I retired three years ago this month. Frankly, it seems longer, but I'm not sure why, perhaps because the last 18 to 24 mos. have been a pretty long road for all of us.
If you've read this blog for very long, you know that I don't make every article about me or take you deep into my daily life as a retiree. (You'd be bored to tears if I did.)
However, most of what I write about is as relevant to me as many of you. So, I sometimes discuss how I'm learning and applying the things I write about in my own life and retirement and provide a general update on how things are going for my wife and me.
I don't do that to hold ourselves out as model retirees. Like most older people, my wife and I experience the same joys, setbacks, mistakes, challenges, weaknesses, failures, and struggles as others do. We're like most retirees who are figuring things out as we go as we seek to honor the Lord in how we steward the gifts he has given us (1 Peter 4:10).
I thought I'd write this article as though I'm interviewing myself. That way, I wouldn't ask myself any questions that I can't (or don't want to) answer. So, here goes:
What's your primary focus in retirement?
Staying the course
My initial focus was on finishing my first book (Reimagine Retirement: Planning and Living for the Glory of God) for LifeWay (B&H) and finding the right balance between writing on this blog and our involvement in church-related involvement and projects and also some leisure/recreation activities.
I will always be grateful and amazed that God made it possible for me to author and publish that book and enabled me to publish two more since then: The Minister's Retirement and Redeeming Retirement.
Although I'm technically "retired" (i.e., not working for a living), I'd estimate that on average, I spend at least 20 to 30 hours a week on my retirement stewardship "avocations": writing and activities related to my role as a deacon in my local church and volunteer activities in the community. My wife is also busy with some of the same types of things and those we do together.
Involvement and serving in our local church remain a high priority. We attend worship services, small groups, and bible classes. I teach a class of six and seven-year-olds in our children's ministry (and yes, it's as crazy as it sounds). My wife leads the women's ministry in our church. We both serve on the welcome team and I do some follow-up with visitors.
If the pandemic has taught us Christians anything, it should be that our life on this earth is uncertain and that loving and serving God and his people, and those he puts in our path, for as long as we can, should be the most important thing in our lives.
We also spend time with family and friends, work outside in our yard, exercise (I like to walk, and my wife goes to a functional fitness trainer), and take the occasional trip to the mountains or the ocean to hike or fish or just relax. So, I think we're in what some may call a "semi-retirement" phase of life, for lack of a better term.
We seem to be in a reasonably well-entrenched rhythm that balances these various activities. That said, we spend most of our time in various productive activities rather than leisure and recreation. Still, we intentionally make time for both—I think that's one of the secrets of a joyful and fulfilling retirement.
A new phase of life?
My wife and I turn 70 next year (and will also celebrate 50 years of marriage). If the 60s are the new 50s, then the 70s are the new 60s and may or may not be a very different phase of life.
Some retirement experts generally describe five phases of retirement: 1) Independence, 2) Interdependence, 3) Dependency, 4) Crisis management, 5) End of life (on this earth).
Having been through our 60s, I would say we are still in the "independent" stage with growing "interdependence." Whether we will move to greater dependency in our 70s remains to be seen. I suspect our 70s will be different from our 60s, though it's hard to tell how much or how dependent we will become. (We are all ultimately dependent on God for everything. I'm talking about increasing dependency on others to perform the things we would normally do for ourselves. For example, I don't go up on my roof anymore—I pay someone to do that.)
Some mental and physical decline is inevitable, and we're not as strong or as sharp as we were 10 or 15 years ago. But, by God's grace, we're not ready for the convalescent home yet either. As we enter our 70s, I think we're both wiser and more committed than ever to staying mentally and physically active and productive for as long as God allows.
How long do you plan to continue to write about "retirement stewardship"?
Continuing to blog
I have no plans for any more books, but I plan to continue writing on this blog for the foreseeable future. It provides two great rewards:
First, helping people who need unbiased, affordable (in this case, free) education, information, and guidance on planning for and living in retirement from a biblically-informed Christian perspective.
The second is that it keeps me productive learning new stuff and writing about it. In addition to this blog and my three books, I've written articles for The Gospel Coalition and other sites.
There are other rewards. I get to counsel and coach others in this and other areas of stewardship and occasionally do a class at my local church. (Earlier this year, I met virtually with over 20 individuals and couples who subscribe to my blog.) And, as I mentioned above, I try to apply the things I research and write about to my own life in retirement.
