington, even as I age, is the main reason I shell out $16 per year to be a member of what is now officially only known by the acronym AARP.

Yes, I like the discounts I use from time to time. I like the magazine and newsletter I receive. And, since I’m also on the information highway, I like receiving financial, health and lifestyle newsletters in my email inbox. I particularly like their advice on movies made for adults (get your mind out of the gutter…they’re referring to intelligence and maturity). How else will I know which flicks are trending now and worth watching? Yes, I could trawl the web, Google this or that, and probably come up with the same info. But, being a little on the lazy side, I’m willing to shell out the $16 for someone else to do it for me. And, included in this bargain is a membership for your spouse, no extra charge. But, the biggie…a gargantuan lobby.

While some believe AARP’s agenda is too liberal with its focus on hunger, income, housing, health insurance and isolation, the organization certainly keeps the needs of older people in the minds of our politicians. And, with the money and sheer numbers, it’s enough to make any aspiring politico think about what could happen in the voting booth. With a family history of longevity on my side, I figure I have about 30 years left on this planet. And, being part of a generation who is used to having its way in the world, I have no intention of leaving my voice behind with the workplace. So, when I read about the financial ups and downs of paying out $16 a year, that’s $1.34 a month rounded up, I think there’s a financial component not being addressed. Just think if there was no AARP. Do you think our friends in Washington would hesitate to rip Social Security and Medicare to shreds? I don’t know the answer to that. But, I do know I’m not willing to chance it, not for $16 a year.

For information on joining AARP, go to AARP.org.

THE BEAST

Most adults have one or have access to one. They come in various colors, sizes, shapes and, of course, horsepower. I call mine The Beast. It’s really a very zippy little reddish bronze 2006 Mazda 3 approaching 90,000 miles. But, it can suck money out of my bank account faster than it can zoom zoom down the highway. It constantly needs to be fed, maintained, insured and taxed as expensive personal property. And, now, it also needs repairs. As I zipped down the highway a few weeks ago, suddenly…thud, jerk, AT and engine lights on…ugh. After arriving at my destination, a ride fraught with anguished looks at my dash and praying there would be no more thuds or jerks, I called Martin for reassurance.

And, then, one dealership appointment later the diagnosis was “reading no codes”. You know, everything’s electronic these days. So, if a machine tells the mechanic it can’t find anything in this machine, The Beast, we all believe the diagnostic machine. Independent thinking and the good ol’ days of a person ferreting out what’s ailing The Beast are gone. But, fear not, I left with a list of things the machine did find wrong with The Beast along with an estimated cost to repair of $775.

My dealer, wanting to give me the best possible customer service, followed up with two automated phone calls affording me the chance to hit a button, speak with a live person and make an appointment for said repairs. And, just in case I hadn’t gotten the phone calls, they sent me a couple of emails as further reminder. Best of all, the sales manager sent me a letter via the ever reliable old fashioned US Postal Service, telling me how the dealership was short on premium inventory like The Beast and if I traded it in, I could count on them to give me a good deal on a new beast or one of their premium used beasts. Premium used beasts? Hmmm…wait just a minute. You just told me you’re short on inventory, which is why you desperately need The Beast so, my choices on premium used beasts must be non-existent. And, besides, if I’m going to trade for another premium used beast, why don’t I just keep the premium used beast I have? And, one other thing, how is The Beast premium anything when it needs repairs?

Oh, I see, you’d have a chance to sell me a shiny new beast. Whoaaaa Nelly. A shiny new beast would not only need to be fed and maintained, my insurance and beast taxes would increase. Oh, sure, it would be a while before it needed any repairs but how would I pay for it? I’d have to rob my retirement nest egg or worse yet, have a beast payment. A loan!?! I’m adverse to loans. They cost even more money. What with interest and all. While I ruminated on all the ins and outs of new beast versus old premium beast needing repairs, suddenly, thud, jerk, stuck in third gear, AT and engine lights on and me praying I’m not about to be sitting on the side of the road with The Beast broken down. Luckily, as I came to a complete stop at a red light, The Beast calmed down and once again I made it to my destination.

I don’t usually procrastinate but it took me a week and two more experiences including thud, jerk, stuck in third gear before I called the dealership and said, “O.K. I’m coming in.” This time, the machine found “codes” in The Beast saying the electronics weren’t sending the automatic transmission the proper signals. So, now, a well-trained human could actually go to work on The Beast, costing me just another $525.79 to get rid of the thud, jerk, stuck in third gear along with the annoying engine and AT lights. Yes, I had the other repairs done, too. You see, by procrastinating, I hung out long enough for the dealership to send me a Halloween Spooktacular Savings email taking 10% off any recommended service through year-end. And, big picture, I only had to rob my retirement nest egg for a fraction of the cost of a new beast or about 3 beast payments. I’m still debt-free. And, with only 88,000 miles on it, at only 7,000 miles per year and periodic repairs, The Beast should last me another 10 years. That’s right. I plan on being an old lady driving a junker beast. But, the really, really, really good news…I’m retired.

