Thursday, December 31, 2009

Ready for 2010

I’m not big on New Year’s Resolutions, per se. But we do like to talk about our plans for the coming year, and set some broad goals. Otherwise, the years just zip by, while we are left saying, “I meant to…” and “Maybe next year we’ll…”. The older we get, the more diligent we need to be at making the most of time and opportunity.

For me, 2009 was a year for reconnecting with friends. I joined Facebook, which turned out to be an unexpected delight. Technology has truly enabled a social revolution. With friends spread all over, our contact is no longer limited to the occasional email or the annual Christmas card. LinkedIn has also provided some surprises, by helping me expand my professional network and resulting in stimulating new contacts and a little bit of consulting work. Of course, reconnecting wasn’t all done online. We made a point of having family here to visit, and traveled to visit friends and family too. It’s been a treat to have the time to do it.

Our other 2009 goal was to focus on continuing to improve our health. We have stuck to our low-carb lifestyle (with only occasional lapses), allowing us to maintain last year’s weight loss. The Man Cave has been outfitted as a retreat and workout room; and the elliptical has been an important part of our workout routines (especially in the cold weather). We visited the doctor and dentist to take care of things, and found health care plans for our post-COBRA life. Lots of progress made.

Tonight – New Year’s Eve – Ron and I will spend part of the evening talking about plans for 2010. My thoughts, going into that conversation, are revolving around a few ideas. I want to pursue another level of fitness; losing another 15 stubborn pounds. There are a few final home decorating projects I would like to complete, including a tile backsplash in the kitchen, and a paint job in the master bath. Finally, although we’ve already been in Chicago for a year and a half, we have a long list of things to do and places to see to fully explore the city.

I’m looking forward to tonight, when we’ll review 2009 and (loosely) plan 2010. New Year’s Eve is a time for nostalgia and excitement about the future. Embrace the opportunity full on.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

God Bless Us Everyone!

It’s Christmas Eve, and most of our preparations for tomorrow are complete. The weather forecast is a bit frightful for today, so I’m happy we can stay home by the toasty hearth. Time to bake a pie, blend up some Bailey’s Irish Cream for our neighbor, and prepare the duck to roast for tonight.

This is my favorite part of the holiday. We still have the anticipation of Christmas Day, and we can enjoy today at a leisurely pace. The house is sparkling clean and twinkling with decorations. The refrigerator is bulging with special items from eggnog to caviar (not to be consumed at the same sitting – yuck). We are looking forward to my brother’s arrival in the morning, and the flurry of activities we have planned for his visit.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and as Tiny Tim says, “God Bless Us Everyone!" I hope you are enjoying your own unique traditions and are ready to embrace a Happy New Year and Decade.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Chasing the Magic of the Season

Here we are, a week from Christmas Eve. Just seven more days to get shopping done, wrap gifts, mail greeting cards, bake up holiday treats, deck the halls, plan special meals, and strive to recreate the magic of Christmas as defined by our childhood experiences. It’s fun and a little stressful, isn’t it?

The absence of end-of-year panic at work makes it much easier for us to enjoy the holiday season. Now we have time to search out opportunities for festive activities far away from shopping malls and unnecessary commercialism. Sure, it’s fun to window shop while store displays are so creative and glamorous. But the frenzy in the stores (yikes, you should see the crowds on Michigan Avenue) can suck the holiday spirit right out of you. Where have we been successful in finding Christmas cheer?

After Thanksgiving, we shopped for wrapping paper, ribbon, and bows, while the selection was still abundant. I enjoy color-coordinating everything, and planning how to wrap beautiful presents for our extended family. We loaded our iPods with hours and hours (actually, DAYS worth) of seasonal music. The fireplace mantel is decorated, and our stockings are hung. Yes, Santa still does Christmas stockings for us (and for my mother). Last Sunday, we went to the theater to see a stage performance of “A Christmas Carol. We both cried when Bob Cratchit suffered the death of Tiny Tim, and exulted in the rebirth of Scrooge’s faith. The timeless tale works for us every time. During walks in our neighborhood, we point out Christmas lights to each other, and ooh and ahh over twinkling trees seen in apartment windows. Snowfall generates wonder and excitement (and a few groans when there’s enough to shovel). Ron and I never tire of telling each other stories of Christmases past, when our parents made everything so memorable and special.

We’ll never exactly recapture the magic of those Christmases as children, but we have nurtured our own traditions that echo and enhance our treasured memories. Our hope for you this year is that you enjoy the season, remember the best of Christmases past, and keep looking for new ways to keep your inner child entranced with the all the glories celebrating the birth of the Christ child.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

There's No Place Like Home

I’ve written a few blogs with some of the details from our trip to the Mediterranean, but in the midst of the holiday season I feel compelled to write about the joys of just being home. Regardless of where we travel, there is always a deep satisfaction in returning home. We were away for over two weeks at the end of October/beginning of November, leaving for another week away to celebrate Thanksgiving with a friend. As much as I enjoyed both of these trips, I breathed a deep sigh of relief as we crossed the threshold of our little condo on Bittersweet Place. We’ll spend Christmas and New Years here, luxuriating in our personal traditions, in full nesting mode.

For me, the pleasure of being home is found in simple routine. I like taking a hot bubble bath on a really cold day, raiding our own refrigerator for healthy snacks, monitoring my connection to friends on Facebook, choosing to dress in sweats or fleece because I know I’m not going out today, or venturing out into the neighborhood to run errands. I revel in enjoying what Chicago has to offer. Every time I take public transportation (the el or the bus), I am impressed by how well it works, and how ingrained it is into the fabric of the city. It’s an important part of the “City That Works”.

Granted; a big part of how we are able to enjoy life at home can be credited to being retired. One of our favorite things to do is to pour an after-5 glass of wine and sit in the front room to watch the neighborhood come home from work. In other words, we’re still wallowing in the pleasure of being strategically unemployed. When people express surprise that we would tolerate the harsh winters of the frozen north by choice, our answer is that if it’s bad outside we just stay home. If the streets are icy, we don’t take the car out; we take the el.

So for now, we have no travel plans. My brother, Jason, will be joining us to celebrate Christmas in Chicago. The tree is trimmed and the fireplace is keeping us warm and cheerful. Sometimes, there’s just no place like home.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Athens At Last

I’m still processing all the experiences from our Mediterranean vacation. But I can tell you this – a five hour taste of Athens was not enough, and we will return. It would be great to spend a few days in Athens, like we did in Rome, with an extended side trip to one or more of the islands. Athens was our first stop in Greece, and I could hardly contain my excitement. Half of my heritage is Greek, and yet it took me 54 years to visit the land that originated the culture that is so much a part of who I am.

Traveling from the port at Piraeus into Athens by bus, we had an excellent local tour representative who introduced us to the city during the twenty minute ride. We were dropped off at the plaza across from the Presidential Palace, completed in 1897 as a residence for the Crown Prince and heir to the throne, and used since the abolishment of the monarchy in 1974 as the Presidential Mansion. It is here we saw the Evzones, the elite ceremonial military unit that guards the Greek Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and were fortunate to happen upon the changing of the guard. I have an antique Evzone doll, and have always been fascinated with their traditional dress and their history. It was amazing to finally see them in person.

From the Presidential Palace, we set out to walk to the Acropolis. Or I should say, UP to the Acropolis. A winding pathway leads past ancient ruins all the way up the hillside (about 490 feet in elevation). Although it’s amazing that so much remains of the buildings of the Acropolis, what has been lost through centuries of European wars and repeated sackings of Athens is sickening. There is a massive restoration project underway, and the scope of the work is in evidence at the site. We joined large crowds of tourists, even this far into the fall. This sort of site requires contemplation of history, which to me is nearly impossible when surrounded by masses of people. We spent almost 2 hours at the site, marveling at the architecture and art, and at the impressive view of the vibrant, modern city below.

We couldn’t let our first day in Greece slip by without including a dining experience, so we found a restaurant for lunch. “God’s Restaurant” (who but the Greeks would have the gall?) was just the ticket! After being taken into the kitchen to see what had been prepared for the day’s menu, our appetite was stoked, and our eyes were bigger than our tummies. We enjoyed taramosalata, feta, Greek bread, saganaki with mussels (to DIE for), and roasted pork in lemon sauce. And just a little wine…

Appetites sated, we strolled through the Plaka, the picturesque historical neighborhood of Athens. I wish we had been able to spend more time exploring this oldest section of Athens – but we had to hurry back to the bus to return to the ship. It was a wonderful introduction to Athens that definitely left us wanting more!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Giving Thanks

Since my blog day falls on Thanksgiving, I thought I would keep it short and sweet. I am thankful for so much these days, it's good to ponder my good fortune.

