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How to Use the Downturn to Improve Your Retirement — Part 3, “Stuff”

Friday, June 27th, 2008

I was saddened to hear of George Carlin’s passing this week. He had such a great bit about “stuff.” We buy it and then need MORE stuff to care for it, store it, show it off, etc. He made some really good points about how demanding it is to have “stuff.” Thank you, George.

“Buying stuff” is deeply ingrained for most of us though. It may be a cute little purse at your favorite boutique. It may be spare parts for your 1979 Ford 1/2 ton pick-up. It’s still “stuff.” For years we have been buying buying buying just because we can.

An economic downturn interrupts that pattern. It makes you say “whoa.” And gives you a good strong push toward looking at the stuff you already own. Do you need it? When are you going to use it? Is it consistent with how you’re living your life these days? I have inline skates I haven’t used in two years. Do they belong in my garage or on Craig’s List?

When you’re getting close to retirement, it’s really important to look at your “stuff.” Simplify becomes the the word of the hour. We think about dealing with our stuff. But it’s one of those “I’ll deal with it eventually…”efforts. It’s a whole lot more fun to just keep buying it.

We’re in a downturn. Use it to take a good look at your stuff! Anything you need to let go of, even if you’ve loved it for decades? Anything taking more to own than it gives as pleasure? A collection of figurines that takes an hour to dust? Jewelry you never take out of the safe deposit box? The extra stereo components you were going to install on the deck of the last house you owned?

Take a long, slow, serious look at what you have. Then really think about how it’s serving you. Does it all need to stay? If not, you get to learn a new fun game.

What do you want to do with it instead?

  • SELL IT. The most financially beneficial option is, of course, to sell it. Garage sale? Online? Your sister’s kid who’s starting a business and needs that very stuff? If you want best dollar, maybe it’s time to learn about E-bay. If you want to move it quickly, maybe Craig’s list or something low tech, like a sign on it will work better. Or maybe there’s someone who’s told you “If you ever decide to part with that…”
  • DONATE IT. This can be financially positive as well–IF you get a receipt for it. Then you can deduct it from your income tax as an in kind charitable contribution next year. (But if it has significant value, pay attention to what the IRS requires as documentation.) Donating can be very emotionally satisfying. You get to “do good” with stuff that isn’t doing you any good anymore. Cool! This is true whether you give that extra dresser to your uncle’s needy friend or a prize piece of art for an auction to raise money for a community project. It can be downright exhilarating to learn that what you have to give is what some organization has been praying for for months–or years!
  • RECYCLE IT. Please please please don’t throw things out that can be reused. That goes for everything from plastic grocery bags to clothing and household items. Give it to Goodwill. Give it to St. Vincent de Paul. GIVE IT TO SOMEBODY! Check online for ways to make a difference. Last week, I found a local company who was delighted to get the sink, countertop, and plumbing fixtures I no longer needed. They will be useful again and that’s good. Plus the woman who took my donation made me feel like a hero!
  • PITCH IT. Okay, sometimes throwing it out is the right option. But that’s a last resort–for two reasons. You don’t earn anything for it that way and you pay–one way or the other–to make it gone.

This pitching and sorting is a good thing. Kind of the household equivalent of losing ten pounds. Your living space seems bigger. Your maintenance responsibilities seem lighter. Use the downturn to tap the potential of converting “stuff” back into cash and buy back a bit of your space in the process.

How Old is Too Old for “Good Work”?

Tuesday, June 24th, 2008

Last week the MetLife Foundation and Civic Ventures released the results of their joint 2008 Encore Career Survey. The study had a laudable goal–to determine how many who might otherwise opt for traditional retirement are instead choosing “encore careers”–positions longer on meaning but shorter on prestige, perks, and pay.

The good news is that somewhere between six and ten percent of those 44 to 70 are doing that “good work” as Marc Freedman, Founder and CEO of Civic Ventures calls it. The even better news is that based on what those still in the traditional workforce indicated, these ranks may swell substantially soon. According to an essay by Freedman and Phyllis Segal, VP of Civic Ventures, at the beginning of the report, if the 5% of the baby boom who say they are interested went into encore careers that lasted ten years, the result would be 40 MILLION YEARS of human talent brought to bear on world problems.

Pretty impressive!

But who decided that all this was going to end at 70? Stories abound of people who are both doing “good work” and having great fun far after they hit that impressive 75. They need opportunities to contribute their talents as well. We’ve just pushed the age barrier farther out by setting an upper limit in the study. Not good.

