Why COVID-19 may be the best thing to ever happen to your retirement

Why COVID-19 may be the best thing to ever happen to your retirement

“It’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow some good.” – Pa Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie

COVID-19 has been a tragedy.  There’s no disputing that.  Thousands dead.  Millions sick.  Millions more jobless.  It’s hard to overstate the negative impacts of the pandemic.  And yet, to paraphrase Pa Ingalls, even terrible situations can produce some good.  As difficult as this time has been, I can’t help but think that many of us will look back on it as one of the best things to happen to us.  Not in a “I just won the lottery!” sort of way, but in a “Painful, but positive” sort of way.  Keep reading to see what I mean and to see how you can make sure that this “ill wind” blows some good for your retirement.

It forces us out of routine.  It’s easy to get in a rut.  Easy to put life on autopilot and live the same day over and over.  Even if we don’t like the rut we’re in, we’ll often stay there because it feels safe.  Human nature is such that we will often choose being unhappy over being uncertain.  One thing this virus has done in spades is forced us all to live life in a different way.  It grabbed the steering wheel and yanked us out of the rut.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, it’s almost certainly a good thing.  It gives us a fresh perspective.  It helps time pass more slowly (because routine is the enemy of time).  It opens us up to new experiences and new ways of thinking about things.  It presents new opportunities.  Yes, it brings uncertainty, but hiding in all that uncertainty is opportunity.  Look for it.

It forces us to reexamine our priorities.  Priorities are the things in life that are most important to us.  They are the people, activities or things that we really care about and that bring us meaning.  When life is going along swimmingly and we’re healthy and have plenty of time and money, we tend to get lazy.  We allow things in that clutter or confuse our priorities.  When life gets hard, however, and one or more of our priorities are threatened, it refocuses our mind on what’s important.  Hard times force us to cut and say “no.”  They force us to get back to the basics.  That means a life less cluttered with filler and more focused on the things that bring you joy and meaning.  That’s a good thing.

It forces us to think differently about debt.  When the economy is strong and interest rates are low, it’s tempting to add debt.  You almost feel foolish if you don’t.  “One percent interest?  Why wouldn’t I buy a $60,000 car?”  But when hard times hit, servicing that debt becomes difficult if not impossible.  Debt increases risk and reduces cash flow.  It adds stress.  It can derail your plans and dreams.  It weakens your financial “immune system.”  The pandemic is a good reminder to use debt sparingly.  

It shows the fallacy of “appearances.”  On a sunny day, a house built on the sand doesn’t look any different than a house built on rock.  But when the storms come, the difference is pretty clear.  It’s easy to get caught up in appearances.  It’s tempting to keep up with the Jones’s.  But even in the best of times, that strategy can be stressful and unfulfilling.  In bad times it can be catastrophic.  Machiavelli once wrote “The great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities.”  Don’t be one of those people.  Build a life that is happy, secure and fulfilling, not one that only looks good on Instagram.

It exposes our weaknesses.  Warren Buffett once said “It’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who has been swimming naked.”  There’s nothing like a combination global pandemic + financial crisis to help expose your weaknesses.  Too much risk in your investments?  Too much debt?  No rainy day fund?  Strained relationship with your spouse?  Underlying health issues you’ve been ignoring?  Settling for a life that isn’t what you want?  If the tide went out and you find yourself a bit overexposed, maybe it’s time to go shopping for a swimsuit.

One of the most important ingredients to a successful retirement is to decide what you really want out of life and to start taking those things very seriously.  COVID-19, while terrible, has likely helped you in that regard by forcing you to reexamine your habits, routines, priorities, purpose, relationships, finances, lifestyle and any number of other things.  Embrace that process and you’ll likely come out the other side a stronger, more resilient, more self-aware person.  

What are some practical ways to apply all this?  I’ll put a few ideas below along with links to articles and resources at Intentional Retirement.

Be Intentional,

Joe

A quick summary of the COVID-19 legislation that affects retirees

A quick summary of the COVID-19 legislation that affects retirees

Hi everyone.  Below is a quick summary of the COVID-19 legislation that affects retirees.  Before jumping into that, a quick apology.  Sorry I haven’t written much lately.  January and February are normally very busy months for me as I meet with clients for annual reviews.  Just as that was wrapping up, the world (and markets) went haywire with the pandemic and I’m just now coming up for air.  

New Rules That Affect Retirees

The coronavirus stimulus packages contain something for (almost) everyone: businesses, individuals, students and yes, retirees.  I won’t bore you with a comprehensive list, but I’ll give you a quick overview of the elements that impact retirees.

Changes to Required Minimum Distribution (RMD) rules: The CARES Act allows you to suspend RMDs for 2020 from 401(k)s, 403(b)s and IRAs.  If your IRA took a hit and you don’t need the money, it’s probably a good idea to skip your 2020 RMD.  That will hopefully give your account time to recover from the recent downturn.  If you have your RMD set to happen automatically each year, you’ll want to call your adviser or IRA custodian to stop it.  If you’ve already taken it for the year, there is a provision that allows you to put it back.  Certain restrictions apply, so check with your IRA custodian for details.  Also keep in mind that Congress made another change to RMDs at the beginning of the year that pushed the required age from 70 ½ to 72.  

Penalty waived for early retirement withdrawals: Normally, you have to pay a 10% penalty if you take a distribution from your IRA prior to age 59 ½.  That penalty is waived for 2020 on amounts up to $100,000 for anyone affected by COVID-19 (e.g. sickness, job loss, reduced hours, etc.).  You’ll still owe taxes on the distribution, but you can spread the taxes out over three years.  And if you end up not needing some or all of the money, you can put it back into your IRA within three years and that contribution won’t count toward your annual contribution limit.