I am thankful for my wonderful husband, Ron; for his love, companionship, care, and friendship. I am also amazed by his tolerance of all my foibles. It ain't easy being married to a Haropulos woman.

I love and appreciate my immediate family - Mom, Xandy, Althea, and Jason, and every one of my extended family members. We share many treasured memories, and I look forward to creating more. I miss my Dad, but appreciate all he did to love and provide for us and help us grow into worthwhile adults.

My friends are a constant source of joy, comfort, and amusement. It has been a real pleasure to reconnect with so many via Facebook this year. Sometimes technology really can be a blessing.

This new life Ron and I have built in Chicago is so perfect for us at this point in our lives. We love our urban home, and all the stimuli that comes with living in the city.

Thank God for our health, and the ability to be mobile and enjoy walking, exercising, golf, and the other activities that help keep us feeling young.

And I give thanks for the opportunity to life a more simple life now, as a result of hard work and planning for many years. I need and want fewer "things", I have time to savor our blessings, and I am hopeful about our prospects for continuing to live an active life of comfort and joy for many years to come.

Happy Thanksgiving to all, with love from the Baileys.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

These Feet!

One of the things I will always remember about our recent trip to Europe was how much we walked! In four days in Rome, we figure we logged about 30 miles on foot – between our hotel and the Colloseum, through the Domus Aurea, to the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Vatican, the Pantheon, Palatine Hill, the Piazza Navona, the Forum Palatine Hill, the Piazza del Popolo, along the Tiber River, up the Via del Corso, across the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, and back and forth on the Via dei Fiori Imperiali. In Athens, we climbed the almost 500 feet to the Acropolis. In Santorini, we passed up the tram and took the 600+ steps up 890 feet to the top of the volcanic cliffs above the sea. Oh, these feet!

I loved every minute of our walking explorations. Fortunately, I was smart when selecting footwear to pack. My fabulous little silver gladiator sandals with heels were reserved for a dinner reached by taxi. For all other city excursions, I had my Skecher tennies, Privo boots, or Privo flats. On one eight mile day, I admit I had to stop at a pharmacy for an emergency purchase of a gel toe sleeve, which saved me from what could have been a painful blister. My feet performed admirably, pampered with afternoon naps, hot baths, and foot crème before bed. Not bad for 54 years old, huh?

Walking in an unfamiliar place really gives you time and the perspective to soak up the local atmosphere – the sights and smells, the overheard conversations, and window-shopping. I have happily dodged scooters in Rome, mad taxi drivers on Sicily, and a stampede of donkeys on Santorini. We didn’t always know where we were going, or even where we were, but we enjoyed each day’s journey immensely.

The point of all this is that I am thinking about health, energy, and mobility – three things I am fortunate to have and to be able to enjoy as an early retiree. Traveling on a cruise ship, I saw many people with obvious physical problems requiring walkers and wheelchairs, and some with no more issues apparent than I myself had two or three years ago (unwanted extra weight and a lack of energy).

Let’s all get up off the sofa and move for our futures! Walk, stretch, eat wisely, keep moving, and participate in life’s little daily adventures. You will be investing in your future health and happiness.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Buona Sera, Roma!

After months of anticipation and planning, weeks of pouring over the Italian phrase book, and the long, long flight to Rome, our Mediterranean adventure began on October 26th. It’s hard to describe the excitement with which we looked forward to exploring Rome for four days on our own. We arrived with no rigid schedule, no pre-determined must-do list, not even a map. Somehow the last few days of preparation had gotten by us and we found ourselves in Rome and on our way into the city in a car hired for us by our hotel – Hotel Capo D’Africa (www.hotelcapodafrica.com).

Hotel Capo D’Africa is a gem; a small, sophisticated property a few small blocks southeast of the Colosseum. The surrounding neighborhood is fairly quiet; a mixture of residential buildings, restaurants, a school, and a few small businesses. The hotel itself has 65 rooms, a small lobby and bar, a sun-filled rooftop terrace and breakfast dining area, and modern, well-equipped guest rooms. The helpful staff speaks multiple languages, including English. Once checked into our comfortable room, we succumbed to a long nap in preparation for going out that evening.

Later, awake and refreshed, we decided to head out on foot right away to get to know Rome. The Colosseum drew us toward it insistently. As twilight approached and lights added drama to the behemoth structure, we walked past, snapping photos and being completely mind-boggled by the sight. But the Trevi Fountain was our primary goal for the evening, so we walked on, and I hoped we would find somewhere good to eat in that area.

The plaza around the Trevi Fountain was packed with tourists, which tends to be a repellent to me and Ron. Neither of us likes crowds - one of the many reasons we didn’t choose to go on this trip during the summer months. But the fountain itself… Magnifico! The huge scale, the sculptures, the force of the water, and the lighting all make it a true sight to see, and particularly spectacular at night.

Walking around the area, we began to despair of finding a restaurant that wasn’t overly touristy, and that offered an interesting menu. It was a beautiful and mild evening, so we hoped to sit outside and soak in the atmosphere of the bustling city. We stumbled upon the answer on the Via S. Andrea Delle Fratte; the ristorante Sant’Andrea. White tablecloths and candles and wait-service on the sidewalk. Just what the doctor ordered. Well, that and a bottle of Italian wine. I mostly ordered in Italian, liberally sprinkling in per favore(s) and grazie(s), and it just made me feel good. I chose Spaghetti Carbonara (yeah, to heck with the low-carb thing in Italy), and Ron had their Veal Osso Bucco. Fabulous! Roman commuters buzzing home on scooters and various street performers provided the entertainment. Check out the video below for a brief sample of the accordionist who made me laugh and earned a tip for his cheesy performance in front of our restaurant.


A perfect evening, and a perfect beginning to our dream vacation. Buona sera, Roma.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Downside of City Living

I know that I gush about how great it is to live in an exciting city like Chicago. But I decided that, to be fair, I should also enumerate the negative aspects of urban living. Most days I revel in everything the city has to offer, and in many ways it’s more palatable because we are retired and can navigate the environment on our own flexible schedule. We avoid public transportation during rush hours, we shop and run errands on weekdays instead of weekends, and have the luxury of staying home when the weather is bad. So I still love living here, but the following is a reality checklist for anyone who may romanticize the idea of living in a big city:

HIGH COST: Everything costs more in the city. Property taxes are high, parking is outrageous, and insurance is higher (auto, home, and health), and groceries are expensive. The city of Chicago has the highest sales tax in the country right now – 10.25%. For major purchases, we sometimes venture outside the city and county. With condominium living you have a monthly assessment, and not infrequent special assessments (new roof, new water heater, drainage work, etc.). The higher cost often seems worth it, but it will also be a reason we don’t settle here for the long term.

CRITTERS: Rats. They aren’t unique to cities, but they are a fact of life. We have to be very careful about garbage storage by making sure everything disposed of is well wrapped and can lids are completely closed. In a year and a half here, I have only seen one rat behind our building – but I don’t look too hard. Our building has Orkin come every month. When downtown after dark, you’ll occasionally see something furtive, dark, and furry scuttle into or out of a sewer. Gross.

MASSES OF HUMANITY: You can’t always escape being shoulder to shoulder with a bunch of other people. We avoid the lakefront on the weekends, because there are thousands of people clogging the bike and walking paths and green areas. Sure, there’s room for everyone – but it’s just not as enjoyable with so many people around. We make plans to enjoy most public places when the majority of people are working. It works for us.

THE THREAT OF CRIME: It’s a city – there’s crime. It’s just something of which you need to be aware. We have a security system in our condo, and always arm it when we are away and when we go to bed at night. I don’t go walking by myself after dark. I often don’t carry a purse. My good jewelry is put away and secured, and not usually worn if I am walking or taking public transportation. I’m not afraid, but I am careful. And I check the crime report for our neighborhood every week.

