Finally in Charge

Marla McCune

I WAS A CAREFREE girl who grew up on a farm in Washington state. There never seemed to be any money worries. I had the freedom to roam 2,000 acres on my motorbike. The woods were my sanctuary. My father had a plane and landing strip in the field next to our house. I was the baby of the family and he was very generous with me. My mother was hard working and believed everything should be earned. She taught me about gardening and about being frugal and resourceful.

I was naturally industrious. In third grade, I was reprimanded for selling plastic molded creepy crawlers, along with fun flowers I’d made, to my fellow schoolmates. I babysat and sold greeting cards around the neighborhood, and started working in a card shop as soon as I could drive.

My education was funded by my parents, but I helped out by working in a bakery while at college. I had my nursing degree by the time I turned age 21. I didn’t know if I’d like nursing, but I figured I could start making money and then map my life out from there. I have always loved the art of negotiation. While in college, I talked my parents into funding a trip to Hawaii. I was able to pay them back quickly because, while home for the summer, I worked at the local hospital.

Surrendering control. When I was age 14, my dangerously rebellious 15-year-old sister had a religious conversion and turned her life around overnight. This seemed so miraculous that I immediately joined the same extremely conservative Christian group, believing it was God’s only true way. It changed my thinking in every way. I no longer trusted my intuition or felt I had a choice, but instead submitted to external authorities, taking guidance from them.

After graduation, I married an unemployed laborer who appeared to convert to my faith. I believed that it was shallow to consider his wild history or employment status to be a red flag. “My love and my job will save him,” I told myself.  Often, it isn’t until many years later that we clearly see the underlying motivations for the choices we make, as well as the folly of our reasoning.

Together, we made financial mistakes such as buying whole-life insurance from my husband’s friend, including policies for the kids, and paying large fees at brokerage firms. We also, against my will, helped support my husband’s parents. His father had a gambling problem, as well as a penchant for various get-rich real estate schemes.

We ended up buying numerous properties from my father-in-law, first 10 acres, then another 10, then their home. We rented out their house, while they moved into a mobile home on our property. Subsequently, we moved into my in-laws’ house and rented out ours, and my in-laws moved in with us. We built several more homes for them and helped support them until they died.

All this led to many real estate deals. My husband had the vision and knowledge. I controlled the budget. I made sure we lived beneath our means and insisted we pay off our bills as rapidly as possible. I was working two jobs. Sometimes, my whole paycheck would go to support my in-laws. I was determined that we would be financially responsible, never finding ourselves dependent on others. We subdivided the land we owned and sold the various parcels. We were able to come out ahead, even after numerous legal disputes.

Along the way, I was furious to learn about the high cost of mortgage borrowing—not something I’d been exposed to growing up. I negotiated with my parents once again, asking to borrow from them. In return, I offered them a higher interest rate than they were getting on their Treasury notes but less than the double-digit rates we were paying on our two home loans. We refinanced with them and thereafter paid extra on the loan every month. By the time I was age 40, we were completely debt-free.

At around age 50, I came to my senses and realized I’d been submitting myself to something that was not, as I had believed, the absolute truth. I had a choice. This meant leaving behind the support network that the church had offered. A few years later, in 2010, my husband and I divorced.

Feeling emotionally insecure, I worked obsessively for a few years, not knowing what to do with an empty nest and no husband. From the divorce settlement, I received two properties, which I sold. One was a development we had started. The other was a condo. In both cases, the parties decided they didn’t need to follow through on the contract they’d signed. I had to hire legal help to get paid.

In 2013, I met the man of my dreams—it is possible—and we quickly married. We were both clear on what we wanted and didn’t want in a relationship. He had three daughters. I had three sons. We both had similar histories. At one point, we had even worked at the same hospital, but we never met. I bought a house, he and his youngest daughter moved in, and we both rented our previous homes. As much as I had reined in my spending when I got divorced, he wanted to live large. We’ve compromised, negotiating what’s most important to each of us.

Expensive advice. In 2016, we were wooed by a financial planner, who promised to help us coordinate our retirement and tax planning. We transferred $1 million from our brokerage accounts to his firm. In the past, I’d been frustrated with financial advisors telling me to get advice from a CPA, while the CPA told me to get advice from my financial planner. This new planner’s holistic approach was appealing.

