Homeward Bound

Last week, as part of my post on retirement lessons, I wrote about choosing where you will live. I didn’t choose my place for retirement as much as stumbled across it as a result of a job transfer Martin took nearly twenty years ago. My friends won’t like me saying this. Some of them even tell me, “Shush. Stop talking about how great Greenville is. We have enough retirees here now.” For me Greenville, South Carolina is a great place to retire. However, not everyone wants to retire to Greenville or anyplace else than where they are at the moment. If you do decide to move, here are a few considerations.

There are all kinds of reasons we choose to move when we retire. According to the US Census, most people move to be closer to family and grandchildren. While we love our families, pinning our retirement location on their location should include both discussion with our family and thought about our needs and wants and their needs and wants. Even then, life has a way of changing the best laid plans.

I met one couple who moved to Greenville to be near their son and daughter-in-law and their two children. Imagine the couple’s surprise after moving hundreds of miles, buying a house and settling into their new surroundings only to have their son accept a promotion that moved his family to Dallas. Ouch! No, they didn’t follow them. Instead they decided to stay here and take an occasional two hour flight to visit them in Dallas.

Conversely, some retirees choose to stay put because of family, only to have the grandchildren grow up and spread themselves in the direction of the four winds. The reality is we live in a transient society, children become adults and create their careers and lives, often moving to where opportunity takes them.

The weather also seems to be a top draw. But, choosing a climate so far removed from what you lived in most of your life may not be a sound idea. I’ve met scads of people who retired from northern or mid-western towns to Florida, only to sell and move to the Carolinas. Locals call them half-backs as this is about halfway between northern states like Connecticut and Florida.

One transplant from the Bronx quipped about his back tracking, “There was something not quite right about sitting around the pool on Christmas Day in your swim trunks.” For native Floridians there is probably something not quite right about trudging through snow on Christmas Day. My point is before you choose to move to the extreme opposite of what you are used to, think about what you will miss about your native climate, scenery and customs. While I don’t miss the frigid January temperatures, I would miss the changing colors of autumn leaves, the cooler dryer air and an evening by the fireplace.

As I mentioned last week, good close by medical care is a must for me. I’m in good health. However, if a heart attack or accident occurs, I don’t want to be out of range of a hospital or ambulance service. I’m tough, but not that tough. Sue of Life Below Zero is definitely more of a risk taker than I am. Hats off to her. Me? I’ll live bolder in more conventional ways. I recommend scoping out the medical care and proximity in your new destination before you make the move.

One of my retirement mantras is never stop learning. While having a college or university nearby is important as part of my cultural experience, so is a convenient grocery store and farmers market for my cooking at home obsession and farm store and nursery for my gardening habit. Although I live in the country all of these amenities are only minutes from my house along with locally owned restaurants and trendy shops. Also consider your partner’s needs, if you have one. Martin can bicycle right out of our property onto roads with little traffic and fabulous scenery.

Additionally, before making a move, look at housing affordability, taxes on property, income, sales and vehicles including boats or RVs. Some states do not tax food; others do. Some states do not tax social security; others do. Consider the cost of your move including the cost of moving household goods, getting new registrations on vehicles, a new license and anything else your new locale may require. Consider, too, the emotional cost of finding your way around, locating a new doctor, insurance company and other services, registering to vote, making new friends, creating a new social and cultural life.

While many retirees move, the truth is most do not, preferring to stay in their climate with the friends, family, services  and activities familiar to them. If you do decide a move is right for you, think of all the implications before making the leap. Otherwise, you may not be homeward bound.

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THE BEST PLACE TO LIVE IN RETIREMENT

At a party during the recent holiday season, I met a woman who retired to Upstate South Carolina with her husband. This region has a lot to offer retirees, but my new acquaintance told me how she really didn’t like living here. Instead, she longed to move to the state where she grew up. At first I thought she must be crazy not to love living here and she must be really crazy wanting to return to the northeastern snow belt of harsh winters not to mention high taxes. But, as I listened to her heartfelt description of her childhood home with all the familiar haunts and family she loved and missed, I realized a sense of place was lacking for her here. She moved here for the warmer climate, relatively inexpensive yet plentiful housing and the scenic beauty of the area. But, even after living here a few years, she didn’t feel like she belonged here.

Each year there are magazines and web sites, which offer up the best or worst places to live. Interestingly enough, the area in which I live has been in the line-up yet doesn’t make the grade year after year. One would think if a city was a great place to live this year, it would still be a great place to live next year and maybe the next. But, if the editors didn’t offer up some new venues each year, they wouldn’t sell magazines or garner visits to a web site. Their research departments also use some very general criteria such as taxes, cost of living, weather, crime rates, health care, recreation and, of course, housing availability and cost. While those criteria are all important to us, where we choose to live in retirement is lot more personal. More often than not, the best place to live comes down to a sense of place, your sense of place.

To me, a sense of place is a feeling of belonging there, of fitting in with the culture, the landscape and the people living around you. It just feels right. While I’m a proponent of living on your personal edge, where you live in retirement actually needs to be more like snuggling into the cushions of a worn familiar sofa or putting on an old flannel shirt where the familiarity and character of the item offers up a feeling of inner comfort. I once had an old flannel shirt so well-worn and comforting, it had holes in the elbows and a tear down the front before I finally ripped it into pieces to be used for cleaning rags. That’s kind of the way I feel about where I live. I don’t want to ever have to give it up. This is where I’ve chosen to live for many reasons. There are other places, which give the same comforting feeling but I’ve chosen not to live there due to the cost of living, large populations or weather. For example, when I go to the beach, I’m instantly transported back in time to the New Jersey shore where I grew up and immediately feel that same sense of place from my childhood, where I fit in with the sights and sounds and smells. I identify with the character of the place even if it is a different shore. It’s that feeling, which we are looking for when choosing a place to retire.