The news from Encore Study is exciting to put it mildly. But there is even more to celebrate as we find ways to keep EVERYONE WHO WANTS TO engaged–in “good work,” in their communities, in SOME kind of meaningful endeavor. We are in the early stages of a massive change in lifestyle phases. The idea that anyone over 60–well, now 70–is tired, worn out, and needs to rest is giving way (slowly) to new opportunities to make a difference and to honor what’s individually important.

But as we move in that direction, we lose if we just push the age barrier a little farther out. We need to get rid of it. Period. Before mandatory retirement and company pensions, people remained useful as members of the community virtually until the end of their lives. If every person who wants to can work at what they believe in for as long as they live, the result will be far more profound than even the numbers Freedman and Segal suggest. Plus health care costs will go down. So let’s take this all the way–no upper limit to how long it works to work!

Encore, a part of Civic Ventures, offers a very impressive array of information about encore careers.

More about Mary Lloyd…

Monday, June 23rd, 2008

When Mary Lloyd left the natural gas industry, she thought she had it all figured out. The financial pieces were in place and the 65-mile one-way commute was starting to get to her. So in 1993, at the age of 47, she left a job as division manager for a Fortune 200 company intending to “retire” and become a commercially successful fiction writer. She’d already gained a reputation for handling tough situations well. This next phase of life would be a piece of cake.

Fifteen years later, she is on an entirely different mission. After trying everything from a multi-month world cruise to deploying to Texas with the Red Cross in the aftermath of Hurricane Rita, she is out to alert her baby boom brethren to a startling discovery: The current model of “retirement” doesn’t work.

She’s learned a lot on her circuitous path to finding this purpose in life.  She shares it in her book Supercharged Retirement:  Ditch the Rocking Chair, Trash the Remote, and Do What You Love . She offers more on her website, www.mining-silver.com and in the Living Silver seminar series she began offering in early 2008.  And she is willing to do a lot more to get the word out. “This is nuts,” she says insistently. “We have to do this better.”

Lloyd on a bike ride with friends.

At age 61, she is tall, blonde and indefatigable. Her favorite activity is hiking–eight or more miles in the Pacific Northwest whenever she has the chance. She also bikes, skis and is learning doubles tennis. But her more energetic performances are in conversations with anyone who’s interested about making the years after work “better than retirement.”

She brings PhD level training in psychology, executive level experience in accomplishing complex projects, and the determination of a two-year old looking for the hidden cookies to this mission. And she goes about it with a both compassion and wit.

“The RV model might work for some,” she admits, “but most of us need a goal to work toward to feel worthwhile. To retire well, we need to learn how to include that and still relax and have fun.”

Lloyd as Sonny Bono on Halloween

Some interesting facts about The Golden Years

Monday, June 16th, 2008

I came across some interesting stuff doing research for my next book today. It took me by surprise and I thought you might get a bit of a jolt out of it, too. Do you know where the term “the Golden Years” came from? It’s not some poet or politician. It’s not even someone who created it as a way to honor that segment of the population.

It’s from Del Webb–the guy who brought us Sun CIty, Sun City West, Sun City Grand, etc. “The Golden Years” was part of the original marketing campaign they used to launch the first Sun City outside of Phoenix in 1960. And when they opened for business on New Year’s Day, they’d done such a great job promoting the idea that they created the worst traffic jam in the history of Arizona according to Marc Freedman who wrote about the phenomenon in the book Prime Time.

The Webb model sees the Golden Years as 100% leisure–an active lifestyle just keep you moving. It’s way short on meaning and way long on marketing. But you have to admit the outfit has done an impressive job. There are Sun City wannabees all over the US and now some abroad. People are still buying in and moving “where it’s warm.

But do you really want to be manipulated like that? Take the time to figure out what you REALLY need. It’s not the label you put on it. It’s how satisfying it is once you start to live it. Take the time to figure it out before you sign on the dotted line.

How to Use the Downturn to Improve Your Retirement — Part 2, Consumption Patterns

Saturday, June 14th, 2008

We are a nation of consumers. That’s what makes our economy hum–also those of most of the developed countries of the world. Everybody likes to sell us stuff. We ‘ll buy pretty much everything and anything.

But sometimes, that consuming becomes mindless. When looking for ways to make the money go farther, we need to look at the times when we spend because we are in the habit instead of being conscious consumers. The stuff that we haven’t yet realized we don’t want–or maybe even like anymore–is fair game for the budget ax.

