Retirement offers challenge, opportunity

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OK, I’m back. After writing a weekly column in this publication for nearly 30 years, it looks like I’m back in print following a 10-year hiatus. The old column aimed to be a personal conversation with readers on topics ranging from the newspaper’s editorial decisions to commentary on area politics and other news to personal observations of life in Wilson. This new incarnation will likely offer fewer insights on the news (because my field of contacts and my association with news and newsworthy people are far less). But The Wilson Times offered me this opportunity, and my 18-month-old retirement allows me the time to take on another task.

Retirement is something my wife and I had looked forward to for years, seeing this new transition as one that would allow us to read, travel, visit relatives and old friends, be creative and enjoy leisure to an extent that was impossible with the stress and the time demands of full-time jobs.

Our attitude about retirement is far different from the attitude of many of my age group, who are not just not looking forward to retirement but are seriously opposed to the whole idea. “I’m not going to retire,” Fred Hight told me when the topic came up in a brief roadside conversation. He left no wiggle room in that decision. Other people approaching retirement age have expressed concern about what they would do with their free time.

I’ve asked those who fear twiddling their thumbs for years on end, “Do you own a house?” They all said they did. “Then you have plenty to do,” I told them. “There’s always something that needs to be done on a house.”

Other people retire without slowing down. In fact, many actually speed up in retirement. Ken Jones, who ran the Wilson Merck plant before retiring, says he’s busier now as a volunteer in a double-handful of organizations than he was in his career. Barton College, the Wilson Chamber of Commerce, Habitat for Humanity and others have recognized Ken for his untiring work for those organizations. He shows no sign of slowing down.

Jack Saylor, who died recently at age 98, followed the same retirement plan. He stayed busy in numerous pursuits, including teaching exercise classes at the Wilson Y while in his 90s. People like these epitomize the old advice that “it’s better to wear out than to rust out.”

My wife, who joined me in retirement four months ago, and I have taken a moderate stance on the topic. We set aside an hour or so every day to read, and we try to exercise often enough to stay healthy. We pay attention to advice columns recommending various ways to remain active, socially involved and cognitively sharp. Whenever we can, we follow the advice of the late Sam Ruth, who retired to Wilson decades ago. After a meeting we both were attended years ago, he announced he was going home to take a nap. “It’s the best part of retirement,” he said.

Dreams of a healthy, happy retirement depend upon the same factor that shaped our working lives: money. Save all the money you can, and then save some more. If you want to do things in retirement, you’ll need that money. Live frugally during your working years in order to splurge in retirement. When people ask me how my retirement is going, I tell them, “We haven’t run out of money … yet.”

With luck and some good financial planning advice, our savings might last through our remaining years, but that is possible only because we drove cheap cars, never took lavish vacations, required our children to work their way through college, lived in modest homes (23 years at one humble address), and took advantage of the Wilson Daily Times’ 401(k) retirement savings plan (with a partial match by the company) during my 29 years of working there.

One reason retirement is not eagerly anticipated by many of my peers is the disappearance of defined benefit pension plans. Defined contribution plans are not as reliable as old-style pension plans, which require greater investment from employers. Few employers outside of government and unionized corporations offer defined benefit pensions today. Social Security is a sort of mandated defined benefit plan. You and your employer contribute to Social Security for as long as you work, and your and your employer’s total contributions determine what your fixed SS benefit will be.

This new gig as author of a raised-from-the-dead weekly column fits well in my retirement thinking. It gives me an opportunity to exercise my mind and stay involved, and it pays me a stipend sufficient to take my retiree wife out to dinner occasionally. It also provides a deadline, and “everyone needs a deadline,” my new boss reminded me. Yes, we do, especially those of us who spent 33 years with deadlines hanging over their heads.

Hal Tarleton was managing editor, editor and opinion editor at The Wilson Daily Times for 29 years. He then worked as the manager of Wilson offices for Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity.