A Florida Summer – Much nicer than expected

One of my biggest fears with the move to Florida was the summer. Many told us that you just stay indoors with the AC for most of the day. Some even said that the humidity was so high that water condensation would run down the walls of the house. None of that was close to the truth.

My wife and I do like it hot and don’t mind the humidity. Those hot and humid New England days were our favorites in Massachusetts. So we were surprised when the Florida summer gave us a constant string of the hottest of those days and nothing more. The temperature started in the 70’s and ended in the low to mid 90’s almost daily. The dew points were typically in the 70’s which is humid. But we still enjoyed the pool and I played tennis 3 times a week.

Playing tennis in the humidity was a bit of a challenge. I have always been one to perspire a lot, but the humidity here took it to a whole new level. Many times after a match, you could wring out every piece of clothing that I wore. As long as you drink a lot of water, it isn’t a problem.

Finding a refreshing place to swim took some getting used to. The water temperature everywhere was in the high 80’s to low 90’s. Early in the morning (I mean 10am which is early for us), the pool would be in the high 80’s rising to the low 90’s by late afternoon. The ocean was as warm a 91 degrees and stayed there for the better part of August. It would have been better if the water was a little cooler, but after a while we got used to it.

The biggest adjustment we made for the weather was the limiting of activities between 3 and 6 pm daily. That’s when the thunder showers would roll through. Florida is the lightning capital of the USA so we get a lot of thunder showers. They are scattered but a daily occurrence. It can be down pouring in the back yard and dry in the front. We spent many afternoons sitting in the pool listening to the thunder. We left when we saw lightning or it started raining. Of the 3 to 4 days a week we were in the pool we only got caught in a downpour twice.

Weather is a very personal topic and one person’s favorite day is another’s hell. If your favorite season is winter then a Florida summer will not be for you. However; if you like summer in New England and don’t mind those hot and humid days of August, then a Florida summer will be a pleasant surprise.

Surviving a Florida Hurricane Season

My wife and I are spending our first hurricane season in Florida. It’s been an action packed season with six or seven named storms that had to be watched and one storm that just popped up out of a small depression to our west. The locals have a whole preparation process that they go through to get ready for hurricane season. The news has a recommended hurricane kit that each household needs to ensure survival for the season. Each tropical depression is tracked on a “spaghetti chart” showing the various potential paths the storms could take. Sarasota County is neatly divided into 5 separate evacuation zones depending on the expected storm surge. The buildings are inspected and rated for their wind remediation ability. Preparedness teams from local neighborhoods up to the state level stand at the ready waiting for the one that will hit us. This area takes hurricane season seriously and preparation is a very well publicized process.

Having lived in the North East for my entire life, dealing with adverse weather is not something new. In fact the 126 inches of snow that we got during the winter of 2015 was a big reason that we are here. We didn’t have checklists and teams standing by waiting for the snow. When a storm was in the forecast we made sure that we had gas for the snow blower and went to the market for bread, milk and eggs. Lots of snow, cold and a few power outages were just part of a New England winter.

Hurricane season in Florida has a more frantic feel. With the images of category 5 storms slamming the Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico it’s understandable why people are scared. Florida is a flat low lying state and a storm surge of 20 feet would devastate a lot of the population centers in the state. Irma wasn’t even a category 1 storm when it hit Sarasota and we had lots of wind damage and low land flooding. But the scariest part of the storm was the buildup to the event. It was potentially going to hit us as a category 4 storm. People had their bathtubs filled with water, safe rooms established and some had marked the front doors to show the number of occupants so that FEMA rescuers would know what who look for.   We got last minute items like batteries and soup just in case the weeks supply ran out. We helped friends get last minutes items that they couldn’t find and shared what we had. As the storm approached, we sat glued to the weather reports to see where the storm would make landfall and where Sarasota was in the “cone of uncertainty”.

The storm came and went with lots of wind and rain. We lost power for 36 hours and suffered a little in the heat without our AC. The area had trees down, flooding and damage to buildings. The low lying areas along the shore and rivers were the hardest hit. Those areas were evacuated and shelters were readily available. There were two police officers killed in an accident during the preparation for the storm, but I don’t think there were any deaths as a direct result of the storm. People that fled to Atlanta, Orlando and other far off points had trouble getting home. Gas and other items that were put up in preparation for the storm were in short supply after the event. Piles of vegetation blown down during the storm may lay along the roads for a couple of months. But at the end of the day, the fear of the storm was far worse than the storm itself.

It’s hard to predict just how destructive a storm will be or where it’s going to focus the brunt of its anger. It’s certainly better to be over prepared than under prepared. But does all the focus on preparation create more damage with the fear that results than the safety it provides?   I don’t have the answer, but next year I’ll be better prepared because a storm is a storm. It doesn’t matter if its two feet of snow or 6 inches of rain.

May I Help You?

I wrote the first pass of this piece a week before hurricane Irma was on the radar. Since then we have been in hurricane prep mode. We live in a community with many older residents. Making sure that they were safe and helping them prepare was a priority. Making sure we had the resources to help them after the storm was also part of the preparation. The hardest part of the prep was dealing with the fear of living through the worst storm ever recorded. The mantra of “fear the worst and hope for the best” led us to some very dark places. We were lucky. For those that weren’t, our prayers go out to you.

Since I retired, the concept of purpose has been a struggle for me. With the potential of living another 30+ years, I don’t feel that just taking as much as I can will leave me feeling good about the time I have left. To find my future purpose I ultimately ended up looking back and found a little light for the path forward. Many of us live our lives in pursuit of the question, “May I help you?”

If you think about what we do on a day to day basis, the question of “May I Help You?” is a fundamental component of our existence. For most, our jobs focus on helping someone else either directly or indirectly. We have a spouse, children, parents or friends that depend on our helping them daily. We also have those that we depend on for help as part of the daily give and take in our lives. In retirement, that interaction doesn’t change except for the money part. We no longer get paid for asking “May I Help You?”

In looking back over the last year of retirement, the desire to help has not diminished. My children still reach out for guidance. Neighbors still need assistance with the daily annoyances that they can’t deal with themselves. The world remains a place where there are many in need and not enough of us to help them all. History has taught us that in periods of selfishness like the Dark Ages, the world is a difficult place for all, but the sharing of the Renaissance brought a bounty to many.

Making a contribution to the community is an important part of our everyday lives. As retirees, we have lots of experience and life lessons to draw on. Underneath that somewhat tired looking wrapper lives the heart and soul of someone who still asks “May I Help You?”

Having Fun and Learning new skills

Having fun at every stage in our lives is important.  We need to focus our attention on things that make us feel happy and excited. Whether it’s our job, our education, our family activities or our extracurricular activities. If we don’t do things that we find enjoyable and interesting, then it’s hard to put our best effort into it. Retirement is a time for us to explore new opportunities to find those fun and exciting new activities and renew old passions.

I know this picture would lead one to believe that I have taken up alligator wrestling as a new retirement activity. It’s really a casting of an alligator that we found at the Mote Aquarium. Being new to Sarasota, we have done a lot of exploring so that we really get to know the area well. The area is rich in opportunities for studying nature both in venues like the Mote and in the many natural parks that are prevalent in the county. I’ve dabbled in kayaking and have a renewed interest in fishing as a result of our activities. My wife and I have done a lot of hiking and found it a great way to explore and connect with each other.

One of my major concerns when I was thinking about retirement was how do I spend the time and not feel bored.   It’s really up to each of us to answer that question because we know what’s fun and exciting for us. The challenge is to put the effort into finding those things that don’t just fill our days, but reignite the zest for life. The world offers many opportunities for us to enjoy life and make a contribution to our friends and neighbors. We need to look inside ourselves to find those opportunities that will fill us with joy. For many of us our job filled the day and limited our ability to explore that aspect of ourselves. If we embrace the challenge it can lead to some of the best times of our lives. Don’t let fear of the unknown deprive you of the opportunity of a lifetime.

Alive and Kicking at 63 (Aging is a strange process)

Alive and Kicking

In modern societies life expectancy is well into the 80’s and many of us baby boomers will live beyond that. Throughout most of my adult life I’ve had very few medical issues beyond the usual colds and flu. But after turning 60, I feel like the warranty expired on my body. Not that anything major is wrong. I’m still alive and kicking but I am dealing with several small but annoying issues and monitoring some potential major ones.   The big ones are not much of a concern because my family history shows them to be part of our deal, but never really serious. It’s the minor ones and the monitoring that is troubling.