While I find the subject interesting and enjoy helping others, a big reason I continue to do this is that it's a calling. It's something that God has called and gifted me to do despite my lack of professional experience or formal training in personal and retirement financial planning.
Even my wife is more interested in my "hobby" than she used to be (partly because we are now retired, I guess). I love explaining things to her, but she's always honest when she says, "Okay, honey, that's enough–TMI."
Not many out there
When I started this blog in 2015, I was surprised to find very few people writing specifically about retirement from a Christian perspective.
That hasn't changed much. There are several outstanding Christian stewardship and personal finance authors and bloggers, like Amy over at The Pastor's Wallet (who I recently introduced you to), Matt at Matt About Money, and Bob at SeedTime. Most have a large following. They write about retirement from time to time, but it's not their primary focus. I view my "mission" (or one of them) as helping to fill that gap.
What concerns you most about retirement stewardship in general?
The general lack of it
A recent study of 1,000 part-time and full-time employees age 40 to 73 by the Insured Retirement Institute (IRI) found that half had less than $50,000 saved for retirement, and a little more than half said they do not believe they will be financially prepared for retirement. Yet, a third want to retire before 65.
That study is another in a long line of them that shines a light on the challenging situation that many will find themselves in when they reach retirement age. Many want to retire in their mid-60s but will be financially unprepared to.
I've recently focused on trying to help and encourage people who may have fallen behind in planning for retirement. (In fact, that's one of the reasons I started blogging about the subject back in 2015.) I've written a little more about it on this blog, and I self-published a book titled Redeeming Retirement: A Practical Guide to Catch Up for that specific purpose.
While researching the book, I learned that there is a lot of good information and strategies out there, but some of it is confusing and downright bad. It takes time and effort to separate the wheat from the chaff, which I tried to do in the book and plan to continue on this blog.
Misleading (and sometimes untrue) information
I've also become increasingly concerned about and therefore started focusing more on helping people not to be taken advantage of by misleading (and sometimes untrue) claims made by financial and insurance ads and salespeople.
I am generally a positive, optimistic person. But I tend to be less so about human nature (which I understand biblically). That's why I've published several articles about being wise when working with financial/insurance (including Medicare) salespeople.
I want to reiterate what I stated multiple times in previous articles: I don't do this because I think they are all out to "get you." Most are professional, sincere, competent, and trustworthy. Still, there are always bad apples, so it pays to be a wise consumer of any product or service, and financial and insurance products and services are no exception.
Fear-based sales tactics
Some stockbrokers, gold and silver salespeople, and insurance reps sell investments and products by playing to our fears (stock market crashes, taxes, inflation, fed money printing, etc.).
While these things can be legitimate concerns and risks you need to mitigate, aggressive salespeople often exaggerate them. By better understanding them and implementing effective mitigation strategies, you can avoid making a wrong decision motivated by fear and instead be rational and wise in your investing decisions.
Conflicts of interest
Some salespeople prioritize recommending products and services that will yield them a good commission. But what's good for them may not be best for you.
Fee-based advisors who charge based on assets-under-management (AUM) may be reluctant (and unqualified) to recommend an immediate income annuity as it reduces your AUM and, therefore, their fee income.
I tend to steer people away from complex and insurance products, although they may be appropriate in some situations. I like term insurance and immediate income annuities more than permanent life policies and variable and indexed annuities (which is not to say that there are no good ones in the marketplace if that's what you need). You can often buy term life or an income annuity directly online without working with a salesperson, though you may want to.
I also lean toward fee-for-service financial planning and advising services, just like you would get looking for legal advice. Fees based on AUM may be okay as long as the advisor adheres to the fiduciary standard.
The best way to guard against being misled by an over-eager salesperson is to acquire some basic knowledge to ask good questions and know when to walk away if you don't have good answers.
What are the most important things you have learned about retirement stewardship since retiring?
An easy transition
I liked my job but found the transition into retirement fairly easy. I think that was because I was focused on completing my first book and getting more involved in church-related activities. I didn't "retire into nothing." If I had, I think I'd have been miserable.
Setting up our finances to ensure a monthly retirement "paycheck" was not very difficult when I retired. However, it was mentally and emotionally challenging to transition from the accumulation phase to the distribution phase.
Changing rules and risks
As I planned my retirement, I've discovered that many financial principles and practices that were considered sacrosanct for decades (like the 4% "safe withdrawal rule") are now being questioned.
