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.

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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.

THE PERKS

The first time I really thought about the benefits of fitting the definition of senior, I was just shy of my sixtieth birthday. Considering there are places where 50 is the magic age of senior, I guess I’m a little slow. But on that winter day, I went grocery shopping like many other days in my life. I swiped my debit card at the check out, followed the bagger outside where he loaded my car and I drove home. As was my habit, after arriving home, unloading the car and taking care of all the cold stuff, I looked at my receipt to be sure I got the all the buy one, get one and other good deals. Then, I noticed it. There at the bottom of my tab. A 5% senior discount. SENIOR DISCOUNT??? At this particular grocery store, a 5% discount was given for anyone shopping on Wednesdays who was 60 or over. Sixty! At first, I felt a slight bit insulted. I wasn’t sixty. I was, well, 59 and 5/6ths. It must be the gray hair! They think I’m old. Maybe I should have kept coloring my hair. Whoa, wait a minute. I am old. Then, I thought, isn’t this great! Perks for old age.

While I wasn’t crazy about being called a senior or a retiree and I certainly don’t like the negative sounding definitions of retirement, the moment I realized there were perks to this old age thing, I was bitten. Heck, I shamelessly sported my gray hair as a ticket to more discounts. I started actively looking at the AARP website for discounts. I Googled “discounts for seniors”. I talked with neighbors, friends and family, even strangers. What did they know about the perks? What about where I lived? Maybe there was a state with more perks than South Carolina. So, I checked South Carolina’s government website. I knew about the $50,000 homestead exemption on property taxes for 65 and over. Despite already low property taxes, I’m looking forward to an even lower bill. What else was South Carolina willing to do for their seniors?

More Googling. Wow! Without even planning for it, I learned I was living in one of the top ten tax friendly states in the nation…for seniors. Thirty six states including South Carolina exempt Social Security benefits from state income taxes. But, another perk in my home state at 65 and over is a $15,000 deduction per person ($30,000 per couple) of retirement income, regardless of the source, from state income taxes. And we younger seniors can deduct up to $3,000 of retirement income, including public and private pensions and IRA distributions, from our taxable income. If you’re looking for ways to stretch your retirement income, look for one of the tax friendly states to call home. Hint: Most of them are in the south.

Looking for other perks for seniors, I found state supported colleges in South Carolina offer tuition-free classes to age 60 and over. If materials are included in the cost of the class, you have to spring for the materials. So, say you want to take a pottery class, plan on buying your own clay. But, the actual tuition for the instruction is free. Lifelong learning at no cost. That should give any retiree plenty to keep them challenged!

There are also the usual perks, like restaurants offering a free dinner, dessert or appetizer on your birthday, free coffee everyday with breakfast by showing your AARP card. Recently, I booked a hotel room for a trip we’re planning later this spring. The first thing I did, of course, was check their website for senior discounts. Their best rate dipped from $159 a night to a very pleasing $125 for 60 and over. I’ve heard some airlines offer senior discounts if you dig deep enough. There are senior discounts for that bastion of retirement bliss, the cruise. RVing? Look for RV parks offering senior discounts. When I’m 62, if the federal deficit doesn’t eat this perk, I’ll be buying my lifetime access pass to national parks for the unbelievable sum of $10!!! That’s lifetime, folks. Perks. Perks. Everywhere. So, even though I look for a better description for retirement than the one in the dictionary. And, even though I still think of a senior as some 17 year old about to graduate high school, from here on out, I will be looking for the words “senior discount” wherever I go. After all, old age has it’s perks.

LIVING ON THE GRID

Recently there was a spot on network news about how a lot of baby boomers wanted to spend their retirement years rediscovering themselves but most wouldn’t be able to do that because they didn’t save enough for retirement to ever stop working. I count myself among the fortunate. We’re not wealthy but we have enough to spend our retirement rediscovering ourselves.

When I think about rediscovering myself, I think about the girl who got married in a hayfield in upstate New York. No, you’re not going blind. I wrote hayfield, a hayfield complete with Episcopalian priest wearing overall jeans and plain white t-shirt beneath his robes. We had a guitar player/singer who belted out some really smarmy tunes (I liked them a lot at the time) such as “Time in a Bottle”. Everyone stood around in sensible shoes witnessing our vowels while I was so struck with emotion I cried through my own wedding. The emotion was triggered by my priest arriving 20 minutes late…talk about being stood up at the alter! My husband was this handsome long haired guy with a mustache and beads around his neck that matched the ones around my neck. I wore a long cream colored dress with a picture hat. My bridesmaids wore home sewn dresses in a variety of pastel colors. The guys wore tuxes with frilly shirts. Where did those people go? I’ll tell you where they went. They got bills…mortgage, electric, gas, water, garbage, car payments, student loans and kids. So they traded in the beads for jobs that made enough money to support all that and more. They became a consumer unit! And consume they did. The idea of living in our little house on 10 acres gave way to chasing jobs and promotions cross country moving into ever larger accommodations while seeking good schools, good shopping and the latest stuff.

Am I ready to give up living on the grid? Am I ready to stop being what some government agencies call a consumer unit? Not entirely. We did pare down the consumerism in order to retire early and have a less cluttered life. However, and it’s a big however, I like being able to walk in the door, flip a switch and get electricity for lights, gas for cooking and water running from the tap. But I also want healthier food and a mindful, sustainable lifestyle. I prefer jeans to my work attire. T- shirts to blouses. Our old matching beads to any gold necklace. I like my smaller house…less to clean, heat, cool and pay property taxes on. Ditto for my seven year old Mazda. So, while I search for the girl from the hayfield, I guess I still want to live on the grid and be a consumer unit without consuming quite so much.