OF MICE AND WOMEN

The big question we’re often asked about retiring is, “How do you know you have enough to last?” Despite the extrapolations of three financial planners, both the short and long answer is, “We don’t know.” Especially after the last month. We have a budget. But, the best laid plans of mice and women often go astray. Just as it was before we left the paid working world when our household budget had a miscellaneous (read emergency) line item, so it is now in retirement. And, just as it was then, so it is now. You cannot predict the unexpected and the resulting cost.

For us, it started in July with eight yellow jacket stings (ouch!!!) to my left hand. Wading into a weedy patch on our property I didn’t notice the little hornets flying in and out of their hole in the ground until I felt the first sting. It turns out gloves with breathable mesh on the top of the hand are not a wise choice. As my knuckles disappeared beneath my swelling flesh and red streaks wound their way up my arm, Martin drove me to urgent care that Sunday afternoon. Even with health insurance urgent care costs money. An unexpected outlay. No matter, we have budgeted a miscellaneous line item for just such an occasion.

Unfortunately, though, we don’t have dental insurance. So, when an ancient filling began to fall to pieces meaning I was crowned queen for a day, that little cap on my tooth literally ate up my miscellaneous, emergency, unexpected stuff will happen budget for the year! That included a 5% discount the dentist gave me for paying in cold cash. But, as fate would have it, we were far from done. Martin got new tires on his motorcycle, a separate budget item, for which we were prepared. However, two weeks after scrubbing in those new tires, he came home from a round of “twisties” to find the rear tire going flat. The culprit? A teeny, tiny, itty-bitty little nail. Oh, just get it patched, you say? A twenty dollar fix. Ha! Not a motorcycle tire say the manufacturers and dealers! Too much liability. So, fork over another $156 to replace a two week old tire including installation and a discount, of course, for the bad luck pity factor.

And, now, for the cat. You’ll recall we have seven of them. Four are feral cats. Or, rather, feral cats to everyone but Martin and me. They are sort of feral to us. So, when one of the little darlings started limping, we just scooped him into a carrier and off to the vet we went. Having apparently landed on something that cut open the space between two toes, he now needed antibiotics for the infection, pain killer meds and warm compresses twice a day. Being sort of feral to us means there’s no way we are going to deliver antibiotics and pain killer to his little feral mouth let alone warm compresses on his hurt tootsie. So, at the vet spa he stayed. She cut us a deal but a week at the spa complete with meds and warm compresses twice daily is not cheap, even if you do bring his food from home.

It was working in the garden trying to forget all of life’s unexpected costs, when my cell phone rang. “You need to come in the house as soon as possible.” Oh crap!!! What now?!? As I rounded the corner from the laundry room I saw soaked towels laying on the hardwood and Martin pointing to the glistening drips of water coming from the ceiling. Our malfunctioning air conditioner overflowed the drip pan and water was coursing over the attic floor and through the ceiling. Fortunately, we can both repair drywall but still… Between the AC and ceiling repair another few hundred down the drain, so to speak.

And, there was more to come but I think you get the point so I won’t continue boring you with additional mishaps. Though the unexpected has blown our budget for the year, causing some belt tightening and reconfiguring, we’ve found it’s no different than it was when we were working. There were no guarantees in life then. There was no guarantee you’d have your job tomorrow. There were no guarantees the financial markets would perform. There were no guarantees misfortune wouldn’t visit. No guarantees things wouldn’t break needing replacement or repair.

Well, there are no guarantees in retirement either. Life in retirement still requires flexibility, adaptability and acceptance of what is. No matter how much you plan, no matter how much you put aside, the best laid plans of mice and women often go astray.
So, will we have enough money to last our lifetime? Who knows? Not us. Not any financial planner. No one. So, we might as well just relax and enjoy the ride wherever it takes us.

REAGAN AND O’NEILL

It was Ronald Reagan who said, “Social Security has nothing to do with the deficit.” That was in 1983 and it’s as true today as it was thirty years ago. Social Security is a trust fund set up by the government under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration for the people by the people. It is a trust fund, folks. A trust fund today of $2.8 TRILLION in government bonds funded by you and me paying a tax, which appears on your pay stub as FICA. So, why do we allow today’s President and Congress to call it an entitlement? Why do we allow them to squawk about Social Security in the same sentence as “fiscal cliff” and “budget deficit”? The Trustees of the Social Security Trust Fund of $2.8 TRILLION recently reported Social Security can pay out 100% of benefits due through 2033 and 75% thereafter. Does Social Security need to be revamped to ensure long term solvency at 100% of benefits due beyond 2033? Yes. But, “Social Security has nothing to do with the deficit.”

