Single, Retired, and Female

It’s been some time since I last ruminated on retirement on this blog. The official date was September 1. The last paycheck was in mid-August. And I’ve been adjusting to the new experiences and redefining old relationships but I’ve not put thoughts into words. This week, however, an unexpected opportunity prompted some self-reflection. A student I mentored through an MA in history, the one who so willingly stepped in to help with classes when my mother died, wanted answers to three questions about retirement finances. Once a blogger about family finances drawing on her personal experiences, Cat has become an accomplished commenter on personal finance writing for many outlets; she is also the mother of twins and author of two books for kids. (I am in awe of her work-life balance!) Her questions were related to the piece she’s writing on the financial issues that face single women in retirement. I spent a morning at Panera, thinking about the questions she asked and writing out some thoughts about my situation, which will no doubt be quite different from the experiences of the other single women she is interviewing. Below are the answers I supplied, sort of a “where things stand now” comment. And now, as I reread them, I see that I’ve addressed single and retired directly but female only implicitly. I’ll save more thoughts on gender and finances for another post.

#1: How did I prepare financially for retirement?

Being single and female also meant being a single mother. That meant financial planning involved college expenses for my daughter. It also meant a single paycheck paying off a mortgage. Once college was paid for, I refinanced to a 15-year-mortgage and was able to pay off that expense before retiring. These expenses, plus a late start on an academic career/tenure track position meant that my retirement account was not a healthy as one might like. And that meant delaying retirement until age 70.

At age 65 I began to think seriously about retirement. My outlet was a personal blog about the process the led from contemplating retirement to retiring. There I ruminated on what retirement signified to someone whose life and career were so intimately tied together. How to finance life without a university paycheck was always at the back of my mind and I did what academics are prone to do, researched the problem then wrote about it!   As I delved into “retirement finances” and “Social Security” I realized that I’d missed “Investing 101” in college. I was learning a new language and had to school myself in the terms used to talk about investment income. (Books for Dummies helped but not as much as a few blogs devoted to retirement finances and a book by Jane Bryant Quinn.) I am now much less intimidated by words like “annuity” and “required minimum distribution,” but learning the language hasn’t entirely negated the nagging fear that my TIAA account will expire before I do.

Summing up “how did I prepare”: Not as well as I should have – I see that now that retirement is upon me. I prepared well enough to pay the bills now, but I find that I am guilt-ridden when spending from retirement and savings accounts. When employed I thought in terms of “saving” as a complement to spending. This new reality –to spend what I’ve saved — requires a new mindset and the guilt it has induced, probably needless guilt, but guilt nonetheless, has tempered “enjoyment” of retirement, your second question.

#2 How am I enjoying retirement?

Since I am not even six months into retirement – enjoyment still involves a lot of fantasizing about what I would like to do—like that trip to Germany to trace ancestral roots.   For the moment, however, enjoyment seems to focus on tackling projects long delayed – like writing the book and redoing the guest bath.

I’ve been thinking of retirement as my extended sabbatical—time without teaching and administrative duties that I am using to finish the book project begun way too many years ago. Researching and writing that last chapter is helping me transition from “professor” to “scholar.” Or scholar “emerita” in university terms.   I am going to really enjoy retirement when I can send a manuscript to a publisher!

Replacing the turquoise fixtures in the bath – that’s been on my list of home improvements since buying the house in 1991. I am “enjoying” seeing them disappear! And stressing at how expensive home improvements can be!

Grandkids, gardening, and the prospect of reading – for pleasure! I’ve spent more time with my grandkids and hope to see them more that twice a year now that visits are not determined by university holidays and summers with no teaching obligations.

For years gardening has been my relief from academic stress and I am enjoying anticipating future gardening seasons. Am also planning to enroll in the “master gardener” class, hoping to learn to do it “right.”

When I purged my book collection in order to move my office to my house, I saved several shelves of “books I’ve been meaning to read.” I haven’t yet turned to the collection as I am up to my ears in research on the psychology of adolescence and adolescent suicide. But it beckons!

The timing of retirement with the new political culture has also led me to become much more politically engaged. Something I expect to continue – something that has taken me back to my youth in the 1960s!

Mostly I enjoy being healthy enough to be active and engaged. (And neither requires a significant expenditure from my retirement account!)

#3 What advice do I have for others?

Think of retirement as a process, not an event. And a process that needs to begin years before you retire. Financial planning is part of that process but so is emotional/psychological planning.

Find a community of like-minded retired single women—important when seeking advice about the tedious financial issues like Medicare, supplementary insurance, Social Security payments, long-term care insurance, etc., etc., etc.  Also important when needing rides to the doctor if you are not near family!

Get to retirement debt-free. Entering retirement unencumbered by debt has made a huge difference in adjusting to my new income structure.

Don’t postpone making wills, medical directives and so on, and do begin to plan for the stage of dependency that inevitably follows retirement. I’ve taken to heart the lessons learned from watching my parents avoid that planning and having to force the issue with them.

And my advice to myself: relax, the world won’t fall apart if your Christmas expenses for the grandkids are extravagant, and if the bathroom re-do is pricier than you expected. And remember that you can’t control the stock market and that your experience as a poor graduate student might be good preparation if the economy collapses!

The day after writing that last paragraph, I found this article by Jane Bryant Quinn with similar advice. From the AARP Bulletin: “Is It Time to Splurge?”

Cat recommends a look at the work of Richard Thaler, who won the Nobel prize in economics for work on irrational, but predictable financial decision-making.

3 thoughts on “Single, Retired, and Female

  1. Kathleen, You bring up a great point that I think many of us, as new retirees, grapple with. When I first retired, I constantly checked my account balances and fretted over money going out instead of a paycheck coming in. It took a while for me to relax. What I learned is because I was pinching pennies, my portfolio was continuing to grow astronomically. Some of the best advice I ever heard from an older retiree was to do what you want when you first retire because later you won’t have the energy. I don’t know if that will be true for me or not, but I do know I started spending money on various classes and even building an art studio along with a little travel (I’m not into traveling). I still keep an eye on my financials but I’m not consumed with whether or not I will have enough for the next 30 years. Today is all any of us really have…enjoy it!

    • I think you received wise advice! I am working my way toward that place, though it’s likely to take some time. Watched my parents fluctuate between extreme penny pinching and then guilt-laden splurges. They were products of the Depression and I understand the mentality. It’s not something I want to reproduce! I think the political upheaval around taxes and threatened cuts to Medicare and even to Social Security only contribute to the angst. My budget was not predicated on political fluidity — you’d think as a historian I would know better!

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