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Retirement Ready

David Gartland

THE LAST TIME I HAD a job where I was eligible for a pension was 1994. People with pensions seem to count the days till they’re eligible to collect their monthly check. That makes sense: They know there’s gold at the end of their working life. I didn’t have this sort of “golden parachute.” If I didn’t save, I couldn’t retire.

From 1994 on, funding my 401(k) and IRA were my only paths to a comfortable retirement. I never had a target amount. I just kept setting aside a portion of my salary in my 401(k) until I left that particular job. I’d then roll over the money to my IRA, being sure to advise the human resources department what I was doing. The first job I left, I didn’t make it clear to HR that I wanted to roll over the money to an IRA, rather than spend it, and a big chunk was withheld for taxes. Lesson learned.

Based on my history of getting laid off, I knew the day would arrive when I couldn’t get another decent job and I’d need to accept retirement. This was a scary thought. I knew having enough money for retirement was important, but what would I do with my time?

I kept a look out for articles that described the cost of retirement, places to live and things to do. They all sounded great for people with pensions. But what about people like me, who needed to rely on their savings?

Then I found a quirky book titled The Joy of Not Working by Ernie J. Zelinski. There’s joy in not working? I never allowed myself that luxury. Working and making money were all I wanted and all I knew. I wasn’t that good at either, but it was what I knew. Zelinski’s book made me look forward to having the freedom to decide what I wanted to do with my time.

I next focused on how to make the most of Social Security, Medicare and the pensions I’d qualified for early in my career. For the pensions I was eligible to receive, I decided I’d wait until age 65 and take them as annuities, rather than as a lump sum. The knowledge that money would hit my bank account every month would help me relax.

For Social Security, I studied how benefits were calculated. In computing your benefit, the Social Security Administration uses your highest 35 years of inflation-adjusted earnings, regardless of when you earned them. This was important to me because my salary changed based on each new employer—and my earnings didn’t always climb steadily upward.

I created an Excel spreadsheet to identify my highest 35 years of earnings. I used that information in my 60s, when I was searching for my final job. As long as my annual salary would be among my 35 highest inflation-adjusted years, my lower salary years would drop off the lifetime earnings formula, boosting my Social Security benefit.

I could have started benefits at age 62. But if I continued to work, I’d lose a significant sum to Social Security’s earnings test. Waiting for benefits until after my full retirement age meant I could work and collect Social Security, without the need to return some of my benefit because my earnings were too high. Waiting until 70 would mean the maximum benefit possible. Armed with this information, I knew that my last job’s salary would boost my Social Security check, while also allowing me to hold off until age 70 to collect benefits.

For Medicare, I saw the premium I’d be charged was more than my wife paid for our family’s health plan through her work. I studied the rules and found out that I didn’t need to pay for Medicare at age 65 if I had coverage through my wife’s employer. There was no problem signing up at 65 for Medicare Part A, which provides hospital coverage, since it was free. The only issue is that, once you sign up for Part A, you can no longer add to your health savings account. Meanwhile, thanks to the coverage from my wife’s employer, I was able to hold off adding Medicare Part B, which includes outpatient coverage and involves paying premiums, until I was age 70.

My wife and son both stopped working about the same time I did, so there was no imbalance between my wife working and me being at home. We learned retirement together. Upon retirement, she became more involved in caring for her parents, which was a blessing because she now had the time to do so.

My definition of retirement is no work—meaning no work that’s dictated by others. This includes volunteering. I consider that unpaid work. This also includes part-time work. I consider that another job. I even consider work to include mandatory grandkid babysitting, where your children decide you need to be at their house at certain times on certain days.

Instead, for me, retirement is my chance to decide how I spend my time. Of course, I still need to do things, but I try to schedule just one thing a day. If there are multiple things to do, I spread them out. I’ve now got the time. Why not use it as I choose?

One of the gems I picked up from The Joy of Not Working was to focus on whatever I’m doing at the moment. Focus allows you to enjoy the activity more. I no longer have to worry about what will happen tomorrow or what happened yesterday. I can focus on the now, which might sound like something a hippy would say, but it helps calm me down.

When I was young, my mother would get on my case every time I watched television. She worried I was wasting my life. The beauty now is that, if I’m watching TV, I can focus on enjoying it without feeling guilty that I’m wasting time. Rather, I’m using time as I choose. I don’t consider watching TV a waste of time unless I’m doing it because I can’t think of anything better.

I’m not suggesting others do what I do. If volunteering is your thing, do it. If you love watching the grandkids seven days a week, great. The important thing: Do what brings you the most joy with the time you have left. Don’t be on your deathbed regretting all the things you would have done if you’d had more time.

David Gartland was born and raised on Long Island, New York, and has lived in central New Jersey since 1987. He earned a bachelor’s degree in math from the State University of New York at Cortland and holds various professional insurance designations. Dave’s property and casualty insurance career with different companies lasted 42 years. He’s been married 36 years, and has a son with special needs. Dave has identified three areas of interest that he focuses on to enjoy retirement: exploring, learning and accomplishing. Pursuing any one of these leads to contentment. Check out Dave’s earlier articles.

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