WHERE THERE’S A WILL

As a young woman I worked for a bank in a branch office. Prior to opening each morning, the teller assigned to the task, went through the newspaper obituaries. If any of our customers was reported deceased, the teller placed a hold on their accounts, including joint accounts, and sealed their safe deposit box. Sometimes, even people with a Last Will and Testament, left their relatives in a bind when the only place that held a copy of the will was the sealed safe deposit box. Waiting for a probate judge’s order to open the box takes time and costs money. Anytime you have to go to court for anything, you should see dollar signs. However, many people did no planning at all, dying intestate, meaning without a will. We had a saying at the bank, “If you don’t have a will, the state has one for you.” You may intend for all your worldly possessions to go to your spouse but, depending on the state where you live, without a will, state law may dictate your estate is split evenly among your spouse and children, no matter what the age of the children. Don’t assume your children will do the right thing by mom or dad and give the money back to the surviving spouse. And with probate courts inundated with cases, an attorney recently told me it can take up to a year for an estate with a will to get through probate. This is reality, folks.

We all know someone who died suddenly, perhaps from a heart attack or car accident. Yet, most of us put off estate planning thinking, “We’ll get to it later.” Yes, we all do it. Even me. Despite all the life lessons from my banking days, until recently, I had not updated my will for years. No one wants to think about dying. We are a frail type, we humans, who don’t want to face our mortality. We like to think we always have more time. We fool ourselves into thinking, ‘later’ will always be there for us. The heart attack or car accident isn’t the way we will go. Oh no, not us. The truth is we have no idea the day, the hour, the minute or the how. My dad used to joke about it saying, “Something’s gonna get ya. Nobody gets out alive.” Then, he’d laugh at his own joke. Fortunately, both he and my mother left a plan, allowing we children to grieve instead of wending our way through the overwhelming task of trying to figure out what they wanted in the way of funeral arrangements or how to pay for them. There’s enough to decide even with a will. Without a road map, it’s really stressful. That’s how family squabbles happen. And, who wants that to be their legacy?

Give the gift of a will

Give the gift of a will

End of life planning is complicated these days. In South Carolina, where I live, probate court can be avoided by having a trust agreement, rather than just a will. Then, there are revocable trusts and irrevocable trusts. And, just in case you forgot some old account someplace or another, a will can be embedded into the trust. This isn’t an ad for attorneys, but, the truth of the matter is, you probably need one to advise you on what is best for your circumstance in the state in which you live. Just in case that isn’t enough to think about, matters are further complicated by the need for Powers of Attorney for both health care and financial management. These documents cover any eventuality where you become unable to make your own decisions regarding your health and money management. Since each document is separate from the other, the health care attorney-in-fact doesn’t necessarily have to be the same person as the financial attorney-in-fact. Before naming someone to either of these positions, be sure to discuss your decision with that person asking them for their agreement to accept the task. Nobody likes surprises. This is serious business, so cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s. You may also be asked to name alternates because, as we know, stuff happens, and your primary may become deceased or incapacitated themselves, rendering them incapable of carrying out the task. Your attorney will most likely ask you to name a runner up, or two. Whew!

Although this is a serious subject requiring serious consideration, action and, let’s not forget, money, it is the best gift you can give to your survivors. Despite my feet dragging on the matter of updating my planning, the big lesson – well one of them – I learned in life is this. If you don’t make a decision and take action, time and circumstance will make the decision for you and you may not like the outcome. To that, someone said to me about making a will, “What do I care? I’ll be gone!” If you care about your survivors, whether spouse, children, siblings, significant others or grandchildren, give them the gift of not having to squabble over your health care, funeral arrangements and money. Give them the gift of being able to just grieve without worry about the details because you left a detailed plan. And, one last thing – no excuses – dreary as it is, there’s no time like the present to create your plan.