I read the book he’d written, and asked him many questions and got satisfactory answers. But he blatantly lied. The planner appealed to our desire for safety, outlining how we could retire immediately with an attractive income. But we ended up with a majority of our money in illiquid, non-publicly traded real estate investment trusts (REITs), with the rest in a deferred annuity and mutual funds with very high fees.

I liked the idea of the non-publicly traded REITs. I thought it would be great to have rental properties that delivered income every month, without the hassles of being a landlord, so I was okay with the illiquidity, as long as the investments were producing income. But at this juncture, the REITs have mostly stopped paying income and their values are down. The income was not a 6% to 8% return, as projected, and the payments seem to have come at the expense of our principal.

The planner soon told us that the fiduciary laws were changing, which required him to charge a 1.5% annual management fee, over and above the mutual fund fees. By then, I was on to him. I moved the mutual funds to another brokerage firm. I also sued. We’ve recovered only a fraction of what we invested. The REIT money is tied up indefinitely, still incurring fees. I kept the annuity. It’s with a reputable company, but I probably wouldn’t make the same choice again.

 I shudder to think of all the others who staked their retirement on his advice and didn’t have a backup plan. Many filed grievances against him. He got off by retiring. The securities firm he worked with took the hit.

Because of all these experiences, I’m now highly suspicious of authority figures. I no longer passively assume others have my best interest at heart. Instead, I’ve tried to educate myself on financial matters—and negotiate better terms when I can.

Testing retirement. In 2017, my husband and I took off most of the year to travel and play. I was pleasantly surprised by how much we saved in federal income taxes during that year and that, even as we spent, our net worth didn’t go down. It gave us a taste for retirement. Now, we often travel internationally, while working far less than before.

We’ve also been preparing our finances for the day when we no longer have any earned income. I love mentoring younger nurses, both in nursing and in the basics of finance, and I plan to continue doing so for as long as I enjoy it. I also continue to contribute the maximum allowed to my 403(b) account. A few years ago, my employer started offering a Roth option in the 403(b). I now direct my income there first, with the goal of maximizing my contributions each year, while living off the savings in our taxable account. I no longer contribute to my traditional IRA. I would rather pay the tax now than worry about what my tax bill might be when I have to start taking required minimum distributions.

In recent years, a big challenge for my husband and me has been health insurance. We no longer work enough to qualify for employer-sponsored care. I turned age 65 last year, so I now have Medicare coverage. But my husband, who is younger, is getting by for a few more years with an inexpensive health share program. It’s a catastrophic coverage plan with a high deductible, which can work well, provided you’re healthy. We could limit our income and qualify for government tax subsidies. But if we did that, I couldn’t continue with my aggressive annual Roth conversions. Our plan is to keep our income just below the IRMAA limits that would raise my Medicare premiums.

Over the past few years, I’ve been studying investing and preparing for retirement, and I find it relaxing. I have various people I go to for advice, while maintaining my need to make final decisions on my own and with an eye to keeping things simple. I’ve always had a fairly high tolerance for risk. But now, with recent market losses, I’m trying to navigate this last stretch in the workforce. We’re switching our investment focus more toward portfolio preservation than growth.

I realize I’ve been lucky in countless ways. We’ve set aside five years of income in certificates of deposit and Treasury bills, all held in our taxable account, which we can access as desired. At age 70, we’ll claim Social Security and start annuity payments, which will be supplemented by our IRA funds and what remains in our taxable account. We hope to have money left over for our children. But our first priority is to make sure we can take care of ourselves, even if we live to a ripe old age.

My husband and I often reflect on a paraphrased quote from the Italian movie, The Great Beauty, “There came a time in life where I stopped doing what I don’t want to do.” Although it was profitable to be landlords, it was also hugely stressful. We don’t want to be landlords anymore and we don’t want more lawsuits. During COVID-19, to get nonpaying tenants out of our last rental property, we downsized and moved into the property ourselves. It’s a low-maintenance, minimal expense oasis for us, one that serves as a home base between adventures. We have a huge garden, water barrels and a greenhouse, and soon we’ll add chickens, so we can be more self-sufficient. We share the produce with neighbors, who help maintain things when we’re gone.

As I write this, I’m on a plane home from Paris. I smile, feeling I’ve finally found a good balance between enjoying the now and planning for the future.

Marla McCune is a registered nurse with a career spanning 45 years. She also loves journaling and outdoor activities, including swimming, photography and gardening.

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