Those are the biggies. For me, the positives far outweigh the negatives.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

My Favorite Products

I’ve always gotten inordinate pleasure from finding just the right product. Sometimes what makes it “just right” is its effectiveness. Other times, there is something about it that provides visceral pleasure, through sense of sight, smell, or taste. Anyway, here is my current list of favorites that I make sure I always have in the house:

Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day Dish Soap – Basil Scent
Works great. Smells great. Cheaper than Williams Sonoma. What’s not to like?
L’Occitane en Provence Ultra Rich Body Crème
I use this on my feet at night. It completely eliminated dry skin on my heels.
Sugar Free York Peppermint Patties
Low carb and very yummy. When you just need a little treat after dinner.
Trader Joe’s Tea Tree Tingle Shampoo
Feels fantastic on your scalp. Reasonably priced.
Crystal Light “Immunity” – Cherry Pomegranate Flavor
Sometimes I get bored with the lemonade flavor. This is like a fancy fruit punch.
Whole Foods Soy Crispettes
When you want something crunchy, but don’t want too many carbs. Tasty and light.
Clorox Toilet Wand
Makes easy work of a task I hate. Pop the used scrubber off into the trash after one use.
Self-Stick Forever Stamps from the Post Office
No more trying to figure out how much postage is for a letter these days – just use one of these.
Dearfoams Indoor/Outdoor Suede Clogs
Feather light, soft inside, and cushy and quiet soles. Incredibly comfortable.
EO Foaming Hand Soap – Lavender & Aloe
Luxurious and long lasting. Smells fantastic.
Desert Essence Tea Tree Oil Deodorant
No harsh chemicals, and a light botanical scent. Different and nice.
One A Day “Weight Smart Advanced” Multivitamins
They have a little green tea in them, so don’t smell or taste as bad as many vitamins.

I’m always looking for new favorites. Let me know any you would recommend.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Now Do It

There is an interesting challenge in the process of planning for retirement. At some point, you make the transition to retirement and it becomes time to shift your focus from building your plan to executing it! After so many years of planning and saving, suddenly it’s time to do what we prepared for and start spending our savings and retirement income according to plan. I know this seems obvious, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. We found this to be a surprisingly difficult change to make.

The transition period, from working life to retired life, is a time of tumultuous change. You close one chapter of your life and move into unfamiliar territory. Euphoria can be interrupted by occasional panic. Remember, you have a carefully crafted plan. You know what you want and have the means to enjoy life. Now do it.

Shortly after we retired in May of 2008, the financial crisis hit. The bottom dropped out of the real estate market, the stock market plummeted, and unemployment rose. Oops, we already were executing our plan and couldn’t turn back. Fortunately, we successfully sold our home, cashed the severance checks, and moved on. The situation required a few adjustments, but the fundamental plan was not affected.

A little bit of a leap of faith is required. Trust your plan. Let me give you an example. We budgeted for a celebratory retirement kickoff trip - the vacation of a lifetime. The financial climate caused us to postpone making specific plans for over a year. We wondered whether it would be injudicious to spend cash on luxury travel during these uncertain times. Finally, the lure of heavily discounted travel deals convinced us to make reservations for flights, hotels, and a cruise. Why? Life can be uncertain in so many ways. Today, it’s financial concerns. Tomorrow, it could be health problems. Next year it could be family issues. But right now, we have the money, we crave the experience, and it shouldn’t wait any longer. We’re doing it.

There are things I’ve always wanted to do for which I couldn’t (or didn’t) make the time. Between my career, maintenance of a house and yard, and family obligations, I found little time for my own leisure. I wanted to paint, make jewelry, write, enjoy my friends, exercise, and just have fun! The excuses I had for not doing those things has disappeared.

I’m taking my own advice, “Now Do It”. Just this week, I designed and made a bracelet, spent productive hours exercising in the Man Cave, wrote several blogs, and am looking forward to meeting new friends for dinner Friday night. I’ve moved on from planning to doing, and it feels great.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Expect the Unexpected

No matter how comprehensive a plan you have and how hard you have tried to anticipate life’s twists and turn, unexpected events will undoubtedly create some unwanted excitement from time to time. Don’t panic. Your retirement plan is meant to be modified as necessary along the way. If you build in a little bit of a buffer, hopefully fate won’t deal a blow that knocks you entirely off course.

Even if you have factored inflation into your budget – some expenses may be affected by more than the Consumer Price Index. Our condominium assessment has increased 26% over the past 18 months. In addition, we have had 4 special assessments levied – totaling several thousand dollars. Parking in our neighboring city school lot has increased 25% during the same period. During our search for individual health care, we have had to raise our budget to obtain the coverage we need. Fortunately, some other expenses are coming in lower than budgeted (i.e. transportation, clothes, and dry cleaning). And we were able to drive down our condo and auto insurance substantially with some active comparison shopping. Keep looking at your actual expenses and make whatever adjustments and decisions need to be made to keep you on track.

Other outside influences will inevitably come to bear on your life. You might have grown children that ask for financial assistance, or parents that need more support than expected. Your ability to respond the same way you did when you had a full time job could be constrained. Where you threw money at trouble in the past, you may now need to be more creative about how to help the ones you love. You should have more time – even if you have less money. Time can often be much more valuable.

To minimize your exposure to unpleasant surprises, be sure that you understand the specific attributes of the locale in which you plan to retire. How high are property and sales taxes? Is there a state-subsidized health plan for which you would be eligible? Does your city or state have budget problems that will filter down to you as a resident? What services or special programs are available to seniors? Is there convenient and affordable public transportation? Your decision about where to retire could be influenced by these factors or others.

Finally, good health is precious and sometimes tenuous. Invest in taking care of your body. We only get one vessel in which to travel through this life. If you abuse it, it will show wear and tear, and require expensive maintenance, additives, and parts replacement. Put down that sugar-laden can of soda, drink a big glass of water, and take a walk around the block. Get plenty of sleep and be kind, but stern, with yourself. I’m taking my own advice now – but I wish I had done better fifteen years ago.

You don’t need a crystal ball to plan effectively. But do think beyond the day-to-day and expect the unexpected.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Determining "Your Number"

Some retirement planners start out by asking you how much money you think you need to retire comfortably. You can’t possibly answer the question unless you have already done a lot of groundwork to determine a good number. Don’t you dare pick a number at random because it seems right to you! “Gee, a million dollars should do it.” A million dollars ain’t what it used to be, folks. Consider this: If you retire at 65, live until 85, and need an average of $70,000 per year to live comfortably for 20 years – you need $1.4 million. But it’s not really that simple, unless you plan to hide cash under your mattress (not recommended), and don’t have any other assets that will help create an income for you. How can you determine “your number” and end up with a result and a financial goal that makes you comfortable? If you’re following my blog and taking some action, there are some inputs you have at this point that will help. You know how much money it takes for you to live on today. You have a budget and track your spending. You have aligned your spending with your priorities. You have one or more means of saving money for your future. You have an idea of how much income you should expect from Social Security. And you have some idea of what your retired life will look like. Haven’t been doing your homework, eh? Remember, you can’t achieve your goals until you have goals – so get started.

To get to “your number”, you need to project your future expenses – for the rest of your life. This is not impossible – but it will be an educated estimate. Start with the year you hope to retire, and with your current budget as a base. Adjust the inflows (e.g. salary) and outflows (expenses), based on what you know about how you will live after you retire. Start with the big ticket items first: Investment/Retirement Income, Social Security, Housing, Transportation, Medical, Food, Utilities, and TV/Internet/Telephone.

Year over year, there will be some inflation in our expenses. See the fantastic web site maintained by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (
www.bls.gov) for a goldmine of data that will be helpful in many aspects of your planning. For a history of annual inflation in the Consumer Price Index, go to ftp://ftp.bls.gov/pub/special.requests/cpi/cpiai.txt.

Finally, consider how your life may change over time, and account for major changes in your expenses in your timeline for the future. For example, Ron and I picked a year by which we expect to sell our home and move into assisted living together. That creates a temporary leap in liquid assets (from the home sale), and then a heightened, steady depletion of assets for the ongoing expense of assisted living. We expect to buy a new car every 7 years (up until the point we assume we shouldn’t be driving any more).

Creating your projected post-retirement budget is a lot of work. Once you start, it will also be a continued work in progress as the vision of your retired life crystallizes. So get your budget spreadsheet out, copy it to a new tab and start modifying it (with years on the X axis and expense/income categories on the Y axis) to project your future needs.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Health Care Shock

Health care reform has certainly been front and center recently among the issues being pursued by the current administration. I’m particularly interested in following progress on this reform, which I feel is much needed. Now approaching my 54th birthday, I am forced to pay more attention to the shadow cast by my past health issues as my COBRA is about to expire and I search for individual health insurance.

I consider myself to be in pretty good health – certainly better now it’s been more than 7 years since I survived colon cancer. Over the past 17 months, I have lost 25 pounds. I have been able to go from 3 prescription medications down to just 1 (for cholesterol). With regular exercise and a low carb diet, I am keeping Type II Diabetes at bay. I see my primary care doctor once a year for labs and a physical. But I have already been rejected for coverage by one major health provider based on my medical history. I’m on to applying to others, but am not terribly hopeful. I may be about to become one of the many Americans without health care coverage, unless we can come up with a creative solution. We’re smart – we’ll figure it out. But it pisses me off that this situation makes me feel that the security of my happy life is threatened.

