Rethinking retirement

The standard scenario goes like this: people study for and go into a profession. They work most of their lives in jobs they don't like very much, but get two weeks vacation every year to do things that are fun. At age 65 they quit working to do things that they really want to do. Then, not too long afterward, they die.

Folks, this is stupid.

How about we come up with a new concept, not "retirement," but "retirement from bills"?

Here's how it goes. You have three job skills, not one. You may need a basic survival skill that pays food and housing during the times in your life you need this. You also have a skill that provides a steady good income and health insurance. Then you have the work that you really want to do. You plan carefully, manuevering to do the work that you really want to do at least on the side. Green Living gets you, at some point, a house with a paid-off mortgage, alternative energy, and some homegrown food. Your basic bills are at this point really low (maybe $18,000 per year for a family of four) and you arrange some easy way to pay them (investments, a little part-time job, a rental property). You are then retired from bills. And can do anything you darn well want to do. You also don't have to wait to be old to get to this point. Even the process of planning for your independence is way more fun than feeling like another cog in the machine.

You may really like your steady income job. The point is not to settle. You can work a great job. You can enjoy yourself all year round. You don't quit when you're 65, though you might work less, because you enjoy your work.

Me, I like this.

There is another problem with how people think about retirement. They are worried about the money they will need to live on. Certainly Green Living helps this enormously. But what expenses are people concerned about, and are you planning for them the right way? At "retirement" time, the house is paid, the children are gone, you have all the household furnishings and clothes that you need. You'll need to pay insurance, property tax, and food and utility costs that Green Living didn't get you out of, but that doesn't sound too bad. That and entertainment and travel could be handled by a part-time job. So what's the big deal?

You're afraid you will get sick. Old people are good at that. They get sick. You're afraid of expenses and problems not covered by insurance. The issue is not being old. The issue is possibly being sick or disabled.

Then the most important part of "retirement planning" is taking darn good care of the only body that God gave you.

I know that the "keeping healthy" concept keeps cropping up in this web site, but there's a good reason for it. Doing what you can to stay healthy doesn't guarantee that you will live long, stay active, and have a great time, but it greatly increases your chances. And when it comes to living costs, a friend of mine has an expression "Do the math." It works here. Healthy people will have lower retirement costs, lower healthcare costs over their lifetime, lower food costs (plants are cheaper), less loss of income from sick days, and more time and energy for do-it-yourself projects that help the bottom line.

It is still a good idea to stash money for "retirement," but think of it more as disability insurance, and do it in a way that doesn't hurt your health. It makes little sense to work into the night at a desk to save for retirement but end up ruining your back.

But where should you put your "retirement" money, especially when stocks have strange ups and downs and CDs and bank accounts might pay less than the inflation rate? Open your eyes to other possibilities, and also work out the numbers. Be aware that some places to put your money have risk, and some do not, and those with risk better pay a heck of a lot more. Are your maxing out an employer-matching retirement fund? This is automatically a great return, but be a little wary. You can't move the money easily even if the financial institution is in trouble. How much money would you save paying off loans early? This is better than money earned because it doesn't increase taxes. It is also no-risk. What additional money do you end up with if you invest in alternative energy for your home? Bet you didn't think of that as an investment. Can you start or expand a business that fits what is happening now in the marketplace? And, when it comes to buying stocks, are there companies poised to do well in a green / back-to-basics economy?

So don't be sucked in by the ads with the photos of a handsome "retired couple" traveling and playing golf, of course living in a "retirement village." Someone is just trying to sell you something. Traveling, golf, and retirement villages certainly aren't bad things, but your life is your own.