For most of my life I would see a doctor once a year or less. The one trip would be for a physical and aside from my weight, they pronounced me healthy. For my 60th physical they did a PSA test (prostate) that showed a higher than normal number. In the end, I found that a large prostate is a genetic normality and not cause for concern. But the process of discovery was lengthy, really troublesome and scary at times.

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As part of our retirement plan, we moved from Massachusetts to Florida. One concern was the quality of medical care since Boston has some of the best hospitals on earth. I have found that the Florida medical practices focus on older people and they have been better at dealing with the aging issues than my GP up north. During my latest physical, the doctor discovered that my thyroid was not doing its thing. I needed to begin taking the enzyme that it was supposed to be producing. I didn’t realize that the joint pain and skin sensitivity was all related to the reduction in my thyroid’s production of the enzyme. Getting older is a new experience for me, but common place for the doctors in this area. My parents are still living in Massachusetts and with some effort finding good medical support. But it’s more of an effort for them.

Part of my weekly routine includes an exercise regimen. Its tennis 3 mornings a week and a class at the YMCA one evening a week. Not only does that schedule keep the body ticking along, it gives me a cadence that keeps the days in order. These activities have helped me to meet people and make friends in a brand new environment as well. Pushing the body physically, mentally and socially on a regular basis is an important element in maintaining your health.

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Part of me feels petty for even complaining about these minor issues. At least I’m around to experience them. I’ve lost friends to cancer and co-workers to terrorists. But aging is a strange process with many subtle hazards. To maintain a good quality of life, it’s important to work at good health as part of your daily life. Find some activities that are both good exercise and fun. Get good doctors to stay on top of the annoying issues that go along with an aging body. Putting up with the appointments, prodding and probing just goes with the territory. Accept aging for what it is and appreciate the opportunity to experience it.

 

Getting Settled (Transition is a painful process)

 

When we moved to Sarasota, we decided to rent for a year so that we could get to know the area and find the right place to live and buy a home. This strategy was chosen knowing full well that getting settled meant that we had to make two moves. Given the pain associated with moving, this was not a decision that we made lightly. We bought our home in mid-June and moved in last week. The move experience was no less painful than we expected, but was the strategy the right one?

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In the 10 months that we have lived in Sarasota, we have explored a lot and met many new people. We’ve built some new friendships and established some new acquaintances that may bloom into full-fledged friendships. Most of our discussions have something to do with learning about what to do and where to live on the “Sun Coast”, the greater Sarasota area. Very few of the people that we have spoken with are unhappy with their choice of Sarasota as a place to live. The longer term residents harbor some resentment toward the new comers because the area has become built up. But they are still very happy to be living here.

One thing that struck me about the “new comers” is that they fall into two categories. A lot have been coming to Sarasota for years and knew the area before they bought a home. The other large group bought a home when they first moved in. Very few chose the strategy of renting and finding the right home for them. Almost all of those that bought when the first came to Sarasota have moved at least once.

We found the greater Sarasota area to offer a wide variety of living options. Had we not lived in an apartment for a few months, we would have purchased a single family home in an OK neighborhood with a pool. That would put us back in the mode we had been in for the last 40 years of maintaining a house, yard and pool. Apartment living quickly taught me the benefits of maintenance free housing. We also learned the tradeoff between private ownership and higher density living with a shared pool. The outdoor life makes the community and your neighbors just as important as the four walls and roof.

We have spent the grand total of eight nights in our new home. It’s roomy, quiet and the neighbors are really nice. We had a dinner invitation the night we moved in and a monthly neighborhood party a couple of days later. Our home is in a maintenance free community and many of the owners are “snow birds”, only here in the colder weather. The full time residents warmly welcomed another addition to their group. We have room for guests and a community that worked hard to blend the natural surroundings of the Florida forest with an active golf and tennis environment.

Moving is a painful process and choosing a two move strategy went against every fiber in my being. My better half, the smarter one, convinced me to put a toe in the water before we jump in. She was right. Had we gone with my gut we would have been in the wrong type of home. The neighborhood would not have been right and we would have over paid making moving that much harder. Becoming retired is a tumultuous process that has many steps and stages.

The move strategy of renting to get to know an area is the right way to go regardless of that painful second move. In all likelihood you’ll move twice before getting settled anyway and renting gives you the advantage of being able to take advantage of the natural demand cycle in your market. It’s much better to buy from a distressed seller than be a distressed buyer. More importantly, your home is your castle and being in the right situation for your retirement lifestyle goals is a key element for your long term happiness.