Spending money in those kinds of situations is sort of like catching yourself saying a word you promised not to say anymore though. Because the spending is from habit, thinking about it before you buy takes a lot more effort.

Consider your morning coffee. You like a specific drink. The barrista knows it. She may even start it as you pull into the parking lot or call out the order before you ever open your mouth in the drive thru line. That arrangement gives you the fancy cofffee drink sure–and a nice serving of personal recognition. Is this the best way to get both of those things? You’re paying in money sure. But you are also paying in calories and time waiting in line. Be sure you still really want it when you decide to buy it.

How about that gym membership? Do you ever go? Or is it more a case of “I should go”–where you pay for it and then never get around to using it? Then you are buying an unused gym membership and a guilt trip. Money and emotional energy that you could use better. It’s summertime. Are you doing active things outside? Can you go into hiatus at your gym and come back in the fall or winter without any additional expense? Do you even need the gym? I joined because it was the least cost way to learn Pilates. Now that I know the basics, I can go back to my preferred approach of exercising at home.

Cable TV–or maybe the premium channels. Are you using them enough to justify the expense? Even if you are, is there something you might want to do with that time besides polishing your couch potato skills? Will you pay a penalty to cancel? To reinstate it if you decide you really do need it later?

The one I know I should eliminate–but which remains in place at my house–is my land line telephone. It’s a duplication of service since I have a cell phone. Having the land line is just a nod to my preference for the reception quality of the traditional wired system. I would use the cell phone better if I didn’t keep relying on the “old fashioned” telephone when I’m home. This downturn might push me far enough to get that done.

Volume of consumption is also worth scrutiny when looking for ways to take action in the face of rising costs/stagnant income. We’re encouraged to buy more than we need in so many ways! The same purse in three different colors? Come on! Four pairs of gym shorts? Take the time to consciously decide that you need everything you buy.

And with food, good heavens! That 72 ounce fountain drink? Even if it’s “just ten cents more” it’s 700 more calories than a 12 ounce can. Do you need to “supersize” that meal deal? Only if you are using it to feed a family of four.

That’s another option that usually goes unexplored. When you go out to eat, consider splitting a meal. Usually there is more than enough for both of you. Or order an appetizer as your meal. Alcohol can be one of the biggest items on your bill. If you aren’t driving, consider having that cocktail or glass of wine at home before you go out for dinner. You’d probably cut the bill by a third.

These are just examples. Look at your own patterns to find underappreciated spending. If you buy it, savor it. If you don’t even notice you paid for it, you’ve shifted into automatic consumption–and may be spending more than you need to every single day.

When money is tight, it’s easier to look at these things. So use the downturn to learn more about where you are throwing your money away.

Retirement: Another Graduation

Wednesday, June 11th, 2008

Graduation!

It’s June .Let’s talk about graduation. Not the one from school. The one that comes when you’ve met all the requirements to not have to go to work every day any more. We call it “retirement,” but it is really a graduation—a new beginning.

When we look at it that way, the focus becomes “What am I going to do next?” instead of “I don’t have to do this—and this and this—anymore. ”Moving toward something is healthier emotionally, which helps sustain physical health. Besides, it’s more fun.

Graduation means we’ve learned enough to move up to the next thing—to the next level of adventure. To new opportunities for excitement. To new responsibilities that better confirm our competence and our interests. We may not have all the answers about the thing we are going to do next, but we are expecting to do something. And it’s gonna be more satisfying than what we’re leaving behind.

Retirement should be a matter of moving up to the next level. A level that allows us to fill our lives with things that are important to us. The financial resources are there so we don’t have to work anymore. But that doesn’t mean we are done with everything.

For some of us, that day will never come– because we like what we are doing too much to give it up or the financial situation isn’t conducive. Some of us will “graduate early.” But all of us need to see this transition as a chance to move to a higher level of life. We need to ditch this silly notion that we can, should, and will just “drop out.”

Most of you are probably looking for the tar and feathers by now…I’m challenging what we have been using as the light at the end of the tunnel for a work life that is ridiculously demanding and grossly out of control. I’m not suggesting the current level of frenzy–that we call a career–is what you need when you don’t have to show up everyday anymore. What I am saying is that a life of 100% leisure is likely to leave you every bit as dissatisfied after a while.