Even when you find the area or city or town in which you want to live, you may find certain neighborhoods of the community evoke more of a sense of belonging than others do for you. Do you want to be able to walk to the store or park? Do you want a place to meet neighbors? Do you want a new, thoroughly modern house or one that shows it’s age? Do you want all the conveniences and hustle and bustle within a short distance or do you want the quiet of the country? One of the things which gives me such a sense of place is my home. With the help of our builder, a structural engineer, we designed and built this house. Of all the houses we’ve lived in all over the country, this is the one in which I feel that I belong. It’s ours in every detail and, after ten years, it is worn in all the right places with our living in it.

While reading all the lists about the best and worst places to live in retirement is a good place to start your search, where you finally choose to live is as special as you are. It’s very personal. No researcher or editor can tell you what will give you a sense of place. For that, you have to reach deep inside yourself and do your own research. Like my acquaintance from the party or my feeling about going to the beach, you may want to start with your childhood. It’s been a long, long journey from there to here but going back in time just may hold the answer to where you’ll find your best place to live in retirement.

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.

HUSHPUPPIES

On a warm October day shortly after Martin retired, we headed for North Carolina on Martin’s Kawasaki Versys. Wearing our usual cycling gear of leather jackets, boots, gloves and full-coverage helmets, we sailed along through the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains to Shelby, NC. There, we stopped for lunch at Bridges Barbecue. A little diner serving up southern style barbecue with a vinegar based sauce and all the fixin’s, Bridges is one of those places where cyclists like to stop for the casual, friendly atmosphere as well as the good food. When we pull off our helmets and people see our graying hair, there’s sometimes a look of surprise. We’re not what most people expect under all that leather. But, everyone is always friendly and that day was no different.

We made our way inside and through the little diner to the only empty table and chairs, hauling jackets and helmets with us. A server took our orders as the booth next to us emptied out and was quickly filled by two women who looked a little younger than me. They were both dressed very nicely as if for work in an office. As Martin went to make a pit stop, one of the women leaned across the aisle, pointing at my helmet, and asked, “Are you going to or coming from someplace?” One thing led to another and by the time Martin returned to our table, I was talking about cycling, gardening, grandkids and living in South Carolina with my two new friends.

Unlike most people contemplating retirement and where they will live, we had the good fortune of discovering one of the most livable areas of the country long before we reached this juncture. One sunny Michigan day about fifteen years ago Martin called me and said, “How would you feel about moving to Greenville, South Carolina?” “Where?” I asked. We’d been to Hilton Head on vacation and loved it but I’d never heard of Greenville. In order to decide if we would make the transfer Martin’s employer was offering, the following Friday we flew down on a look-see. We found warm weather, friendly people and a lively downtown featuring a Main Street jazz concert on Friday nights. By Sunday, we were hooked! The South Carolina slogan of “Smiling Faces, Beautiful Places” described the upstate…well…beautifully. Since then, we’ve discovered it also describes the other Carolina to the north as well.

So, it was no surprise when we encountered such friendliness during our lunch in Shelby. One of the women asked if we’d ever had the hushpuppies at Bridges. “Well, no.” I answered. “Oh, then, you must try some. They’re simply the best.” With that, she offered up a bread basket full of long, brown fingers of crisply cooked dough. When I hesitated, she said with a big smile, “Oh, I insist. You must try these.” Shortly, we were trading french fries and hush puppies and talking some more. This time, them telling me about how the Reverend Billy Graham used to bring his family here for lunch when his kids were young. As we finished our lunch and said our goodbyes, I thought about what a great place the Carolinas are for retirees.

There are websites like AARP.org, moneyrates.com and CNN.Money.com teeming with suggestions to assist those contemplating retirement. You can find the best and worst states to retire, the cities with the lowest or highest cost of living, the states with the most sunshine, the states with the best or worst tax treatment for retirees, the cities with the most affordable housing, least crime, best jobs for retirees or some combination of all the above. Where you live is a very personal decision, which will affect the quality of your retirement. So, taking the time to explore the possibilities is time well spent. Even if you are happy where you live now and think you’ll just stay there, you may owe it to yourself to do a little exploring. We love living in South Carolina but we did a little reading, thinking and looking around just to be sure there wasn’t someplace even better for us. In the process, we discovered many places in this country, which we plan to visit in our retirement journey.

Taking a look around the country verified, for us, the Upstate of South Carolina is one of the best places to live. For the warm climate including lots of sunshine. For the cultural activities in three cities within an easy driving distance. For the outdoor recreation and beautiful vistas in both North and South Carolina. For all the fabulous eateries. For the favorable tax treatment of retirees. For the up to the minute health care facilities with a teaching hospital within 25 minutes of our house. For the affordable housing with relatively low property taxes. For the colleges where we can take courses tuition-free. For the vibrant economy fueled by BMW, Michelin and many other companies big and small. For the friendly, smiling faces.

And, the hushpuppies? Well, they’re simply the best!