Made it through the 1st year of retirement (I am happy)

I officially stopped receiving a paycheck in early May of 2016.  My wife and I were in a house with a big mortgage, large real estate taxes and no significant income.  We had a modest amount of money in the retirement fund and a plan, sell the house and move to Florida.

It was a scary plan since we had spent a total of 9 days in the city to which we wanted to move and a lot less in the retirement fund than we planned. We also had some big expenses to deal with to get to our “Promised Land”.  In retrospect, I’m glad that we did this in our early 60’s.  The longer you wait, the harder it gets.  Packing and downsizing is a very difficult and emotional process.

The sale of the house took longer than planned and wasn’t quite as lucrative and we had hoped.  Moving was less expensive than we thought and we had a nice time exploring the east coast on the trip down to Florida.  Living in an apartment after 40 years of owning homes was an adjustment.  Finding some friends and people with which to play tennis was a lot easier than I expected.  Getting doctors to replace the ones left behind was easy and they are better than we had.  The biggest concern was, “Will we be happy?”  It’s not perfect, but Sarasota and Florida have been a good choice for my wife and me.

We recently closed on a home and the plan is taking shape.  It’s a nice Florida villa, a single story duplex in New England terms, in a maintenance free home owners association.  The pool is a few feet from the back door and we’re surrounded by oak trees and golf fairways.  We have begun to find a community around us.  I found a tennis club and YMCA for my workouts very quickly.  My wife found a church and book club after a while.  Our pool of acquaintances is beginning to yield some friends and part of the family has found us.  We have uncovered some interesting music venues and joined some great local museums.  The basics of good food, comfortable shelter and great weather are in place.  The rest is a work in progress.

We continue to fill in the blanks and find it a happy place to be.  I can see how some have difficulty getting over the feeling of loss when your career comes to a close.  Everyone is motivated by something different.  Not needing a job to feel a purpose was difficult for me to come to grips with.  I still struggle with the concept of purpose but can accept that it will take some time to sort it out.  In the interim, I write and hope that my journey can shine a light on a happy path for others.

Buying Stocks – No simple formula for success

I have been investing in individual stocks for 45 years and still have a portfolio. Investing in individual stocks is something a lot of us have done at some point in our lives with varying degrees of success. Making “easy money” in the stock market has a good deal of appeal but proceed with caution. If it were easy then we’d all be multimillionaires.

After years of trading and reading about trading I have come to a simple conclusion. There is no fixed formula that can be used to make money in the stock market. Reading books by Peter Lynch and Jim Cramer are a good way to learn some of the basics and gives you their formula for success. But successful trading formulas are as unique as fingerprints. It’s very hard to take someone else’s formula and successfully make it your own. I’m convinced that there is a 6th sense that goes with any successful formula that makes it work.

At the risk of encouraging some of you to jump in with both feet, I thought some of my experiences might be useful. I got the bug with my first trade. I bought 50 shares of Winnebago at around $12.00 when I was in high school. My father’s broker was pushing the stock and he was buying some so I thought it was a good opportunity. The stock immediately fell to single digits and I learned my first investing lesson. Don’t blindly listen to what brokers recommend. I went off to college and forgot about the stock for a few years. At some point I was down to my last few bucks and looked at the stock price in the paper. Winnebago was trading at $18.00 and I immediately sold. Not only did I make some money, but I learned the second important stock trading lesson. If you buy good companies and are patient, you will be rewarded eventually. Since that trade, I have bought and sold hundreds of stocks making more than I lost. But there was a third lesson in the Winnebago trade that I didn’t see for several years. Panicked investors will almost always lose their money. Many times my positions are down 20%, 30% or 40% and I resist the urge to panic because the market overreacts to short term issues.   Sometimes I’m wrong and 40% down becomes 100% but more often, I’m right and the trade works in the end.

I’ve spent my life figuring out how to make losing companies profitable and profitable companies more profitable. Part of my formula is the gut feel that I get from the business plan and management when I read about the business. That gut feel has saved my butt on many occasions.   Still with all the training and experience my results have been mediocre.

Buying stocks and making money is more art than science. You only need to look at the hedge funds to see the reality in that statement. You can’t paint Water Lilies just because you have paints and a brush unless you have both the passion to learn how to paint and the skills of Monet. Making money in the stock market takes the same level of commitment to hone your skills and an innate ability.

