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Things I’ve Picked Up

Nicholas Clements

IT’S BEEN MORE THAN 10 years since my retirement journey began at age 52. For almost 30 years, I’d worked hard, especially the last two decades, when my twin brother and I owned a landscaping company. Vacations were few and far between, and even on vacation I was always on call.

I was burned out and ready for a new chapter. Going into retirement, I was well-prepared financially. But how I’d fill my days was something of a mystery.

Why wasn’t I worried about money? I’m frugal—a family trait—and had saved diligently in anticipation of an early retirement. I’d paid off my mortgage early and had no other debt. The house that my husband and I live in is only 750 square feet, making for reasonable utility bills and maintenance costs.

As I approached retirement, I’d calculated that, along with my husband’s government pension, we’d be able to live off the income and capital gains distributions from my Vanguard Group and T. Rowe Price mutual funds, and I wouldn’t have to sell fund shares.

Yes, 2022’s nerve-racking drop in the stock and bond markets had a significant impact on my portfolio. But having lived through several downturns during my 35 years of investing, I knew the best approach was to stay the course. Besides, there wasn’t much I could do. Going to all cash—with the resulting tax implications—was hardly an appetizing option. Indeed, I pay more attention to our taxable income nowadays, working to ensure we minimize taxes and stay below the Medicare premium surcharge income thresholds.

Spending time. While I was set financially, there was still the issue of what I’d do with my time. During my working years, I didn’t have many interests or hobbies. Like many retirees, figuring out what to do with my days was a matter of trial, error and frequent change.

I’d taken up cycling in a serious way a few years prior to retirement. Once retired, I spent many hours on the bike, cycling 8,000 to 10,000 miles each year. I enjoyed the physical challenge of 100-mile rides, and in 2017 put my body to the test, riding 35 centuries. But that was also the last year I rode a century, and since then my riding has slowly been replaced by hiking and walking, far safer activities with less risk from bike crashes and aggressive drivers, and not as taxing on the body. On these walks and hikes, I’d bring along my camera, and I began to enjoy the challenges of bird photography. I met some great photographers along the way, and learned much from them.

Early in retirement, I volunteered at a local immigrant advocacy organization, which I found somewhat rewarding but not enough for me to continue with it for much more than a year. In 2015, I was asked if I’d become chairman of the community’s beautification committee, something to which I was well-suited, given my background in landscaping.

Beautifying the community was gratifying, and I was able to meet a good number of my neighbors, who volunteered for the various beautification activities. This kept me engaged with others, something that’s important in retirement. But after a few years as chairman, I was ready for a change. I’d accomplished what I set out to do and I was ready for new challenges.

Talking trash. Litter within my county and state has always bothered me. Whether driving the highways or cycling the country roads, I was struck by just how much roadside trash there was. I began picking up litter within my community, and recruited volunteers for weekly litter patrols.

Trash would blow into the neighborhood from the main roads. On garbage day, trash wouldn’t always end up in the garbage truck. There was never a shortage of litter to be picked up. Soon, my efforts expanded to the nearby business district, where I worked with county inspectors to have businesses comply with various ordinances that require them to keep their lots clean.

During the pandemic, I’d hike the woodlands that are part of the local water company’s watershed. It’s a beautiful area where I could get out into nature and not see anyone for hours. Unfortunately, not everyone respects the area’s beauty. On my hikes, I was alarmed at the amount of trash I saw along the shoreline of the reservoir and thrown into the vegetation along the hiking trails.

With help from my husband, we began to clean up the area, taking out dozens of bags of trash, mostly beer bottles and cans, but also fish bait containers, fishing line and more. Now, we can go to the area and do some maintenance litter pickup, enjoying the beauty of the watershed without the distraction of mounds of trash.

My cleanup efforts have continued into two other watersheds. I’m now the “litter hot spot coordinator” for one of these watersheds and hope to soon be a board member of the other. My involvement with these organizations keeps me engaged, and allows me to meet more and more people, young and old, from different walks of life.

This community involvement reinforces what I’ve long known—that where I’ve lived for most of my life is where I also want to stay in retirement. My husband and I have thought about moving to his home state of Texas to be close to his family. But increasingly, we realize that we’re happy in our Maryland home, and that getting to Texas to see his family, or to Florida or Philadelphia to see mine, is just a short plane or train trip away.

The cost of living in Maryland is high and the traffic is bad, but we have access to excellent health care, and there are parks and a beautiful public garden close by. When we balance out the pros and cons, Maryland still wins. Traveling to other continents doesn’t hold much appeal for us, but we do enjoy our trips to family and friends in the U.S. I also travel often to Mexico, where I have numerous friends, many of them my former employees. We then travel together to different parts of Mexico.

Working life seems like a distant memory. My many hobbies and activities, and the connections I’ve made within the community, have been important. But I don’t expect things to stay the same.

There are limits to what you can do physically as you age, and I’ve adjusted accordingly. My husband encourages me to slow down, and I’m trying. I want to stay physically active for as long as possible, and taking care of myself is a must. As I’ve gone through retirement, I find it’s important to keep exploring, to find new opportunities that excite me—and not to let retirement become routine.

Nicholas Clements is retired and lives just outside Washington, DC. His younger brother is HumbleDollar’s editor. Check out Nick’s earlier articles.

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