I've also come to realize that things like sequence of returns risk and inflation are more dangerous to a successful retirement than many people think, even if they're outside the "red zone" (the five years immediately before and after retirement).
Another thing I learned is that amidst all the financial complexity are relatively simple solutions to the planning for retirement problem—and by simple, I mean easy to understand, not necessarily easy to implement.
Yet, many people assume that the more sophisticated something is, such as stock picking and stock and options trading, the greater the likelihood of success. Such strategies often lead to disappointing results.
I've also discovered that a growing number of retirement planning professionals have embraced a "safe income floor" based strategy as the best one for middle-income retirees who have saved between $100,000 and $1 million.
Retired actuary and author Steve Vernon has become well-known for his "Spend Safely in Retirement Strategy." I like this strategy for those with fewer savings who are put off by the idea of buying an immediate income annuity. It's not the best for everyone, but it's better than most.
It involves optimizing Social Security benefits through a purposeful delay strategy, preferably until age 70 for the primary wage earner. Then generating income using retirement savings invested in a suitable, low-cost target date, balanced, or stock index fund and the IRS-required minimum distribution (RMD) rules to determine the amount of annual withdrawals.
More than money
I'm more convinced than ever that the key to a fulfilling retirement is not in just having enough money to pay your bills for as long as you long, important as that is. It's equally if not more important to find a God-glorifying purpose in retirement that you can devote yourself to for as long as you're able. As I wrote in the last chapter of Redeeming Retirement:
One of the main ways to do that is to live a life of kindness and generosity with our time, talents, and treasure focused on others. . . In contrast to the self-centered life, a life of love is a meaningful and purposeful life that pursues self-giving. It's a life marked by the generous giving of ourselves for the good of others. Using your gifts, talents, and skills in service to others, especially in your family, local church, and the wider community, isn't only personally fulfilling and gratifying but also loving toward others.Redeeming Retirement, pp. 202-203
What changes have you made in your housing, investments, and other financial areas?
Not downsizing or "dream-sizing" for now
Our house isn't huge, but it's large enough (and old enough) to require a fair amount of time and money to maintain. For that reason, we've considered "dream-sizing" to a newer, smaller place.
But, amid the current "real estate craze," we decided not to and instead have been making some repairs and minor upgrades to our current residence. We've focused on making our property more enjoyable and maintainable, which may also help with resale one day.
The next step is to start "thinning out" some of our stuff for an eventual move whenever that time may come.
More conservative investments
As I've written before, all of our retirement savings are in a traditional (i.e., taxable upon distribution) IRA and a smaller Roth account (which is not taxable). I have become more conservative over the last few years with my investments.
Timing matters when you retire. For the ten years beginning in 2008 (after the crash) to when I retired in 2018, the stock market as measured by the S&P 500 was up over 270%, or about 14% per year! Despite the pandemic crash last year, it's gone up almost another 23% per year since then.
Because the five years just before and after retirement are so critical (in terms of sequence of returns risk), retiring during the late stages of a bull market that could end with a significant correction or even a crash at any time is a little risky. Yet, despite everything going on in the world, the markets continue to set new highs.
In response to a strong stock market, I have done the counterintuitive but what I think is best at this point in retirement.
I certainly have no idea what the stock market will do, but I think it's unlikely to go up forever. Therefore, I'm as risk-averse as ever with my core holdings (mainly stock dividend and bond index funds), and I've been slowly adjusting my stocks versus bond allocation from 60/40 to 35/75 over the last few years. I have, however, amped up my risk in the fixed-income space a bit by investing in some higher-yielding fixed-income funds.
In addition to reducing my stock allocation, I've implemented my version of the "bucket strategy," which I call the Wise Retirement Stewardship Strategy (WRSS). I keep 1 to 2 years of living expenses (net of my Social Security income) in a cash account that I can draw from without selling depreciated assets in a down market.
I know that I've missed out on some stock market gains by doing so, but I also know that I've reduced the risk that sequence risk will hit us too hard should the stock markets go south.
Generating retirement income
Even though I've come up with an income strategy that seems to work for us for now (the "WRSS"), I may need to make adjustments in the future. I don't think there's a single "set it and forget it" solution for regular retirement income withdrawals that won't eventually break down under certain economic or personal conditions.