The forms that have to be filled out to apply for medical coverage are very detailed. In addition to asking about major health issues, like cancer, diabetes or AIDS, you may be surprised to know that they ask whether you have recently or ever been “advised, counseled, tested, diagnosed, treated, hospitalized or recommended for treatment” for any of the following: alcohol use or abuse, illegal drugs, migraines or headaches, carpal tunnel syndrome, attention deficit disorder, any form of therapy or counseling, heart condition, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, allergies, sinusitis, bronchitis, hemorrhoids, ulcers, hernia, hepatitis, cysts, psoriasis, acne, breast implants, arthritis, bursitis, thyroid disorder, hearing loss, sexually transmitted disease, warts, impotence…and the list goes on and on. Oh, and are you taking any prescription drugs, do you or have you ever smoked or chewed tobacco, are you pregnant? Are you getting the picture?? (BTW, I’m thinking I should get a credit for any missing parts that have simplified my anatomy and completely eliminated risk of a handful of serious diseases.)

If you do not understand that health care reform is an imperative for our country, I will bet that at least one of the following is true for you: (1) You have always had health insurance through your employer that did not require a physical or a review of your medical history, (2) None of your close friends or relatives have become ill or died as a result of a lack of medical attention due to financial reasons, or (3) You have never really been sick or required a major medical procedure that makes you fear for your long term well being.

We need reasonably priced health care options that allow individuals to preserve their own personal security, while incenting us all to lead healthy lives. Why wouldn’t we want that for our country?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Echoes of The Past

Ron and I are on vacation this week in Wells, Maine. Yesterday we met my sister and my mother at Rye Beach, NH. Rye Beach is where my family spent a week or two every year on our summer vacation. It’s a quiet, uncommercialized community that hasn’t changed much in the fifty years we’ve been going there. The beach is broad and deep, the sand clean and soft, and beautiful old homes line the shore.

Over the years, I would come to Rye with my parents, my two sisters, and my little brother. We would rent a cottage on Cable Road – but pretty much all daylight hours would be spent on the beach. We’d swim in the waves, dig in the sand, walk for miles, collect shells and beach stones, surf with boogie boards, catch crabs and starfish in our pails, and even eat breakfast and lunch on the beach. When we climbed, exhausted, into bed at night - we still had sand on our feet.

My Yiayia and Papou (my Greek grandparents) often spent time with us at Rye. Yiayia grew up on the Greek island of Rhodes, so had the ocean in her blood. My Aunt Katee would sometimes visit from New York City. Back in the 1960’s she was young, beautiful, and exotically interesting and eccentric. Father George Pappaiouannou (the priest who performed our marriage ceremony), and his wife and three girls also were frequent guests in Rye. I still remember Father George relaxing on the beach with us in his priest’s collar, black shorts, and black high top sneakers! Time at Rye was magical.

Rye is fondly ensconced in my memory; inseparably connected with family, fun, youth, love, and warmth. I still enjoy spending time there, but it has changed for me and become bittersweet with memories. My father died ten years ago. Yiayia and Papou have been gone for years. Katee passed away when she was about my age today, from cancer. We lost Father George the same year Dad died. My sisters and brother are spread around the country, and although we remain close, we don’t get to see each other often enough. Mom is thankfully still with us, but I understand how she sometimes feels lonely, with so many ghosts around. I see them sometimes at Rye – Dad gazing out to the ocean’s horizon…Yiayia laughing and lounging in the sun…Katee, glorious in her polka dot bikini with her long black hair blowing in the wind…Father George talking to his daughters in his gentle voice.

Grab all the moments you have with your loved ones, and make opportunities to create special memories. There will come a time when those memories are painfully precious.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Lifestyle Changes During Retirement

Ron and I think about our retirement years in several phases. This is helpful for planning and budgeting purposes. Each phase is a lifestyle change, but the transition between these stages will likely be gradual. You may have fewer or more phases, and they will be defined by your personal situation, wants and needs.

First, there are the “Early Retirement” years. Regardless of when you retire, this is a period of euphoria, recovery, and adjustment. You are redefining who you are and how you spend your time. Interested in doing all the things you didn’t have time to do before, you can now make time for regular exercise, reading, healthy and leisurely meals, pleasure travel – whatever makes you happy. To stay engaged, you may still want to do a little part time work (volunteer or paid) in a field that interests you. Your health is hopefully still pretty good, so you can be involved in activities you enjoy. Your budget will most likely be higher than in later years.

Next come the “Middle Retirement” years. Been there, done that, and you will be more ready to settle down. You will probably living in the last home you will own, in the locale of your choice, near friends and/or family. Less active and mobile now, you’ll have routines and pastimes that keep you closer to the comfort of home. There may be medical issues to manage, and having health care professionals you know and trust becomes a priority. Your budget settles down too, and expenses are easily projected. Life will be simpler, and your spending will reflect a desire to keep it so.

The “Late Retirement” years are the most difficult to think about. Inevitably, they are associated with old age and end of life. The worst thing we can think of is being incapacitated and unable to care for ourselves – especially if we don’t have the financial means to obtain managed care. (Me; I’m aiming for the end coming suddenly on a beautiful day on the golf course – but I don’t think I get that choice.) Our plan and budget includes selling a home and liquidating other assets to move into some sort of assisted living facility together. We are hoping that the aging of the Baby Boomers continues to drive the establishment of more, and more attractive, assisted living options to help us gracefully approach the end of our lives.

Your retirement plan and budget will need to address the phases of retirement you foresee, and the lifestyle associated with each. Hone your dreams to account for the eventual changes coming in your lives.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Visualize Your Retired Life

So far my blogs about retirement planning have covered the foundation of the process…examining your current spending habits, aligning spending with your priorities, and options for saving. Next, we’ll explore how to project what your expenses will be over the years AFTER retirement, calculating how much money you need to amass in preparation to retire, and gaining confidence that your plan is viable.

But before we can move on with financial planning, I need to encourage you to dream. Yes, DREAM! If you develop a vision of the life you want to leave after your work years, you can more easily create a plan focused to achieve your goals. So dream, think, and talk about your future – with your spouse, family, and friends. The more you do so, the more real and specific the ideas will become.

Some decisions will directly drive your planning, including where you will live, and in what type of home. This will drive your housing costs, which are often a large percentage of monthly expenses. Health insurance may also be a major expense, especially if you have chronic health issues. Your retirement budget will need to account for your appetite for travel, entertainment, hobbies, personal grooming, insurance, taxes, a new car every however many years, moving expenses, etc.

Don’t forget that your activities and lifestyle (and therefore your expenses) will change as you age. Eventually you may need to sell a home and arrange for assisted living. Thinking about this stage of your life may be a little hard to face, but is necessary. Know state laws where you will live. Consult a lawyer. Obtain a living will and a last will. Make your own decisions for your life, while you’re in a position to consider them objectively.

Recognize that your vision for your retired life may change over time. I’ve read that some retirees move to their dream location, and then discover that they miss their friends and the familiarity of an area in which they lived for years. It’s easy to romanticize a vacation destination, only to find that it’s another thing entirely to live there year round. Ideally, there will be enough flexibility in your plan to allow for a change of heart.

Sit down and relax and let your mind wander. How do you see yourself living happily 10, 20, 30 years from now? Now add a dose of practicality (OK-maybe you can’t live in a mansion in the Hamptons). Next week, we’ll look at a methodology for modeling a plan to make the vision a reality.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Living the Dream

Sometimes I just have to stop what I am doing, look at Ron, and say with wonder, “We are living the dream, baby.” All the years of hard work, planning, and saving have given us a new freedom. We are so thankful for each day. Not every day is remarkable, but collectively they are a huge blessing.

Yesterday we went to the driving range and stopped for blue margaritas and nachos at the sidewalk café of a Mexican restaurant on Halsted. Today we played nine holes of golf at Waveland on the most beautiful morning imaginable, with Lake Michigan twinkling in the background. Afterward I soaked my poor sore muscles in a lavender chamomile bubble bath. Tomorrow evening we plan to dress up to go to a rooftop lounge downtown with our neighbor, Steve, for a chance to catch up and be sociable.

The Chicago summer is waning and the Cubs aren’t going to make the playoffs; but we have three trips to look forward to. We’ll spend several weeks in New Hampshire and Maine in September, cruise Italy and Greece later in the fall, and take the train to Memphis for Thanksgiving. Then we have to hunker down for the winter.