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THE WEIGHT OF AGING

Wanting to stay healthy as I aged, a couple of years ago I decided to walk off my extra weight. In my younger days, I enjoyed a svelte figure. I ran three miles every other day and lifted weights on the off days. But, as I aged, knee problems gave way to a more sedentary life style. I started to pack on the pounds. So two years ago, already walking a mile six days a week, I thought, “Just work up to two miles and voila, the weight will come off.” The best laid plans, right? I didn’t reach the two mile goal and even gained a few more pounds. So, when my wakeup call came from my doctor last fall, it was really no surprise. My glucose numbers were up. The sugar number was high enough to garner a warning from my doctor to get it down or risk diabetes and meds. Did I get serious then? Uh…no, not really. As is human nature, I rationalized. You know the kind of self talk I engaged, telling myself it was part of aging, this happens to everybody, something’s going to get you.  Well, serious finally arrived in March. When one of my nieces posted on Facebook how she lost 30 pounds using an App on her phone, I was intrigued. In her updated photo, she looked fabulous, healthy, glowing. How could an App help someone lose weight? You know I like technology, but don’t pay much attention to Apps. For starters, I didn’t quite understand their purpose. But, like I said, I was intrigued. So, I took a look at the App, downloaded the free version and started figuring out how to use it. Aside from the 15 pounds I lost and my now normal glucose numbers, along the way I learned a few things about myself and aging.

Remember the old advice from your work days about putting goals in writing. Some business management gurus of the day even wrote about writing it all down, one year, three year and five year goals. Well, writing it down was good advice. Inserting goals, logging into the App every day and having my progress stare me in the face, incentivized me to push harder. So hard, in fact, there are days when I logged nearly 6 miles walking! Two and a half miles is now my bare minimum. As someone who does a lot of physical activity gardening, bush whacking and hiking, one would think I was already at the top of my game. Uh…that’s another no. When I really started pushing myself in a way reminiscent of my younger days, I realized I was more of a mosey along type, not really getting my heart rate up high enough to get the most benefit out of burning the fat. Telling myself I was in better shape for my age than most, I complacently let the bum knee, weight and aging keep me from putting out my very best effort. After slipping into a good pair of walking shoes last March, my lower legs and feet still hurt so much, I did my usual web surfing in search of an answer. I learned I needed extra inserts to support my sagging arches, part of the aging body territory. The extra supports worked! And, as the weight started to slide off and my muscles strengthened, the bum knee turned out to be a non-issue. I learned aging means my body, not my mind, will tell me when I need to slow down, when it’s had enough. Sure, I don’t have the stamina I did at 30 but, with a little help from arch supports and stretching I can still chug it out at my personal best rate.

And, then there’s food. Yup. That little App told me how many calories I could have every day in order to reach my goal weight losing just one pound a week. I wanted a healthy loss and, naturally, of course, I didn’t want to deprive myself. After plugging in all my data, shock, surprise…what do you mean I can only have 1,730 calories a day?!!! The exercise got me extra calories but not as much as you might think. On an outstanding walking day of thousands of steps and miles and miles, this stingy little App only lets me have an extra 180 or so calories. As my niece said, “The App helps me make better food choices.” (Thanks, Stacy.) And, it did. Again and again, I looked like deer in headlights as I scanned items like peanut butter into my App only to see how my favorite peanut butter on english muffin breakfast is loaded with fat. And, since when does black coffee have calories? This was definitely a learning experience! It took about a month for my body to adjust to the calorie intake.  I knew I made it the night I realized less than 2,000 calories a day was actually a lot of food.  It filled me up. Yes, I am sick of salads with grilled chicken for lunch. Once in a while I have a sandwich or a turkey with green beans Lean Cuisine to break the monotony. I only eat potato, rice or pasta twice a week. But, also, as my niece says, “I don’t deprive myself.” Desserts are still something I enjoy. Last night a cup of fresh raspberries with a teeny (and I mean teeny weeny) scoop of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia Fro-Yo hit the spot. I eat four to five cups of fruits and vegetables a day. So long high glucose numbers! Recently, I gained nearly 2 pounds on a trip to Michigan. Yes, I definitely fell off the wagon, eating, drinking and lazing around all too much during that week. With my new, improved metabolism, those extra pounds just melted off during the following week after my return to what is now my normal diet and exercise.

That’s how a little App helped me lose weight and learn a lot about myself and aging. Aging doesn’t mean getting heavy and sedentary. It means making adjustments to a changing body the same way we make adjustments to other things in our lives. It means making an all out effort to be your personal best.  I can’t eat the way I once did and not pay a price for my bad habits. I also don’t have the stamina and young, pliable body that can take a pounding. But, I’m still here. And, I can still do plenty. Staying healthy and strong as I age is up to me…with a little help from MyFitnessPal App.