For me, the key is generating as much income as possible with some growth while not taking undue amounts of risk. That has proven to be very challenging in today's low-interest-rate world. I continue to take a look at immediate income annuities each year, but payouts for a couple our age are still very low (in the 4 to 5 percent range), so I remain hesitant to purchase one until rates are higher. If I do, I'll use them to replace a portion of that fixed-income part of my portfolio (i.e., part of the 65 percent).
But if we keep our spending within historical boundaries, we should be okay. Because of a strong market over these last three years, our savings balance is higher than when we retired three years ago despite a relatively low stock allocation. Still, as we all know, there is no guarantee that it will continue (in fact, it's highly unlikely to).
I may, at some point, have to sell some assets to help fund our living expenses. I will keep an eye on price-to-earnings (PE) ratios and tend to sell stock funds rather than bonds when P-to-E is high. I also want to keep an eye on our taxable income to keep our taxes in the lower taxable income range of the 22 percent marginal bracket and our effective tax rate in the low-to-mid-teens, after deductions.
Should congress make dramatic changes to the tax brackets for middle-income families, I would have to take a hard look at our spending and the income required to support it.
What are your thoughts about the pandemic and the economy in the future?
God is sovereign
I can't predict the future, but I know that everything is under God's sovereign control. So, I don't spend much time wondering about things like "why does God allow this or that?" or "why doesn't God do this or that?". I think it's better to discern what God wants ME/US to do in light of what he is doing (1 Chron. 12:32).
Just when we thought it was safe
Things were looking better in late spring and early summer. The term "herd immunity" was being used quite a bit. But now it's clear Covid will be with us for a while, perhaps years (in some form or another).
The Delta Variant is burning through segments of the population and again disrupting home, school, and work-life and putting enormous strains on the medical community.
On the other hand, there are signs of a degree of normalcy out there. People are vacationing and socializing, attending large events, and in some cases, going back to the office. That's encouraging.
Only time will tell how quickly we get the virus under control, and by that, I don't mean no cases; I mean far fewer hospitalizations, ICU stays, and deaths.
Remote work seems here to stay
It sure looks like working remotely, at least part-time, is here to stay. That may be good for work/life balance, but not so much for commercial real estate as there will be fewer office buildings and few workers in them.
Most companies will need to offer hybrid work models, or they won't attract and retain the best talent.
We've seen significant inflation in the real estate market and many commodities, and now it shows up in consumer goods and services. The pandemic suppressed the economy, but we are starting to spend again due to record government stimulus and improving employment numbers.
I think inflation is a legitimate concern, but it's also possible that much higher-than-average inflation will be a temporary phenomenon. The Fed has indicated a willingness to tolerate it for a while, but not indefinitely, and will adjust monetary policy to combat it if needed.
Aging bull market
I continue to keep a fair amount in my IRA cash "bucket" to withdraw for expenses, and it'll provide a cushion when the market corrects, which it surely will; I can't say when.
The older I get, the more concerned I am about stock market volatility, so an immediate or charitable annuity may be helpful to reduce longevity risk and simplify our finances, especially if my wife is on her own. But as I already noted, annuity payouts are still rock bottom, and I think we can do better with our savings using a moderately conservative growth and income investment strategy, at least for now.
Health care concerns
I mentioned earlier that my wife and I would turn 70 next year. As we get older, healthcare takes on increasing importance. That's one of the reasons having the Medicare plan that is right for us is so important.
We like our doctors and want the ability to use any doctor we want, so we're sticking with a Medigap plan for now. Yet, interestingly, our Medigap costs have increased about 30 percent over the last three years due to inflation and age, so I may take a look at other plans in the Medigap family.
During the early months of the pandemic when everything was shut down, I was very grateful that our church started live-streaming Sunday services. We had never done it before and it wasn't without some start-up challenges, but overall went very well.
But it wasn't long before I longed to be back in church in person. When we finally opened, I was elated to return to in-person gatherings, masks and all. All of this reminded me that God's church is mainly what one author calls "analog church":
And in the digital age, one of the most upside down things the church can offer is the invitation to be analog, to come out from hiding behind our digital walls, to bridge our technological divides, and to be human with one another in the truest sense—gathering together to be changed and transformed in real time, in real space, and in real ways.Analog Church by J.Y. Kim (Introduction)
Despite all of life's uncertainties, here's what I know: God is faithful!
God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord (1 Cor. 1:9)
Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful (Heb. 10:23).
Your love, LORD, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies (Psalm 36:5).