My wife and I just came back from a three day weekend in Virginia. We’ve made it a goal to visit likely places to move at least twice a year. The time of retirement is coming. She put a stake in the ground last week, it’s 5 years and counting.
I’m not sure what exactly retirement means. At least I’m not sure what it will mean for us. We do know we have to get out of the world’s highest cost of living neighborhood and we know that we’ll have a little more than 20 years of active life before we have to start the big “Chill.” We also know that one or both of us will probably keep working, I certainly will anyway. That’s the reason I became a writer almost 10 years ago. Maybe retirement for me is just getting to live with my beautiful young wife, alone. Kids may visit on alternate Sundays in months starting with “P.”
It seems that “retirement” would like to come in two phases. The first is the active phase, suddenly freed from the day to day working world retirees look forward to travel, learning and doing whatever they want with their time. The second phase, hopefully much later, is the one with limited mobility and or diminished mental capacity, a time of comfort and relaxation (we hope).
Unfortunately, for a lot of Americans, retirement will not come at their own behest but at the command of others. For many it already has. Many have not managed to balance the equation “XX years of work = YY years of retirement,” and will have to keep working in some capacity well into their 70’s or 80’s. These may well enter the second phase without having enjoyed the first.
One of the keys is planning, although retirement plans and battle plans are much alike, few survive the first few minutes of conflict. I also know that although it would be nice to lie around in a Swiss jacuzzi being waited on by hot and cold running St. Pauli girls, that’s not in the cards (damn it!) Still, we do have a cloudy plan, based on the three rules of life on earth.
Don’t spend money unless it makes money
Retirement is often a time of limited funds, that may diminish further over time. So, based on the first rule, we are looking for an apartment house. The idea being that it will provide us with a place to live and pay for itself in income. We don’t expect any more than subsistence from this investment, and possibly something to divest in case of an emergency, like Apple coming out with an iBrain to replace the faulty one I have. Commercial loans are still tight, but a 401K makes excellent collateral. Does everyone know real estate investments are allowed in $401k’s? Something to think about.
So, we are looking for a small to mid-sized city to relocate to. One with colleges or even a university, public transportation and a nice “walking” neighborhood. This location will probably be where taxes are lower, which is anywhere but where we live now. We’ve even thought about the Ex-Pat route, that eliminates state taxes altogether and sometimes capital gains as well, but not the “give up citizenship route.” We have some friends who’ve done that, they took their money and ran. I’m just not comfortable with that.
Rather than sit around in an apartment getting older and fatter by the minute, we realize that life is most enjoyable when you are constantly challenged, learning new things and seeing new sights. So, like a lot of people we’d like to travel. I grew up traveling, or actually moving from one place to the next, following my father’s career around Europe. My wife did pretty much the same thing, but all around America instead. So, we’re used to constant motion. However, traveling is expensive and would quickly eat away our finances, soon we’d be back in the apartment fighting over whether it’s the Food network or the History channel next.
We think the solution to that is to provide our own accommodations wherever we go and making continued work part of our lifestyle. I don’t think either of us ever thought we’d really be able to stop working. That went out with retirement dinners, pensions and gold watches. Our particular solution is a boat, a big one with room for offices. Boats are self-contained living spaces and do not encounter property taxes or parking fees. If you don’t like the neighborhood or your neighbors, just fire her up and sail away. Water is still one of the last uncontrolled spaces and permits a degree of freedom few other places can. If planned and executed well, cruising is one of the most economical and exciting lifestyles available. We both work from home now, why not just change the home? We could go the RV route, but that’s very limiting and rarely gets you within walking distance of the best sights. Can you park an RV close enough to Broadway to have dinner and see a show? Can you drive an RV to St. Croix or Paris? Well, yes but the parking violations and drowning are considerable drawbacks.
Keep your friends close
A lot of Americans are on the same road we are, hunting for the best “rest of life” solutions. Which means serious competition for every alternative “retirement” lifestyle. For instance, my parents, both 93, live in a retirement community. Right now they have a house, but soon they may move into one of the central building’s apartments. That was their plan, worked out decades ago with a considerable number of their friends. They quashed competition by creating a group big enough to be the first investors in a new community. It also meant they were surrounded by people they knew.
We’re not so concerned by loss of friends. My parents were of the “cocktail age,” friends were met and seen through a variety of social gatherings, activities and clubs. In the “Digital age” you can stay closely in touch with life long friends daily (if they can stand it) and see them much less often and still remain close. This frees us and our friends to explore all sorts of alternative strategies that may not be as competitive. Each has the same basic goals. Find a “home base” where they can maximize their finances. Pursue a further career or interest that will keep them active. Figure out a final landing spot for later.
I really don’t think we could pull off a group thing anyway, our friends are too disparate in age and inclination. One couple is looking at retirement homes on the basis of being close to medical facilities, another still has young children. One couple has a lake house to go to and one bought land in Texas and a house-sized RV. Sounds like we’ll all have to figure out how to visit on the cheap.
Keep your options open
As much as we would like to find the perfect spot to live, we realize that we might well find out that we’ve made a mistake. St. Croix look s good, they have a Home Depot and a Walmart and their own refinery so gas never goes over $2.50. However, everything is expensive on any island, what about running out of money when you’re surrounded by miles and miles of ocean?
Guatemala looks great, up and coming, nice climate and dirt cheap. Dinner for four with drinks, $12. But what if “up and coming” becomes “down and gone?” No me gusto! Portland, Me. looks especially nice. College town, cobble stone streets, lots to do and see. But what about winter? How are those cobblestones going to feel against our hips when we go down the hard way? Newport News was also very nice, lots of water, fresh country air, but just how big do the mosquitos get?
On a limited budget, major mistakes can be very serious indeed. It’s not like we’re 25 and can work ourselves out of anything. Make a big leap when you’re 65 and you may well be stuck there for good. Making the best of it is not my first choice for retirement activities.
That’s why in 5 years everything that doesn’t fit in two or three suitcases is either going to charity (Yay!)or into storage (Boo!). We’ll move and rent for a few years trying places out.
I don’t pretend to know anything about the change that’s coming, just operating from what I’ve seen and heard. If any of you are going through the same lines of thought, I’d love to hear your views.
Copyright Prentiss Gray 2011