Who wants to retire? It's too difficult

Wednesday, February 15, 2012 - 20:00

I used to think people postponed retirement and worked longer than they needed to because they wanted to make more money or they wanted to have something to do to feel useful.

After exploring the possibility of retirement, I came to an inescapable conclusion: people delay retirement for the same reason they procrastinate doing their taxes: it’s just too difficult, and painful.

Writer William Cowper wrote: “Absence of occupation is not rest, a mind quite vacant is a mind distressed.”

The American Heritage Dictionary defines the word retire as “to go away; depart, as for rest, seclusion or shelter.”

Departing, withdrawing, finding seclusion — that sounds rather simple. Some folks I know are already quite reclusive — so retiring from the world of work wouldn’t bring appreciable change to their lives.

At a retirement workshop my wife and I listened attentively to the speaker:

“As you roll your 401K into a tax-deferred IRA with net unrealized appreciation you must consider cost basis on the sale of existing securities and leverage yourself with a diversified portfolio of value, blend and growth stocks mixed with bonds, no-load mutual funds and treasury notes that over the long-term will outpace inflation and hedge market volatility — being sure to fully examine stochastic indicators in order to fully appraise market trends.”

I looked around the room. Everyone was nodding knowingly. Either they understood this stuff or they were great actors.

“I wonder when we’ll ever get a chance to think about the fun things you do in retirement,” I said to the person next to me.

“I don’t think we will,” he said glumly. “If you’re like me, you don’t have enough in your fund to do much anyway. This is all about managing what you have…survival.”

This whole process was shaping into a barrel of laughs. Health insurance, life insurance, long-term care insurance, tax-deferment, IRAs, no-load accounts. This new vocabulary was cold, bleak, entirely devoid of human emotion. I knew about a retirement Holy Grail everyone was seeking, but everyone we spoke to had different ideas on how to find it.

“You want maximum return on your retirement fund with minimum risk,” the speaker admonished.

“That’s obvious,” I thought. Dolphins at SeaWorld know about minimizing risks to get maximum return. It’s one of those immutable Laws of the Universe. What I wanted to know was what to invest in. I didn’t know at the time that about the only secure investment was putting money under one’s bed mattress.

He repeated his spiel: “What you need is a diversified portfolio of value, blend and growth stocks, some bonds, no-load mutual funds, treasury bills, etc.”

“You don’t understand,” I persisted. “Tell me specifically what stocks, what bonds, what treasury notes, what mutual funds to buy.”

He gave me 25 options, instead of three or four, compounding my confusion.

“You don’t want to help me, do you?” I challenged.

“Of course I do. Just invest in one of the many options we’ve listed.”

The presenter strolled around the room as he lectured. He walked slowly past my chair and I grabbed his hand with an eagle-talon grip, moving it toward a pile of prospectuses — or should I say prospectae? Point your finger at the best ones,” I said forcefully.

“I’m not supposed to recommend specific equities…”

“Which one?!” I said, tightening my grip.

“Okay, okay, go for that one…Fidelity Contrafund…it’s a solid performer.”

The presenter called for a 10-minute break, dashed out of the room and wasn’t seen the rest of the day. I kind of thought we’d shared a special moment, even some bonding.

“I don’t want to retire now,” I later told my wife, who is much smarter about finances than I could ever hope to be.

“Good, because you can’t,” she said flatly. “Our kids are still in school. We need a healthy monthly income.”

“What about moving to our cabin up north, at Talkeetna? We own it…no monthly house payments.”

“Right. All 400 square feet. Are you having a Little House on the Prairie moment?”

“It wouldn’t be that bad. The Mat-Su borough plows the roads. We could become part of the Talkeetna social scene. Who needs electricity and running water?”

“I do…and so do most people,” she retorted.

“It might be smart of us to consider retiring to a location in the lower 48 where our expenses won’t be so high,” she added.

“I’d rather be poor in Alaska than well-to-do in the lower 48,” I responded. “The only place I’d consider would be Montana or some place close to the Canadian border so we could go over and get a pharmacist to fill prescriptions for less than the cost of a new car.”

“At least you’re thinking,” she said. “Figuring out how to live on a fixed income — with inflation steadily eroding our earning power and health insurance costs soaring — that’s the real challenge.”

“Have you seen the life expectancy chart based on the age you retire?” I asked her. “It cites a University of Wisconsin study showing that the earlier you retire, the longer you live after retirement. For example, if you’re an American male and retire at age 55, you can expect to live to be about 78 to 80. However, if that same person retires at 65, the grim reaper comes along at about age 72.”

“You can’t retire yet,” she said firmly. “You’ll just have to take care of yourself and not let stress get the best of you.”

“Jobs don’t stress me out…it’s this retirement planning business,” I countered. “Can’t we just find a consultant, tell him or her our situation, our assets, our expectations, etc. and say ‘make a plan’? How does that Star Trek guy say it…’make it so’.”

“Nothing is that easy,” she said. “We have to study this, become methodical, deliberate, focused…”

“And stressed,” I added.

The grim reality was settling in. It wouldn’t be easy. Nothing is easy. Staying alive isn’t easy. The cost of living is increasing, and if we wanted retirement to be more than just staying alive, surviving, we would have to go through this process, this minutia, this excruciating, painstaking planning.

It was settled. We would embark on a multi-year plan which included both of us working, and at the end of that period, see if we could retire.

“We could try the cabin just for a month or so…”


“Okay, I get your point. The cabin is just for visiting. Have you thought about Hanalei, on the Hawaiian island of Kauai? Warm sea breezes, early morning walks on the beach, sitting out the rain showers in a screened porch, fruit trees in the back yard, hiking the Kalalau trail…now that’s what I’m talking about.”

“Maybe,” she said tentatively. “As long as there’s a McDonald’s nearby.”

Priorities. Funny how we always come back to priorities.

Do people really retire? I asked myself. Most people I know who call themselves “retired” are busier than ever. Self preservation, I think, because to do nothing is to die. However, some people are better than others at doing nothing, and people’s definition of “nothing” varies tremendously. For example, many folks would call the following activities doing nothing: staring at trees, watching birds, listening to rain drops fall on the roof, talking back to ravens, creating images in cloud formations…and here’s the best one: listening to silence. I had a stepfather who liked to stare out the window of our Nancy Lake cabin and watch it get dark.

I’ve never considered those activities “doing nothing.” In fact, for a long time they’ve been an important part of my life. They certainly don’t help a person’s 401K or add to the Gross National Product, but for me, they definitely have their place.

Maybe I’ll be good at retirement. Some day.


Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.

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