CHICKEN LITTLE

As I was making an appointment last week, my being retired came up in the conversation. The woman behind the desk said, “Oh, you’re one of the lucky ones. I’ll never be able to retire.” Reading this you might think she was one of the boomer generation who just didn’t save or had had some tough breaks in life. But this woman looked to be mid-thirties so I replied with, “You’re young. Save your pennies. You don’t need a lot of money to get to retirement. At your age, you need a regular savings plan. You already have the time.” She went on to tell me it was really hard to save anything in this economy and there would be no social security by the time she retired. Oh, my goodness, Chicken Little, the sky is falling!

As I drove home, I kept thinking about her attitude. I’d heard it all before. In fact, I’d heard it for decades. At one time in my life, I was also counted among the people who bought into the no way to save philosophy. I’m not trying to make light of the recent economic downturn. It’s been tough for a lot of people. Martin and I have both lost jobs at one time in our careers. So, I know firsthand how not fun that is. We also lived through the high inflation late 1970’s when gas prices first spiked and mortgage rates were upwards of 18%!!! Maybe that’s part of the reason we took this latest downturn in stride. While it may look and feel like the world is going to Hell in a handbasket (that’s a very old name for a woman’s handbag, which goes with the very old saying of going to Hell in a…well, now you know), the economy always seems to recover eventually. And, those who don’t sit around boohooing over it, seem to come out ahead of the rest of the crowd. You can have a Chicken Little, the sky is falling attitude or you can have a how can I make lemonade of out of this lemon attitude. Your choice.

So, back to my having heard it all before. I’ve talked with people who tell me they’ve tried to save but just can’t do it. Yet, they go out to dinner most nights or stop at the bar for a quick one…or two… on the way home. I’ve heard from people who go to Hawaii every year or Europe every year or Mexico every year or take a cruise every year. I’ve known of plenty of people who bought a new car every two years or three years just to keep up with the Joneses or so they wouldn’t have to deal with repairs. I’ve also known of lots of people who got a promotion with a nice sized raise and immediately went for the larger, more expensive home. Warren Buffett still lives in the same house he bought in his twenties. That should tell you something. I’ve known of women who had to buy one of those crazy big jewelry chests to house all the baubles they couldn’t stop buying.

Fortunately, I’ve also talked with lots of people who paid themselves first out of every paycheck. They socked it away for retirement. They invested in their future. Some of those same people were on the verge of retiring when in the fall of 2008 the bottom dropped out of their portfolio. Did they say they got screwed out of their retirement? Did they boo hoo about how their golden years wouldn’t be what they dreamed of? No, they said how can I make lemonade of this lemon! They reworked their dream, downsizing to a smaller home or deciding not to travel as much or selling off some of their toys. Others decided to keep working a couple more years. They kept a positive attitude. They were resilient despite what life had just handed them. On the contrary, I know people who pulled all of their money out of the stock market, thus locking in their losses and blaming everyone they could think of for their situation. Planning for retirement is like planning for anything else. Stuff happens. And, that means reworking the plan. It doesn’t mean retirement won’t happen. It just means it may look differently from your original dream or it may be delayed. You learn to roll with the punches.

As for Social Security, I smiled to myself about the young woman thinking there would be none for her generation. It’s the same thing Martin and I used to think about Baby Boomers. Does it look differently for our generation than it did for our parents? Yes. And, it will probably look differently for Generation X. Full benefits will most likely occur later, just like it is for us. It may not be as much, meaning the self-discipline to set up a regular, consistent savings plan is even more important. The fact is, Social Security has never been enough to retire on alone. It has always been and will continue to be just a part of the plan. Pensions have all but disappeared. However, I’d rather have my own nest egg in the form of a self-directed 401K or IRA or other plan any day of the week.

The key to whether or not you have a secure retirement or not is dependent upon your attitude. I recently read a story that has nothing to do with retirement but everything to do with attitude. It is the story of a high school basketball player who desired nothing more in his young life than to play basketball. When he was cut from the team, he felt humiliated and defeated. When he got home that day, he went to his room and cried. Today, Michael Jordan, who is probably the best basketball player who ever played, says that was a good experience. He didn’t allow himself to be defeated or defined by that circumstance. Instead, he reworked his plan. Attitude, folks, attitude.

So, whatever the economy, the government, the markets are doing, focus on what you can do with what you have to do it. You can have a retirement. And, what it looks like depends entirely upon how you look at life.