You can make the transition any way you like. To take time to decompress. To clean the garage or enjoy your cup of coffee in the morning. Maybe you want to travel extensively—to live what you’ve dreamed when facing impossible deadlines and difficult work challenges. Do all that, sure. But also think about what you want to do along with those things—and after you’ve lived those dreams.

What’s important to you? What do you believe in so strongly that you want to DO something about it?What makes time stand still when you’re involved in it? These are things you need to know before you walk out that work door for the last time. Then when the travel starts to seem like” the same old thing” or lingering over coffee doesn’t pack quite the punch as a source of joy anymore, you have something to move toward.

Please also note: The notion that we are no longer ABLE once we retire is toxic. We have to get rid of that drivel. As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re right.” If we believe we can’t, we won’t even try. With better lifestyle choices and the current pace of medical advances, we should be able to do plenty for a long time. But not if we assume we can’t because we are “retired.”

The idea that we will not work in retirement is equally silly. Work isn’t just about money. Work is a way to add meaning to your life.To stand up for what you believe in. Maybe it will be for pay, and maybe it will be as a volunteer, but work is an essential part of a happy life at any age. But don’t make it “a little something to keep me busy.” Find what really turns you on, and then do it. Do it well and with gusto. Do it with commitment.

When you graduate, you gain a larger world than you had before. Retirement can be that in spades. But only if you refuse to buy in on the rocking chair.

Use High Gas Prices to Your Advantage

Thursday, June 5th, 2008

In the last two days, Congress proposed allowing federal employees to work from home 20% of the time, GM announced plans to close plants that make SUV’s and trucks and focus instead on smaller cars that get better gas mileage, and George Will offered an editorial about doing a better job of pumping the oil we have within our national boundaries. This is not a matter of weak supply with shortages looming. This is a matter of the abysmal value of the dollar, oil speculators who aren’t above inflicting financial pain on “the little guy” in order to make money, and our own bad behavior. We’re used to cheap gas, and we drive like it.

Eventually, the value of the dollar will improve, and the speculators will get what they deserve. We might even learn to balance the realities of our national need for carbon fuel with good environmental stewardship in ways that allow the oil within our boundaries to flow and soften the impact of major international swings. But we don’t have to wait for anyone to improve the way we individually use gasoline.

You can do just the obvious things:

  • Batch your errands. Only go when you have at least three (or five or ??) things to get done.
  • Plan your routes. Sequence whatever you have to get done so that you accomplish it all with the least distance in between.
  • Don’t use driving as entertainment.
  • Put your kids/grandkids on a gas allowance if you are the one filling up the tank.

But there is another set of actions that will have more dramatic impact, and these are often overlooked. With these, you can make changes that save you money beyond the cost of gas and improve your life in other ways. Here’s a longer list of those:

  • Drive sensibly. Jackrabbit starts and braking at the last minute take more gas. Gunning around people on the freeway because you have a car that can takes more gas. Quick acceleration is less fuel efficient in most cases. As an added bonus, if you avoid a speeding ticket or some kind of traffic fine, you have more money for gas–and less money needed for your car insurance premium. Drive smart.
  • Eliminate things you’ve been trying to cut down on anyway. The best example I can think of is trips to buy cigarettes. Use the high cost of gas as additional motivation to help you quit. The same thing goes at the latte stand. It may not be that far out of the way but you get zero miles to the gallon sitting on your butt with the engine idling waiting for that double caramel whatever.
  • Use public transportation. Most of us are afraid of it because it’s an unknown. The high cost of gas is probably more painful than the unknown. So learning to use the bus might be easier at this point just because it can save you more. Go with a friend and make it an adventure the first time. Once you get used to using the system, you will be able to use it as a travel option for the rest of your life.
  • Use your legs. Walk or ride your bike as your transportation whenever you can. Or couple that with public transportation. Buses typically have racks for bikes on the front. This strategy has so many benefits! When you go under your own power instead of that of a combustion engine, you tone you muscles and get a start on better health. That might mean fewer trips to the doctor. You lose weight. That might encourage you to get on a healthier diet with less eating out. What’s not to like about this?
  • Take a cue from what corporate America does when faced with hard economic times. Set a goal of cutting 10% or maybe even 15% from what you consider essential car trips. It seems impossible, but I’ve seen a lot of corporate departments do it where it looked impossible and without cutting out anything truly essential.
  • Say “no” to people who want you to drive for their convenience. This includes kids/grandkids and non-essential trips for elderly parents. Mom can wait for the newest edition of her favorite magazine until you have a batch of errands to run.
  • Take a good long look at all the things you are involved in. Do you still like doing them? The cost of gas might be the trigger to stop doing something you lost interest in long ago.
  • Don’t drive during rush hour. Take personal work with you to do at the office if you can’t get your boss to let you come in early and go home early. If you’re retired, plan your trips for a smoother time of day. Rush hour driving takes a lot more gas to go the same distance.  And then there’s the wear and tear on you psyche…
  • Explore the possibility of working from home. The boss might love the chance to give you a raise built out of saved commuting costs.
  • Shop online. This is hard for those of us who did not grow up in front of a computer screen. The safety of secured sites is at least as good as shopping in a bricks and mortar store, and you don’t have to use a nickel’s worth of gas. But even if you can’t bring yourself to type your credit card information onto the screen, at least figure out where the best deal is by going online. Then you will only drive to ONE store instead of making the rounds to see where the best deal is.