Winter will mean books and movies, the NFL, hot soups and casseroles, napping in front of the fireplace, and a quiet Christmas at home. We’ll plan several outings to the symphony and the theater to avoid cabin fever. When the cold weather and snow drags on into March, we may book another trip to warmer parts – probably Arizona. Then we’ll start looking forward to hints of spring.

There are still life concerns for us, like finding new health care when COBRA runs out in November. We worry about family members and friends who have issues. Staying safe and secure living in an urban area cannot be taken for granted. But these things seem manageable, without the day to day stress and pressure of working.

Living the dream, baby…

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Financial Pulse Check

At least once a quarter, Ron and I review our investments with our financial advisor. We’ve been working with the same professional for over 15 years, and have a great relationship. Our most recent call took place yesterday.

(Please be aware that the following information is part professional opinion of our financial advisor, and part decisions based on our personal financial situation. In no way should this be considered expert advice on which to base your own financial decisions.)

Our portfolio is split between diversified stock funds, bonds, and cash. Last year’s decline in the stock market certainly affected us adversely – but as our financial advisor says, “It’s not a loss until it’s realized”. As long as the money stays invested for now, there is an opportunity to recover the value. Fortunately, during this volatile period we have had cash available, so have been able to leave our stock funds untouched. The market has improved 8 to 9% since the beginning of the year, but we were warned to expect a pullback in September or October (at least before the holidays), from profit-taking selloffs in the fledgling Bull Market.

Since retirement has actually begun for us, the specific distribution of our investments is pretty conservative. Our tolerance for risk is fairly low, since we no longer have an income to replenish losses. But we hope to be retired for a long time (the rest of our lives), so still need to be invested in stocks to get the type of returns required to fund our retirement. Every investor needs to determine their own tolerance for risk. High risk stock funds can generate anything from high reward to significant loss, and this sort of gamble is not for us at this point in our lives.

One decision we did make is to refinance the mortgage on our condo. Originally, we planned to pay the mortgage off early in 2010 when our ARM (Adjustable Rate Mortgage) resets to a new rate. But we can get a 15-year fixed-rate mortgage at 4.75%, and if we invest the money with which we would have paid off the note, we should get better than a 4.75% return on it. Our bank, UBS, will charge no points and no origination fee, so the fees (title search and appraisal) will be minimal and worth it in the long run.

We always feel more confident after a pulse check with our financial advisor. He provides expert advice and perspective, and gives us a chance to ask questions and discuss our ideas and concerns.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Savings Spree!

You are planning for retirement, or at least planning to plan for retirement. A big part of that is changing your mindset from a spending mentality to a savings mentality. At some point at or after retirement, you may not be earning a salary. A scary thought, isn’t it? You aren’t going to stop spending (or as I call it, “leaking money”), so your income will have to come from other sources you have created as part of your retirement planning. Let’s review some of the options you have for socking money away for your future.

RETIREMENT PLANS: If you are fortunate enough to have a job that offers a 401K plan, you should contribute the maximum amount against which the company matches your contribution. Company matching is “free money”! Annual contributions to IRA’s are also a good way to save for your future. You may be eligible to fund a Roth IRA if your modified adjusted gross income does not exceed the thresholds specified by the program (which vary by marital and IRS filing status). If your income is too high to qualify, you can still establish a standard IRA. Old-fashioned, company-funded pension plans are few and far between these days, but are still providing income for a subset of retirees.

PAYROLL DEDUCTIONS: Your automatic deduction for Social Security is another way you are saving for your retirement, with the expectation that you are going to get at least some of that money back for retirement. Visit
www.ssa.gov/estimator to access estimates for your Social Security benefits based on your earnings records. Some publicly-traded companies offer an option to redirect a portion of your pay to purchase shares of stock. This can be a good way to save money in the form of an investment, although there is risk associated with owning stocks, and with having too much of your savings in one specific stock. (Remember Enron?) For those in higher earning brackets, your benefits may include an option to “defer” some of your income (before it is taxed) to retirement or the point at which you separate from your employer.

PERIODIC/AUTOMATIC TRANSFERS TO SAVINGS: You can choose to save a predetermined amount from every paycheck by establishing a transfer from checking to savings that happens automatically. Although a savings account is not a good place to keep large sums of money long term, this banking feature provides a mechanism to redirect “cash” from your pay on a regular basis.

WINDFALLS: Aside from your regular income, you may have opportunities to put away money that you obtain as a result of an inheritance, a legal settlement, a gift, the sale of an asset, or even an annual bonus from your employer. My philosophy on windfalls has always been to spend some (hey, enjoy life!) - and save some. A windfall can provide a welcome bump up to your retirement savings.

It’s satisfying to watch your nest egg grow, and important to keep track of your progress. Even though your savings may be spread around in different accounts, be sure you have a way to consolidate the information in one place. A simple spreadsheet can provide the means to stay on top of the results from your savings spree.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

I'm Mostly Not Working

Today, I was late posting my “Retired Early” blog, because I was working. Huh?

When I retired from corporate life, I never actually committed to a total life of leisure. The fact is that I still feel the need to exercise the part of my brain that has all this work experience rattling around in it. But I had to get off the non-stop merry-go-round of corporate politics, deadlines, budgets, takeovers, counterproductive official hierarchies and assorted B.S., before I ended my career unceremoniously on a bell tower with a high-powered rifle.

So I started a consulting business – Haropulos Bailey Consulting. I figure I know as much or more about a lot of things than many consultants who have been paid big bucks by Hilton over the years. I’m smart, and when I have an assignment I work hard and add a lot of value. I have no financial goals to meet and have spent virtually no money on developing my company so far. Via a LinkedIn connection and a lunch date, I got my first (and so far only) client. I’m doing a little work (a few hours here and there) on a project that interests me, with someone I like and admire. I send an invoice, and they pay me. I kinda like it – my little business.

I need to develop a web site and do a little targeted marketing. I’m thinking about that. I also probably need to incorporate, or I will really limit the potential clients who will hire me. And I’m working on getting Ron interested in joining me, so I have another smart person on board – one with technical abilities I do not possess. He likes the “Creative Engineer” title I have proposed for him. Business cards should arrive next week and provide a small carrot for his involvement.

The rewards from my efforts are a little extra pocket money and brief waves of satisfaction. I am still protective of work infringing on my golf or nap time…so we’ll see where this goes.

Next week, my blog will get back to the steps involved in retirement planning. Sorry for the unplanned detour.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Aligning Spending with Priorities

For the past few weeks, I have written about the first steps required to prepare for your retirement planning. Most recently I recommended that you identify the expense categories you want to establish and track your normal spending patterns for at least three months. Be sure that in those three months all of your expenses are reflected (e.g. insurance or property taxes that may be paid less frequently, and holiday gifts that have impact at the end of the year).

Now that you know where your money is going, establish a budget. Set a number for each expense category you have defined. This new “spending plan” may be more conservative than your current spending habits – especially if you discovered some surprises that beg for better discipline. Now is the time to address any conflict between your short term desires and your long term goals.

Spend some time thinking about what is really important to you when building the foundation for your future. Talk earnestly with your spouse/partner to align your plans. Do your spending and saving habits support or thwart your long term priorities? Make thoughtful decisions about adjusting your spending in order to accelerate progress toward reaching important goals.

Each of you has your own unique needs and priorities to assure you can enjoy your life the way you dream it can be. But I can give you some examples of the adjustments my husband and I made to get our spending in line with our plans for retirement.

· Our library cards have allowed us to reduce spending at the bookstore.
· We shopped for new rates on auto insurance and substantially reduced our rate without sacrificing coverage.
· Prepared/pre-packaged food is more expensive than raw ingredients. We changed our grocery-buying and cooking habits and saved a lot of money.
· I do my own manicures, and my husband does my pedicures. (He said it was OK to tell you.)

One more thought for you… You may be able to reduce your housing expense by re-negotiating your mortgage. If your mortgage rate is already low, consider making payments every two weeks instead of once a month. This won’t reduce your monthly outflow, but will increase of the equity you have in your home by speeding the reduction of the principle on your note.

Apply discipline to align your spending habits with your priorities and your long term goals. Live your life today while planning a full life for the future. One should not exclude the other.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Where Does Your Hard-Earned Money Go?

Most people don’t find budgeting exactly fun. It is, however, critical to expense control and your retirement planning. But where to begin?