When Congress and the President call Social Security an entitlement and lump it into news blips about the deficit, the fiscal cliff and sequestration every one of them, Republican and Democrat alike, is misleading, confusing and causing resentment toward retirees as it makes them out to be one of the bad guys causing our fiscal mess, when nothing is further from the truth.

Back in 1983 Ronald Reagan reached out to Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill to find a solution to what was, at that time, a bonafide Social Security crisis. The trust fund was only solvent for one more year, not twenty and beyond as it is today. Both men were wise enough to recognize Social Security was not part of the general budget for running the country. They didn’t point fingers and assign blame. They didn’t talk about retirees as if they were draining the budget. They put aside ideological differences. They focused on Social Security and Social Security alone. And, with his famous statement, Ronald Reagan made it crystal clear to the American people, “Social Security has nothing to do with the deficit.” So, both men wisely sat down to hammer out a deal to ensure the long term solvency of the trust fund. Their bi-partisan effort resulted in the Social Security Amendment of 1983, putting Social Security on the solid ground on which it stands today. Yes. It is on solid ground today and for the next twenty years.

Neither Obama nor Boehner have shown the leadership of Reagan and O’Neill. Not in their willingness to enlighten the American public as Reagan so specifically did. Not in their willingness to reach across party lines and hammer out a deal to rework Social Security without eroding it’s benefits to the people who funded it. Accordingly, folks, it’s become the responsibility of the American people to tell these two public servants what the public wants. No, it becomes the responsibility of the American people to DEMAND action. If you haven’t called or emailed Misters Obama and Boehner, now is the time to do so. It’s easy. Really. I’ve provided links and phone numbers below. Make your voice heard. All you have to do is remind them of Reagan and O’Neill and tell them, “Social Security has nothing to do with the deficit.”

http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/submit-questions-and-comments or (202) 456-1111

http://www.speaker.gov/contact or (202)225-0600

KISS

When I decided to write a blog, I searched online for other retirement blogs. One of the blogs I encountered is earlyretirementextreme.com. This guy retired in his thirties and lives on $7,000 a year. That’s his half of living expenses. His wife kicks in her half adding another $7,000. So, the two of them live on $14,000 total. Although he insists he has a great life, living below the poverty level isn’t my idea of a fun time. He lives in an RV (I like my 2,300 square feet). He has a garden (me, too). Fixes a lot of his own broken stuff (Martin handles a lot of broken stuff for us). Reading about his life, however, does bring to mind a very important principle about life and retirement, in general. Using a sort of negative sounding cliche we’ve all heard from time to time describes it best for me…Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS). The KISS principle was originally used by a Navy engineer who believed most systems operated most efficiently if kept simple in design. So goes our everyday life. At least that’s what works for me and that’s what I believe will continue to work best.

So when people continue to be incredulous about our early retirement and how we did it and are doing it, I now think KISS. Living a simple life isn’t living a life of denial. It isn’t living a life of poverty. It isn’t living a life in austerity. It’s living a THOUGHTFUL life. For example, today I had the pleasure of having my fifth grandchild with me all day. He’s four. Rather than plopping him on the couch to spend the day staring at the boob tube and feeding him junk, I thought what can we do that won’t cost a bundle and will be lots of fun.

What I don’t grow in my own garden, I buy in season from local farmers and freeze myself. Today in South Carolina strawberries are in season. My favorite place to buy strawberries is, where else, but Strawberry Hill, USA. A family owned fruit farm of several hundred acres of strawberry fields, peach orchards and blackberry patches, Strawberry Hill also offers up giant antique John Deere tractors for kids to sit on, farm tours and a family run cafe with a 1950’s feel and homemade ice cream to boot. Go another six miles down the road and you’ll find Cowpens National Battlefield where one of the decisive battles of the Revolutionary War was fought and a Junior Ranger Program promises badges, medals and education for kids of all ages. And, best of all, it’s free, though we usually push a donation through the slot of the box in the lobby. So, with a little thought I was able to pick up field fresh fruit at a bargain price, which will taste as great tonight with vanilla ice cream as it will next winter from the freezer and I entertained a four year old who went home with badge, Junior Ranger certificate and coloring book not to mention the big smile as he proudly handed strawberries to Mom. All for little money.

As I write this, I’m looking out the window at my beloved garden with flowers opening by the second, sipping a glass of white wine (yes, I write under the influence) and looking forward to Martin making fajiitas with beef smoked on the Green Egg, onions from the veggie garden and all the other fixings. Later, we’ll eat the fresh strawberries on ice cream and listen to the whippoorwill make his mournful call, bringing memories of Hank Williams singing on the record player at my parents’ home in New Jersey. The simple things in life.

So, whether you want to retire early or you want to retire at all, the best advice I can offer is to Keep It Simple Sisters and brothers. Keep it simple.