There are more dramatic actions you can take. For example, buying a more fuel efficient auto or moving to an area of the country or city where you live that requires less driving. But take some kind of action. Things like high gas prices are harder when you feel like you have no control.  So do something. Not all of the above suggestions are good for everybody. But this situation has a silver lining we need to take advantage of.

How to Use the Downturn to Improve Your Retirement — Part 1, Intangible Assets

Monday, June 2nd, 2008

You’d have to be living in a cave not to be worried about the economy. When we get to this part of the economic cycle, it’s easy to panic and think it will never end. Since the price of gas and the value of the dollar are beyond your own control, it’s also easy to start feeling helpless. That makes it even harder to endure the broader situation and can lead to illness or depression. Not good. Not good at all.

There really are things we can do at times like these that will make the next upturn even better.  Action is the best cure for fear. Thist post is the first in a series of ten that might help when your prospects take a nose dive:

ACTION #1: Inventory Your Intangible Assets

“Intangible assets” are the skills, knowledge and abilities you have that you COULD use to make a living whether you are using them now or not. Maybe you don’t use those assets because they aren’t required in the job you hold. Maybe you don’t use them because you are retired. Maybe you don’t use them because they are not the direction you prefer to go in right now. But they are still things you can do and thus ways you could make money if you needed to.

It might be writing copy for your former ad agency as a freelancer. It might be driving a bus. It might be underwater welding. This is not just a description of the skills and knowledge you need for what you are doing now–or did before you left the workforce. It’s every single thing you “could” do. When the value of your mutual funds takes a dive or the situation at work is looking iffy, it helps to consider the rest of who you are to identify resources you forgot you had. Below is one way to do that, but HOW you do it isn’t as important as THAT you do it.

But first,  three definitions:

KNOWLEDGE = an information base you have acquired about something.

SKILLS = any set of behaviors you’ve perfected to get something done.

ABILITIES = the natural attributes you possess that make you good at a particular thing.

DEFINING YOUR INTANGIBLE ASSETS:

1. List the last job you had and the knowledge, skills and abilities you needed to get the work done. (We are starting with the easiest stuff here–This is the obvious one.) Do you still have those skills? If not, what do you need to do to regain them? Is the value of regaining them worth the effort?

2. Do the same thing for every job you ever had, including the paper route or babysitting you did as a kid. What knowledge, skills and abilities did you need to do those jobs? Do you still have them? If not, can you brush them up? What could you use them to do now?

3. Now list all the things you do for fun that require knowledge, skills and abilities.  This may be woodworking; it may be videogaming.  It may be costume  making.

4. Then list what you do as a volunteer or as part of your community and the knowledge, skills and abilities you’ve developed to accomplish that.

5. List things you used to do as a volunteer in the past, maybe when you kids were younger and you were involved because of them. How mny of those assets are still part of your repertoire?

6. Make a master list of all the knowledge, skills and abilities you’ve just listed. These are you intangible assets.

7. If you want to take it all the way to “piece of mind,” go through your master list and write out all the ways you could use each thing on the list as gainful employment.

Going through this exercise can alleviate some of the anxiety that comes in facing a downturn, especially on a fixed income or when you are relying on the stock market to pay you bills. But there is another benefit to this. Looking at all the things you CAN do sometimes triggers a realization of what you WANT to do, downturn or not. Defining your intangible assets can help calm your fears about dealing with economic uncertainty. But don’t be surprised if you end up launching in a whole new direction for the long haul because of what you find out.