We started with an analysis of our spending habits. Ron downloaded months-worth of spending data from our bank’s web site and American Express. He then grouped like expenses together and determined what category names to put on the groupings. Then we started tracking our spending in those categories. You need to do this too, as a precursor to establishing your budget. I guarantee you will become more aware of where your money is going – and in the process will make some surprising discoveries.

Although some of your category buckets will be the same as ours, you will have others we don’t have, and/or may want to track at a lower level of granularity. The categories we use are listed below in alpha order with a little on what they include, where necessary:

· Allowance – Walking around pocket money.
· Books/Magazines
· Car Insurance
· Car/Transportation – Gas, maintenance, and for us city-folk, public transportation.
· Charity – Including church donation or tithe.
· Clothes – Plus shoes and accessories.
· Dry Cleaning
· Entertainment – Dining out, movies, concerts, theater, clubbing.
· Food – Groceries (does not include dining out).
· Gifts
· Grooming – Haircuts, coloring, manicures, pedicures.
· Gym Membership – May also include exercise and dance classes.
· Health Care
· House Cleaning
· Household Goods
· Housing – Mortgage principle & interest or rent, property tax, parking, homeowner or renters insurance, association assessment, home repairs.
· Internet
· Miscellaneous – There’s always something that defies categorization.
· Savings – Money that comes out of your pay and goes directly into a bank account, a 401K, investments, or deferred compensation.
· Telephone – Land line, cell phone (include cell internet service).
· Travel/Vacation – Air travel, hotel, meals, other spending on vacation.
· TV – Cable, DirecTV.
· Utilities – Water, electric, gas, trash collection (be sure you know whether any of these are already included in association assessment fees).
· Wine – Wine and other alcoholic beverages could be included with groceries, but we like to track it separately.

Again, these are our categories and may not work for you. You may have child or adult care, tuition, alimony, debt repayment (loans or credit cards), lawn care, legal fees, or other expenses pertinent to your life.

Start evaluating your spending today. It’s a necessary step before establishing your pre-retirement budget, which will be next week’s subject.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Planning for Your Dreams

Last night Ron and I enjoyed the sunset (and the distant chaos of rush hour traffic) from a serene rooftop lounge in Chicago, and toasted each other with, “We’re living the dream.” Our dream is the culmination of years of planning and decision-making. We know how we reached our goals, and are happy to share some ideas with you.

The first step in any plan for the future is to get a handle on what your expenses and spending patterns are today. Use this as the basis for establishing a realistic budget. Start by tracking spending against a budget to create more awareness about where your money is going.

You can document and analyze your ongoing expenditures with an Excel spreadsheet – or a piece of paper for that matter. To some extent, HOW you pay can ease your tracking efforts. If you deal mostly in cash, you need to save receipts for review. Our preferred methods of payment are a bank debit card and American Express. Both give us detailed online records that we use to categorize purchases for comparison to the budget numbers. (In addition, with the American Express Rewards program we accrue points that are redeemable for gift cards.)

Once you are knowledgeable about your spending habits, you may want to make some adjustments to pull things into line with your saving goals. Looking objectively at expenses in a consolidated form, you may become aware of untapped opportunities to be thrifty and save more for your future.

Below are some examples of “non-essentials” that eat up discretionary income. No judgment intended – just food for thought:

· $25 a week to have a landscaping service = $100 per month
· Internet access on your cell phone = $40 per month
· Premium movie channels on cable that you rarely watch = $30 per month

I’m not suggesting that you sacrifice quality of life today. Just make deliberate choices, weighing your needs today with your dreams for the future. Your philosophies may well be different than ours. None of us truly know what the future will bring, and should live our lives to the fullest every day. (Being a victim of cancer in 2002 changed my perspective on that for good!) We saved aggressively to try to ensure that our retired life could be full and enjoyable, but certainly never felt deprived.

Next week, I will begin a series on the specifics of how we built our plan for retirement. Ron masterminded our plan, so I will be interviewing him to document the approach and some tips you may be able to use.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

A Little Self-Imposed Discipline

There’s not much enforced structure in my life these days. This fact alone relieves a lot of the stress we suffered during our working years. But, for me, a complete lack of structure can lead to unproductive and unsatisfying days that just slip away. I’m not comfortable with just letting these precious days get away from me.

Now I create my own laid-back structure. I think about what I need or want to do during the week and loosely plan what to do and when. Today, I know I need to do some laundry and get to the grocery store. For fun and exercise, we’ll walk to the driving range and swing at a bucket-load of golf balls.

Ron is cool with this loose structure, and is thriving in it. I have found that I need to create some actual deadlines for myself, to introduce a little more discipline and productivity. It’s a rule that the bed must be made every day before I get in the shower. And I have to shower and dress by a certain time of the day. (I’m not going to tell you what time, or you will hate me a little.)

This blog, “Retired Early – The Reality”, is published every Thursday morning. It helps me make sure that I continue to ponder how to define my new life. Somehow, putting my thoughts into words for others to read helps me appreciate everything more. I don’t want to take anything for granted, because I know that the living situation we have today is extraordinary – for us. Enough friends have asked me what we do now and how we got to this point of freedom that I felt it was worth trying to explain it.


Then Haropulos Bailey Consulting started as a little seed of an idea. It seemed like a shame to “waste” all the business experience we have. I’m fortunate to have time to build our offering slowly. I started another (professional) blog, which I publish on Monday mornings, at
http://habaconsulting.blogspot.com. The blog reflects my business philosophies. It may or may not result in generation of any business, but I know it’s important to establishing an online presence and a brand identity.

Every day, I spend some time networking on Facebook and LinkedIn. The disciplined aspect is the need to contribute something – that’s how you reap pleasure back from Facebook. My participation on LinkedIn resulted in my first paid consulting work. By actively responding to open Questions in my areas of expertise, I have made new Connections that have enhanced my online experience. Again, the more you give, the more you seem to get back in return.

Being retired doesn’t mean being disengaged. A little personal discipline goes a long way in setting you up to be proud of your accomplishments – a feeling we all need for our self-esteem.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Virtual Leap

Back in the middle of a brutal Chicago winter, I spent a good amount of time indoors and online for entertainment. Christy, one of my good friends from Memphis urged me to join Facebook to stay better connected with my friends spread far and wide. I was hesitant, but agreed to try it out.
Once I set up a profile for myself and started sending and receiving invitations, it was like being swept into a swift current of a river I hadn’t even known existed! Having moved four times since graduating college and joining the working world, I regretted losing track of some special friends. Suddenly, I was finding them and they were finding me through Facebook. Now I’m connected to 110 friends, which seems like a lot to me!

I’m delighted to have made FB connections with remote family members, some of whom with which we normally only exchanged Christmas cards. My younger sister, Althea, and I use the chat function to catch up with each other. Cousin Johnna posts photos of her girls Claire and Molly, and I plan to see them all (and finally meet their daddy) in Maine in September. I found Lauren Haropulos, a young cousin twice removed, that I did not know. She is a high school student in New York City. (I don’t understand a lot of what she posts, which is in texting lingo – but that’s cool.) Her school was the one in the news about the Swine Flu breakout, and her postings were interesting during that time. (Students at St Francis Prep were calling the school “Swine Prep”.)

I’m grateful to have reconnected with so many dear friends. Kathy, an elementary school friend, sent me an invitation (and sent me digging through boxes to find old class photos) – what a delightful surprise! Emily, a dear friend from Northwestern, is a treasure! Her humor and sweetness bring me a unique joy I had missed since we lost track of each other years ago. I hope to get to Seattle to see her in person. My lifelong friend, Debi and her partner Tim are building a new house in Maryland. She sent a link to a web site where I can see the progress on construction of their dream home. I get to see vacation photos from friends like Fernando & Michelle and Kevin & Jill that I might not otherwise have seen. There are so many more examples of the pleasure social networking has provided to me. It was well worth the virtual leap.

Is there a down side to this trend to online friendship? Not for me. Granted, I have “ignored” some friend requests from a few people who are only acquaintances or business associates, but not friends. (Sorry.) And I have friended a few people who post TMI, so I have hidden their posts. I have only unfriended one person, who shall remain nameless. It’s manageable.

So if you can’t get enough of your friends and family and/or have lost track of some good friends – try Facebook. It’s a perfect example of what’s really good about the internet.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Marriage to Retirement - Another Fork in the Road

When I got married, it was the happiest time of my life. At the same time, combining two independent lives was full of adjustments. It involved moving, making decisions about furniture (sorry, but his rented stuff was out of there!), reorganizing storage, plus the most important personal adjustments. We had to become used to being together more, how we spent our leisure time, negotiating meals, what to watch on TV, who slept on which side of the bed...you get my drift. It was all new and exciting; but change is change, and it was also a little stressful.

