Retire, Unretire or Keep Working

Jane Bryant Quinn is a well known financial journalist who writes about personal finance. Her books and columns are about investor protection, health insurance, Social Security, and the sufficiency of retirement plan. Now 80, she is retiring.

I read a farewell article by her in the AARP magazine (Yes, I do read my AARP magazine) and I thought it would be interesting to see how someone who has been advising others about retirement would handle her own retirement. Obviously, she didn’t stop working at 67, but her phase one plan surprised me.

“After all these years of reporting and writing about how to prepare for retirement, I’m trying it myself…My husband retired last year and, just as I’ve advised in my columns, we’ve had many, many conversations about what to do with our time. To start, we’re going to follow a dream and live in Rome for a year. Art. Music. Gelato!”

I believe I am in unretirement (not a term I coined). That is when you have ended your full-time career but continue to work: a) when you want to work b) only at things you enjoy doing  c) either paid or unpaid.

For me, the key phrase in her article is “After Rome, my calendar is blank.” That’s a brave thing to say about retirement – especially for someone who has spent a good part of her life advising people about how to plan their future.

My friend Pat decided after retirement to sell her house and car and move to Florence for a year. I’ll confess that I was far more apprehensive/frightened about her going to Italy to live than she was about this adventure. I know that it’s not something I can do – both because of circumstances and because it scares me too much.

What will Pat do when she comes back to the U.S.? (I’m assuming she will come back.) That’s not determined.  Maybe she should go to Rome and visit Jane. It’s not that Quinn doesn’t have any plans:  “I’ll have to invent a life for myself. It’s challenging and not a little unnerving. I’ll spend more time with family and friends, do more reading and more jigsaw puzzles. Then I’ll see what comes my way.”

Quinn made a lot of money telling us how to manage our money in bestsellers like Making the Most of Your Money, Everyone’s Money Book and How to Make Your Money Last.  Notice a theme there? Money, money, money.

I know that having money in retirement is a major concern for people, but I don’t think it should be the number one concern.

I know people who have retired, have adequate money and are unhappy. Why? The most common reason seems to be because “I don’t know what to do with myself.”

Looking at retire in Merriam-Webster online I found lots of definitions. Most of them bring no joy. The etymology goes back to Middle French retirer, from re- + tirer meaning “to draw.” (My French-speaking wife tells me that nowadays the word used is retraiter, meaning both to retire as from a job or as in an army retreating.)

From the mid-1500s the meaning had nothing to do with retirement as we think of it today because no one got to retire from their work. You worked until you either couldn’t work anymore or until you died.

The word doesn’t have very positive connotations: reserved, shy, secluded (as in a retired village), to withdraw, to retreat (from action or danger, or for privacy or to sleep, as in she retired to her bedroom), to move back, to recede, to withdraw from circulation or from the market (as with a product).

That latter meaning is the one that bothers me.  The idea of retiring a product or a service from use because it is no longer relevant or saleable is one thing, but to retire a person from use depresses me.

Perhaps, my transitional meaning comes from baseball. You can retire a batter (3 strikes) or even retire the side (3 outs).  In those cases, the batter or team is done – but it’s not permanent. You’ll get up to bat again – perhaps in just a few minutes; perhaps tomorrow.

Leaving one’s job or ceasing to work after reaching a certain age – retirement –  has been around since around the 18th century, though it was something only the upper classes with some wealth could consider. (Prior to the 18th century, humans had an average life expectancy between 26 and 40 years, so only a small percentage of the population reached an age where physical impairments would force them to stop working.)

Countries began to adopt government policies on retirement (beginning in Germany) during the late 19th century and the 20th century. The kind of retirement that Americans think of today didn’t come into usage here until around the 1920s.

Currently in the United States, early retirement is considered age 62 and the normal retirement age is 67. That’s up from the earlier standard of 65 and it has a lot to do with when you collect your full Social Security benefits. Of the 55-59 age group,  66% are still working. That drops to 43% for the 60-64 group. The big drop is for 65-69 who have only 20% still working. At 70+ you only have 5% still working.

I still hear people say that they’ll keep working until they die – either because they believe (sadly, perhaps mistakenly) that they’ll need the income, or because (happily) they love what they do.

I talked with a friend about this post when I started writing it and he reminded me that none of this may be relevant to most people. He said that the situation I’m in and Pat and Jane are in is not the norm for a lot of Americans. We have pensions, Social Security, some investments, a home and enough that if we’re not overly extravagant we should be okay financially in retirement. That’s not true for lots of people.

Of course, none of us can predict the future whether it be about the economy or our own health and circumstances. But you do need to plan ahead. At least, that’s my approach and it’s a cautious one I have taken my entire life. I bet I missed out on some adventures and fun along the way. Is retirement my second chance?



Dollar Bills and Conspiracies


I was an English major in college, so I was  trained in symbology. We never studied the symbology of money, but others have and it can teach you about its past and supposed links to occult groups.

You may have read some fiction that connects secret occult societies, such as the freemasons, with the United States government, and that occult symbols found their way into use on our money.

