Sometimes you need to adjust your plan

Roll With Retirement Punches

by Jeffrey Steele


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We're taught our retirement years will be a period of unalloyed pleasure, a placid, decades-long stretch seldom roiled by the kinds of concerns, worries, and sleepless nights we face all too often over the course of our work lives.

In truth, the retirement years can be fraught with nervousness and fear. We may see our fixed incomes eroded by inflation, our pensions eliminated by corporate bankruptcy, our nest eggs decimated by stock market downturns, and the value of our homes cut dramatically by the vagaries of the housing market.

Far from being peaches and cream, retirement can sometimes be the pits. That's the lot of those who don't plan well for retirement. But (surprise!) it can also be true for folks who planned meticulously for their Golden Years.

If it takes a bit of the survivor mentality to navigate the years up to age 65, it's equally true that that mindset can come in very handy after retirement.

Retirement Poster Children

That's why I'd like you to meet a couple who managed to roll with the punches in their early retirement years, only to come out the other side a bit bruised but otherwise unbowed. That couple is Carol and Phil White.

After finding retirement can be a tad thorny, they made the proper adjustments and came out smelling like a rose. The proof? When I caught up with Carol this week for the first time in a year, she and Phil were soaking up some sun on the beach in Kauai while visiting family in Hawaii.

As they approached the idea of retirement, the Whites felt they were well positioned to take the plunge while still in their 50s. Carol had spent her work life in the corporate world, earning a traditional pension and accumulating retirement assets in a 401k, as well as investing in a stock purchase plan. Phil, by contrast, had been an independent businessman. He owned a couple IRAs, and knew he could reap substantial income from the sale of his upscale men's clothing store.

The icing on top of this cake of retirement assets was a pair of single-family homes the Whites had purchased for the rental income they generated.

Retire like It's 1999

In 1999, at ages of 52 and 57 respectively, Carol and Phil retired. That was an era of big corporate layoffs, leading Carol to view it as a favorable time to bail after 35 good years. But if you remember your U.S. stock market history, you know it was probably not the optimal time to sail off into the sunset.

The tech wreck of year 2000 wiped out 35 to 40 percent of the Whites' retirement funds, which were heavily weighted toward tech stocks, leaving their long, long retirement in a degree of jeopardy before it had barely begun.

The years since have been a series of readjustments for Carol and Phil. And some of the moves they've made over the past decade can provide insight and inspiration to those who could face similar upheavals in their own retirement years. Let's take a look at a few of the Whites' very wise strategies.

Avoiding panic. In 2000, the Whites' financial advisor urged hanging on in the stock market, which as we know in hindsight was good advice. The stock market hit bottom in October 2002, then rebounded like a Wham-O Super Ball.

After five years, though, the stock market imploded again. "But this time, we were better positioned in less speculative investments, and had some lifestyle mutual funds," Carol recalls. "We are well positioned for the future. One thing we learned was not to be too emotional about investments."

Rediscovering the Joys of Work

Even before the 2007-08 stock market decline occurred, the Whites made a key decision that all retirees concerned about outliving their nest eggs should seriously consider.

That decision was returning to work on a part-time basis. Carol wrote a book, Live Your Road Trip Dreams, and later became a consultant to authors in trying to plug their books. Phil got a gig at a clothing store similar to the one he formerly owned, and has also worked for a retail product retrieval company.

Obtaining part-time work while still in their 60s allowed the Whites to rebuild some lost assets and generate a bit of income.

It was smarter, Carol says, "than waiting until the age of 80 and trying that then, when we wouldn't have been as able to find work."

Staying Diversified

The Whites benefited from knowing they wouldn't see their assets wiped out in a collapse of a single asset class. They had money in fixed income investments, in the stock market, and in real estate. In other words, they didn't abandon the smart diversification choices they had made prior to retirement, a move that should stand them in good stead going forward.

Staying Active

Another choice the Whites made should be good for their health, both real and fiscal, helping them avoid the medical costs down the road that often befall those who don't remain challenged. "You need that stimulation," Carol says. "What you find (in retirement) is that you like the freedom to make your own choices and set your own schedule, but you've got to do something. Do some humanitarian work; there's always something you can do, whether it's for pay or not for pay. But above all, you've got to keep physically active. If you don't have your health, you have nothing. No amount of money can fix that."

If you're nearing retirement yourself, keep the Whites' moves in mind. The Golden Years may be tarnished on occasion. But if you maintain a positive attitude and make wise financial moves, they don't have to turn into fool's gold.

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