My husband pointed out to me yesterday that there are significant parallels between the transition into marriage and the transition into retirement. For us, it again involved moving, selling and buying furniture, organizing storage, and other logistical challenges. Most important, we were redefining our combined lifestyle. Once again, we entered a new and exciting part of our lives together.

When some couples retire, they find that being together most of the time is a huge adjustment. Over the course of a marriage or partnership, you find a natural level of togetherness to which you become accustomed, based on your normal routines. Retirement throws those norms out the window, and you develop new habits that work for you as a couple.

For me and Ron, this has been a smooth transition. We never had children, so have always spent most of our time alone - together. For the last 12 years of our careers, we worked for the same company. We collaborated on several large projects and often took work home, continuing to discuss our professional challenges during the evening or over the weekend. Many can't imagine how this worked; but it was part of the closeness of our marriage, and we couldn't imagine it any other way.

If you aren't yet retired, be sure to talk with your partner about your hopes, dreams, wishes, and anxieties. If one of you yearns for a cabin in the woods and serenity, and the other wants a condo in the city and the high life - it takes time to work it out and come up with a compromise.

Enjoy the planning and the adjustment for the new and exciting retirement phase of your life. Life is truly a journey and, when you take a fork in the road, hopefully there is someone there to come along, hold your hand, and enjoy the view.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Uh Oh... Caught the Golf Bug

This is such a retirement cliché! I am now hooked on golf. I almost never played before, but now I browse the weather forecast looking for nice days to get to the golf course. If there is only a small window of clear weather, then I can at least sneak in a trip to the driving range. We had a rainy spring in Chicago, but I already have a golfer’s tan. How did this happen?

My dad was a dedicated golfer. He played every weekend, sometimes on both Saturday and Sunday. It was, in part, a social event for him, as he was part of a regular foursome. They would golf early, and have brunch at the club before heading home. When we kids were little, I remember Dad taking us to the driving range as a special treat.

You can’t become a competent golfer by playing once or twice a year. That’s just impossible. But now… We have more time, and we can walk to a 9-hole golf course on the lake. I knew I was committed to trying when Ron surprised me with a beautiful set of clubs two years ago.

It’s hard to have a bad outing when the weather is beautiful, the course is green and fresh, the lake is sparkling and the birds are tweeting. But there are only so many mis-hits you can suffer before beginning to get frustrated. Golf is a muscle memory sport – so the more you swing badly, the less opportunity your body has to experience how to do it right. The worse you do, the more strange things you try to fix what’s wrong. Generally, it just worsens. The golf gods always let you hit just enough really good shots, to keep your hope alive – just to be dashed again and again.

Failure drove me to a golf lesson when we were in Nevada last month. Hallelujah! Mary Ochs, “my” LPGA pro teacher, was fabulous. In an hour lesson (with another freebie 15 minutes), she pinpointed my major issues and coached me to correct them. I hit some balls that made me literally shout with joy! This is the pleasure of golf. It’s so challenging that when you finally do something right – it’s totally exhilarating. I’m still at the point where each time I address the ball, I have a whole checklist I have to work (elbows in, knees bent, butt out, back straight, head down, weight on balls of feet, eyes on ball, relax grip, twist hips, full follow through, etc.). In time, these should come naturally with less thought.

Ron and I still play “best ball” on the course (we both play from the spot of the best shot between the two of us), to keep the game moving and be courteous to the more experienced golfers behind us. Now, some of the best balls are mine! Sometimes I am hitting glorious drives out of the tee box, straight down the fairway. My putting is so-so, but shows promise. I get tired after nine holes (still a lot of swinging to little avail), so a half round is perfect.

I’ve got the golf bug something bad. Gotta go. I need to book a tee time.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

From Suburban to Urban Living

Ron and I lived in suburbia throughout our life together (in Dallas, Las Vegas, and Memphis), before moving to Chicago. So we really weren’t sure how much of an adjustment to our lifestyle would be necessary when we moved into a condo in the city. After a year here, we have a handle on it.

The biggest surprise, and a pleasant one, has been how little we use our car. On average, we use the car about twice a month. Back in January, when the weather was really bad, we didn’t use it car all month! (In fact, I think there was a week we didn’t even venture out of the house!) The limited use of the car has been great, considering the cost of fuel. Now we are struggling with how to think about the rising cost of parking, and the cost of insurance. Do we need a car at all? Should we find remote parking that’s less convenient and much less expensive? Still thinking about this.

It's surprisingly quiet in our urban home. Our building was built in the 20’s, and is as solid as a fortress. In addition, the one block street we live on is all residential. It gets a little noisy when classes begin and end at the two schools near us – but that doesn’t last for long. Otherwise, we are rarely disturbed. We don’t notice traffic noise at night at all.

We walk much more here than in suburbia. We used to take leisurely walks in our Memphis neighborhood, but now we walk with purpose to stores, restaurants, the library, the el station, the golf course, and to and through the park…almost everywhere. This immediately resulted in some natural weight loss, even before we changed our eating habits last fall. When we moved here, I struggled with walking 2 miles. Now I can walk 5 miles in a day without popping the Advil PM before I go to bed.

I was worried that Ron would miss puttering in his yard, but that has proven not to be an issue. Our building has a small front yard, and we are on the landscape committee. We’re gearing up to make improvements that will require some sweat equity, and I think that will be satisfying for both of us.

We’ve become more eco-friendly in the city. We have always recycled, but our consciousness has now extended to our purchases, our use of public transportation, and a general desire to live a more sustainable lifestyle. This has been an interesting side effect of urban living.

One final observation… I believe that we have become more outgoing in our contact with neighbors, service providers, and casual acquaintances. This may be more as a result of a reduction in stress and a slower pace of life than it is the suburban/urban thing. We have found our new contacts in Yankee-land to be surprisingly polite, helpful, and friendly. It’s easy to respond in kind.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Summer in Chicago

This will be our second summer in Chicago. The city is still just awakening from a very long, snowy winter, and locals are fairly intense in their pursuit of summer pleasures. In three months (a little more if we are lucky), we have to cram in enough memories of warmth and fun to sustain us through the part of the year when the wind howls off the lake and freezes your tears on your face.

After last summer, we have a few favorite things we are looking forward to enjoying again – and a few more we missed that we hope to get to this year.

Sidewalk dining at Pizza Rustica: This small, family-owned restaurant makes pizza with really fresh ingredients and a yeasty, buttery crust. It’s BYOB only, so we walk there with our own bottle of wine. Dining on the sidewalk patio is a Chicago experience, with the el periodically screeching by overhead.

9 Holes of Golf at Waveland: Officially, this course is called the Stanley Marovitz Golf Course. But it was originally the Waveland Golf Course, and Chicagoans are stubborn this way – we still call it Waveland. This is a great 9-hole course in Lincoln Park, tucked in between Lake Michigan and Lake Shore Drive. After play, we stop at the park concession for a hot dog and a beer before walking home.

Cocktails on the Rooftop at NoMI: The Park Hyatt across from the Water Tower has a great restaurant called NoMI. But the attraction in the summer is the outdoor patio on the 6th floor rooftop. It’s a wonderful place to enjoy a sunset, along with appetizers and an apple martini. Also a good place to see and be seen.

Wendella Boat Tours: Wendella provides an interesting and educational architectural boat tour on the Chicago River. Last year we also enjoyed a special event on Venice Night, where the boat went through the locks onto Lake Michigan for a stunning view of fireworks on the lakeshore. Nothing better on a hot night than to be out on the Lake.

Green Market: Each Wednesday and Saturday morning, Lincoln Park hosts a green farmers market. Many local chefs frequent the market to provide regional fare on their menus. If you are a Top Chef fan, you may have seen the episode during the Chicago season where the chefs shopped Green Market for ingredients for their challenge. Ron and I want to have our own meal “challenge” where we each prepare 2 courses with ingredients from the market. We’ll let you know how that turns out…

Chicago Summer Dance: We meant to do this last year and didn’t. This year it’s a MUST. This is a city-sponsored event located in Grant Park. It’s an hour of free dance lessons for the masses, followed by several hours of live music, allowing people to enjoy practicing the type of dance they learned. It’s one of the most popular summer events in Chicago – and I can’t wait to go!

What’s your favorite summer event in your home town? Get out and enjoy!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Road Trip!!