The Great Seal, featured on the dollar bill, was approved by Congress on 20 June 1782. It appeared on the dollar bill in 1935. The shining eye in the triangle is a common Masonic symbol.

I visited the The George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia, and they guide showed us Freemason President George Washington wearing his Masonic apron with the All Seeing Eye on it.

That eye is an old symbol that can be traced back all the way back to Egyptian mythology and the Eye of Horus. It also appears in Buddhism, where Buddha is also referred to as the “Eye of the World.”

In modern free masonry,  this symbol represents the all-seeing eye of God and is a reminder that a Mason’s thoughts and deeds are always observed by God.

The phrase “Annuit Coeptis” (above the pyramid) means “He [God] has favored our undertaking.” At the base of the pyramid are the Roman numerals (MDCCLXXVI) which gives us the number 1776, the year of American independence. The phrase “Novus Ordo Seclorum” means “New Order of the Ages.” On the pyramid are 13 steps which most likely represents the United States original 13 states.

I am not a student of free masonry. I’m also not a believer in conspiracies in general. But many people are and in our time people have discovered that folding a U.S. $20 bill a couple of different ways produces images that combined with a belief in conspiracies all fit together. Those bill foldings seem to produce a burning World Trade Center and Pentagon buildings after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

So, did the Founding Fathers know about what would happen in 2001? Actually, the current U.S. $20 bill was redesigned in September 1998. Does it show, with a ew folds, a burning Pentagon on one side and the World Trade Center, surrounded by smoke, on the other side?

You can find many conspiracies and refutations of the $20 bill conspiracies. (See and and there are similar ones for the 5-dollar bill (Pentagon before the attacks) and 10-dollar bill (folded it shows the Twin Towers on fire).

Can you really see on the 50-dollar bill the WTC tower collapsing?

And what about additional folding that produces the name Osama?


Simple Finance

We like things to be simple. How to Live to Be 100. Four Ways to Improve Your Sex Life. No one clicks on links to “150 Things You Need To Do To Feel Better.”

When Professor Harold Pollack was doing an online video chat with a personal finance writer about how people often get steered into bad investments by financial advisers, he said (probably without giving it great forethought) that the best personal finance advice “can fit on a 3-by-5 index card.”

He went on to say that paying someone for advice means that “almost by definition, you’re probably getting the wrong advice, because the correct advice is so straightforward.”

I heard him interviewed and he said that after that video went online he got lots of  emails wanting that index card. His comment put him in a metaphoric corner. But he responded by writing the principles he believed in on a card, took a photo with his phone and  posted it online.

It went viral, got big press, got tweeted by regular folks and economists, and became a simple self-help meme.

People realized the advice wasn’t new or earth-shaking. Sort of like following that Blue Zone lifestyle to live longer: not complicated, but not easy to do.

I heard Pollack and Helaine Olen (that original interviewer) recently talking on NPR because – ironically – they have turned the card into a book: The Index Card: Why Personal Finance Doesn’t Have to Be Complicated

Why do we need a book if it all fits on a card? Well, both of making a living is part of it. Publishers seeing a market is part of it. But in a less cynical response, simple is a start but you need details.

Pollack said (without putting his book on the same shelf) “…why do we need an entire Bible really? We have the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount.”

Simplicity can be satisfying, to a certain degree, and also frustrating. “See the ball. Hit the ball,” was something a baseball coach once told me. Good advice, and useless advice, all at once.

How would you interpret his advice to “make financial adviser commit to a fiduciary standard?” Do you know what a fiduciary standard is?  Do you even have a financial adviser? Didn’t he say you really didn’t need one?

I like simplicity. I strive to make my life simpler, cleaner, less cluttered. That can be a complicated thing to do.

Rest From Work

Noon: Rest from Work (after Millet) - Vincent Van Gogh
                     Noon: Rest from Work (after Millet) – Vincent Van Gogh

It has been a strange week. One topic that came up a lot in my life this week was retirement.

I might be retired now, though I don’t think I’ll be able to say that for sure until next year, because I seem to be transitioning more than actually being retired.

I notice articles about retirement more now. Sadly, many of them are about money.  That seems to be the biggest fear most of us have about retiring. I fall into that group, but I don’t want that to be my biggest concern about the upcoming years.

Most of those articles are about investments, savings, housing expenses, downsizing, relocating, healthcare, long-term care, retirement income and Social Security benefits. There are many books and websites about preparing to retire and almost all of them focus on money.

I would prefer to be thinking about travel, being with family more, writing, reading and still finding work and play that I want to do and find satisfying.

I realize that having enough money to do those things is a necessary part of planning, but that can’t be the thing that concerns me now and continues to worry me for the rest of my life. What kind of retirement would that be?  And I’m not suddenly going to hit the lottery so that money is no longer a concern. My wife and I did the things with our money for the past 40 years that we were “supposed” to do, so I need to get beyond that aspect and, if anything, plan a lifestyle that fits the money rather than try to get more money to build a lifestyle.

More to come…