Airlines Treat Customers Like Cattle (retired people fly too)

It’s been a long time since air travel was fun and exciting. For those of you under 40 it really was a treat at one time. Passengers were really appreciated and treated with respect. Yes all of them, not just the frequent fliers.

I remember my first commercial flight. A friend and I went from Boston to Portland Maine on a Yellow Bird. Even though it was a short flight, we were served a beverage and snack for free. The seats were large and comfortable, the flight attendants were friendly and the round trip was around $100. It was a lot for a couple of high school kids, but worth it.

Today there are only two airlines that I will fly, Jet Blue and Air Lingus. These companies still give you room to sit and a modicum of service. My last flight on another airline was a trip to the UK. I flew Delta from Boston the Heathrow and it was one of the worst flights ever. The trip cost over $2,000 and there was not enough leg room to get my knees in behind the seat in front of me. With one knee in the aisle the flight attendants ran into me with the food cart twice. Instead of any apology, all I got was a grunt that was more of a “get the F out of the way” than any sympathy for my pain. I have subjected myself to the cattle treatment on American and United as well, but nothing this bad.

The recent articles about the United passenger that was dragged from the plain refreshed my ire at the airlines. One article on CNN.com stated that 46,000 passengers annually are removed from flights. What other industry will sell you a product and then take it away just as your about to use it?

It’s time to end the shameless abuse of customers that these businesses practice as standard operating procedures. I stopped flying all but two airlines, but my few flights a year will not be noticed. However, if a large number of people stop flying the majors, then perhaps they will get the message and change their procedures. Or perhaps we will make the airlines that treat us with a little dignity more successful. Either way the passenger abuse will stop. We have the power to fix this if we work together.

Discretionary Income (The spice of life)

Those of us living on a salary, know how much we make on a weekly/bi-weekly basis because it shows up in our pay check.  The mystery is how much of that can we really spend and how much has already been spent. The difference between what we make and what is already spent is what’s called discretionary income. This is the money that we have total control over how it’s spent.

Today, my income is about one third of what I was making prior to retirement, but my discretionary income is about the same. The table below shows a comparison of our monthly spending before and after retirement:

Discretionary Income Comparison
(% of Working Monthly Income)
Working Retired
Monthly Income 100.0% 35.5%
Monthly Committed Spending:
Taxes 20.6% 2.5%
Food 2.8% 2.8%
Gas 3.2% 1.1%
Retirement Savings 5.0% 0.0%
Health Insurance 2.3% 4.5%
Mortgage Incl’d Taxes and Ins. 17.0% 3.5%
Child Support 13.5% 0.0%
Utilities & Phones 7.1% 2.5%
College 7.1% 0.0%
Car Loan 3.2% 0.0%
Total Committed Spending 81.7% 17.0%
Discretionary Income 18.3% 18.5%

 

Most retirement calculators will use your current monthly income as a gauge for your required retirement income when the real focus should be on discretionary income.

Let’s look at why our spending has declined so much in retirement. The taxes came down because the income has dropped and I no longer draw a salary for the government to take Social Security and Medicare from. I’m retired, so I don’t need to contribute to my retirement savings. We are fortunate enough that we were able to cash out of the house up north and use the proceeds to buy a home for cash in Florida. We still have taxes, insurance and some other fees to cover in Florida, but nothing like the cost in MA. We downsized the house by a third and have much lower utility bills. The kids are gone and college is paid for. The cars are paid off and still running well so that expense is gone. The cost of healthcare is up to some extent, but we planned for that.

While I was working, there tended to be a lot more variation in the monthly spending and the expectations were higher because of our income level. Now, even though the real income at our disposal is about the same, the expectations are lower and so are the surprises.

We planned some significant life changes and made some compromises to get to this point financially. The biggest change is that we’ve gone to a 2,000 sq. ft. villa from a 3,000 sq. ft. house and share the pool with several of our neighbors. I also gave up the yard work, pool cleaning and maintenance on the house. So the compromise has its benefits.

The important part is that we are happier now than we were when I was working. We’d like to see more of the kids and grandkids, but living in our ideal vacation setting 52 weeks a year is wonderful. Before you listen to what the “experts” tell you about your retirement requirements, look at your discretionary income and plan your retirement around that number.