When my husband Ron and his brother Tim planned their annual hiking trip to Utah early this year, I decided to tag along. Instead of flying to Vegas to meet, we planned a multi-day drive. Our hope was to make it a leisurely trip, including sightseeing along the way. We loved the idea of having the time to burn on a road trip.


The Subaru was packed and we pulled out of Chicago on the morning of May 16th, arriving in Las Vegas on May 19th by way of Springfield MO, Amarillo TX, and Gallup NM.


On the 20th, we met up with Tim and headed north to Utah and Zion National Park. (Me at Zion on right.) We took a short hike together to a scenic overlook, and then went back to the hotel. There was a fabulous Mexican restaurant across the street from the Best Western in Zion. The weather was beautiful, and we ate on their outdoor patio with accompaniment by native flute players. That is to say, the flutes were the wooden, native American type (as opposed to the type you hear in a band or orchestra). There was a flute workshop in town, and some of the artists had gathered on the grounds outside the restaurant to “jam” for the evening. Truly lovely.


The next day, when Ron and Tim took off, I headed to Mesquite, NV for 2 days at a resort/spa. The weather was clear and hot, and I enjoyed a quiet and relaxing couple of days on my own. The guys spent their time doing some serious hiking in Bryce Canyon. We met back up in Mesquite on the 23rd. Tim headed for the airport in Las Vegas, and Ron and I headed back to the Lodge in Bryce for a night. He insisted that I see some of the sights before heading home. I’m so glad we did. Bryce is other-worldly, and a must see for anyone! (Ron at Bryce at below left.)


Our route home took us through Moab UT to sightsee in Arches National Park. Zion, Bryce and Arches are all very different and equally amazing, in their own way. Arches has rock formations that look as though they have been created by giants playing with oversized building blocks. Through the ages, the rock formations have been molded by nature’s forces into stunning geological displays.


After more than a week away from home, we were anxious to get on with the last part of the trip. Our drive home took us over the Rockies, through Denver, across Nebraska into Iowa and Des Moines, and finally back to Chicago on May 27th.


It was a great trip, and exactly the type of thing we looked forward to being able to do in retirement. In retrospect, we would take a little more time so that we didn’t have so many one night stops along the way. But it’s a grand country we live in, and we would like to see more this way. I just need a little time to recover before the next long road trip.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

10 Things I Learned from Bollywood Dance Class


In April/May, I took a six week class in Bollywood Dancing. Bollywood Dance has become internationally famous by way of the popularity of Indian movies, and has most recently gotten more attention in the U.S. as a result of Slumdog Millionaire. I was drawn to this class because of an interest in world music, and a desire to do something physical in addition to my normal workouts in the Man Cave.

I got more than I bargained for in this class! Each class was an hour of intense cardio – where I ended up sweat-soaked and wobbly-kneed. But it was GREAT.

Here are the 10 things I learned:

1. Moves that look really cool on a 19-year old Indian girl look somewhat less cool on a stiff, 53-year old Caucasian broad.
2. Patting your head while rubbing your tummy is good training for the coordination of arm/foot movement required.
3. Overly enthusiastic hip-shaking risks injury.
4. Choreographers can actually be cruel.
5. Indian folk dance and hip hop DO go well together!
6. Flirty Bollywood Dance moves are much less sexually explicit than what we see in American music videos – but very hot in a suggestive way.
7. Dancing is a great workout for your core muscle groups.
8. Hip waggling is less attractive when your belly is jiggling along with it.
9. When a choreographer says, “This part goes a little fast” – it’s an understatement.
10. Doing something outside your comfort zone is very empowering and satisfying.

What’s that class you’ve always thought of taking? What are you waiting for?
P.S. The picture above is not of our class. (Duh.)

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Eating & Thriving, the Low Carb Way

The first time we went to the grocery store to stock up on low-carb food items, we were flummoxed and frustrated. We didn’t understand enough about the do’s and don’t’s – the good foods vs. the “bad”. What freaked us out is that we knew we couldn’t eat the way we had been eating for years.

BASIC THINGS TO KNOW
1. Eat three meals a day, or four or five smaller ones.
2. For the first month consume only a total of only 20 carbs a day. As your body learns to burn fat more easily, you can re-introduce a few more carbs. (Get a carb counter guide for frequent reference.)
3. Read nutritional information labels on any prepared foods! Look for how many grams of carbs are in a serving size. Be sure they are what you would really consume in a sitting, because some serving sizes are ridiculously small.
4. Supplement your fiber intake using Psyllium Husk Powder - a taste-free additive to salads, eggs, or sauces.

THE GOOD NEWS
1. Protein is good. Most proteins have no carbs. Eat steak, chicken, seafood, and eggs guilt-free.
2. Berries are the best fruit to eat. A half cup of raspberries is 3 net carbs.
3. Fiber is good. A gram of fiber negates a gram of carbs. But beware - a gram or two of fiber in a “healthy” snack bar won’t help much if the bar contains 23 carbs that mostly come from sugar.
4. Many veggies are high in nutrients and low in carbs. Go for lettuce, broccoli, asparagus, eggplant, cauliflower and cucumber. (See the bad news veggies.)
5. Get your dairy via cheese (5-6 oz per day).

THE BAD NEWS
1. Avoid bread, pasta, rice, potatoes and cereal. Sorry.
2. Most fruit is fairly high in carbs (e.g. a medium-sized apple has about 17 net carbs).
3. Corn, peas, carrots and beans are starchy veggies higher in carbs.
4. Some “healthy” snacks are loaded with carbs. A quarter cup of raisins has 30 carbs.

Now for some ideas about how to change your eating habits:

Instead of a Cheeseburger, have a bunless Beef patty with cheese
Instead of Potatoes, have Mashed Cauliflower (we use butter & cheese & a touch of cream)
Instead of French Fries, have sauteed Eggplant
Instead of Potato Chips, have "Soy Crispettes”
Instead of salad Croutons, have Parmesan Crisps (add Psyllium Husk Powder for more fiber)
Instead of Crackers & Cheese, have Salami & Cheese
Instead of sugary Desserts, have Sugar-free Candy or Berries
Instead of a Milkshake, have an Atkins shake blended with ice
Instead of Pizza...well, if you find a replacement – let me know!

It’s not always easy, but it works! In restaurants, ask for extra vegetables in place of potatoes or rice. And send the busperson with the bread basket away forthwith! Sometimes it’s just best not to be tempted.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Mastering the Carbohydrate Challenge

I inherited many wonderful attributes from my father. Unfortunately, I also inherited a problem with high blood sugar. Two years ago, I began taking prescription meds to help my body absorb insulin. I had developed Type 2 Diabetes. Some of this was my own doing, as a result of an unhealthy diet, weight gain, and a lack of exercise. One of our goals for the first year of retirement was to “Get Healthy”. I needed to lose weight and wanted to get off my meds. No excuses anymore.

A low-carb approach seemed to make sense for me. Not only would it result in weight loss, but it would deprive my body of the simple carbs (e.g. glucose) that go right into the bloodstream and spike insulin production, making it difficult to control my blood sugar level. Complex carbs (starches) break down into glucose molecules more slowly, so don’t have as quick and dramatic an effect on blood sugar. Carbs are not bad – some are required to fuel the body with energy. But too many carbs (simple or complex) can be problematic, especially for people who tend toward diabetes.

I used a lot of information from the Atkins Diet to modify my eating habits. I replaced sugar with Splenda, stopped eating bread, pasta, potatoes, and rice, and ate more carb-free proteins, salads, and low-carb veggies. I also started being more physically active. Every morning, I tested my blood sugar.

Here’s the amazing thing… After just 3 days of lifestyle changes my blood sugar level dropped dramatically, to the point where I had to discontinue my prescription medication to allow my blood sugar to rise into the normal range! Now it stays there without medication. In 8 months I have lost 25 pounds by reducing my carb consumption and doing cardio exercise 4 to 5 days a week. I am thrilled, and so is my doctor.

A sample of a meal plan for an average day follows. I don’t specify portions here, but they should be reasonable, as calories can’t be completely ignored.

BREAKFAST: Coffee w/Splenda, 2 eggs scrambled with cheese, 2 slices bacon, 2 tablespoons Greek yogurt, 6 fresh raspberries.

LUNCH: Canned tuna fish with mayo, sliced cucumber, 1 small sugar-free Peppermint Patty.

DINNER: Caesar salad, tilapia baked in olive oil & lemon with capers, cauliflower mash, several glasses of wine.

Sorry for my soapbox, but I’m not quite done with this subject. Next week, a few specifics about counting carbs, “healthy” foods with “hidden” carbs, and some tips on how to avoid feeling deprived on the low-carb lifestyle.