Stimulus checks: Even if you’re retired and not working, you may still be eligible for a stimulus check.  The CARES act provides one-time payments of $1,200 for individuals and $2,400 for couples.  The benefit begins to phase out at adjusted gross income of $75,000 for single filers and $150,000 for those married filing jointly.  They phase out completely at $99,000 for singles and $198,000 for married filing jointly.  Initially, people were required to file a 2018 or 2019 tax return in order to receive the benefit, but many retirees are not required to file a tax return, so the government now says it will look at SSA-1099 benefit statements.  If you are receiving Social Security and are eligible for the benefit, the government will send out your stimulus check automatically in the same manner that you receive your regular benefits (likely via direct deposit).  

Expanded loans from qualified plans: If you have a 401(k) or other qualified plan, you can now borrow 100% of your vested account balance, up to a maximum of $100,000.  The deadline to initiate the loan is September 23, 2020.  If you already have a loan outstanding, you can delay repayments for up to one year.

Delayed tax filing deadline: The due date for filing federal income tax returns (and paying any balance due) has been moved from April 15, 2020 to July 15, 2020.  This extension applies automatically to all taxpayers and you don’t need to file any additional forms to qualify.  The delay applies to 2019 returns as well as estimated tax payments for Q1 of 2020 that would otherwise have been due on April 15.  If you’re still unable to file by July 15, you can file for a normal extension using Form 4868.  Keep in mind that the regular rules still apply to that second extension (i.e. it extends the due date of your filing, but not the due date of any taxes due).  Not all states extended their filing deadline, so be sure to check your state’s deadline to make sure you file on time.

Delayed mortgage payments: The CARES Act allows certain borrowers to delay their mortgage payments for up to a year.  Be careful with this provision, however, because depending on who owns your mortgage (your bank or another servicer), you may be allowed to tack the payments onto the end of the loan or you may be required to pay all of your back payments in a lump sum at the end of the forbearance period.  Check with your mortgage provider for details.

Medicare and COVID-19: Under earlier legislation (the Families First Coronavirus Response Act), health plans are required to cover COVID-19 testing at no cost to the patient.  If you’re already on Medicare, it provides coverage as well.  Medicare will cover COVID-19 testing and also covers hospitalization and treatment.  In addition to these benefits, Medicare has expanded its coverage of telehealth benefits.  For more information on all these things, visit https://www.medicare.gov/medicare-coronavirus.  

These are definitely unprecedented times.  Stay safe and touch base if you have any questions or if there’s anything I can do to help you.

Be Intentional,

Joe

An intentional life should focus primarily on the present

An intentional life should focus primarily on the present

Quick thought for today.  If you want to live an intentional life, you should focus primarily on the present.  Let me explain.  We all spend part of our days—either mentally or physically—in the past, present or future.  You’re sitting there right now in the present, but maybe you’re thinking about something you did this past weekend or dreaming about something you hope to be doing 5 years from now.  Past, present and future.  We all spend our time inhabiting each of those spaces. 

Unfortunately, most of us mess up the proportions. We spend too much time and energy on the past and the future and not enough on the present.  We look back and worry about the things we did or didn’t do.  We look forward and dream about the things we hope to eventually do.  That only leaves a small amount of our time where we’re honest to goodness living in and making the most out of the present.

I’m not saying that you should ignore the past and the future, but the present should be your priority.  Anything else means you’re focusing on things you can’t change (the past) or things that might not happen (the future).  Here are a few suggestions on how to get the balance right.

How to use your past:  Don’t obsess over it.  Don’t waste your time thinking about regrets or wishing you had done or said things differently.  Don’t cling to bitterness.  Don’t hold grudges. Instead, think fondly of the good times and be grateful for the wisdom earned and lessons learned from the challenging times.  Use it as a foundation to build on.  Remember the people, places and things that made you who you are. 

How to prepare for your future:  Don’t push everything to the future.  Don’t treat it as some magical time where you’ll finally start living.  Delayed gratification is great if it’s allowing you to work toward something, but it becomes a problem if it becomes an excuse for life avoidance.  Use the runway between the present and the future for planning and preparation.  Use it to set the proper direction for your life and to get any necessary prerequisites out of the way.  Use it to set goals, dream, plan, save and even to experiment.  All of those things will help you hit the ground running and make the most out of your future years. 

How to live in the present:  Don’t get bogged down in the routine of life.  Don’t focus all your time on the maintenance of living.  Don’t live a life that is frantic and unintentional.  Be present in your days, with your friends and during experiences like vacations rather than worrying about how to make it look a certain way on social media.  Decide what you really want out of life and start doing that.  Today.  Even if you have to start small, start.  Have intentional action in your relationships, activities, health, hobbies, pursuits and every other area of your life.  Be proactive.  Learn.  Do.  Go.  Experiment.  Take risks.  In other words, live.   

A good balance of past/present/future is something like 10/60/30.  If yours looks more like 30/20/50, you’re not really living life.  You’re worrying about the life you’ve already lived and dreaming about a life you hope to someday live. 

At Intentional Retirement, we believe that retirement is an intentional way of living that prioritizes freedom, fulfillment, purpose and relationships.  It starts today and is an incremental process of aligning your lifestyle and actions with your highest priorities.  To do that, you need to focus on the present.  Stop fretting over what is past or dreaming about what is to come.  Today is a new day.  Start doing.

Be Intentional,

Joe

The importance of more at bats

The importance of more at bats

Happy New Year!  Just a quick thought today on doing (i.e. taking more at bats).  One of the biggest retirement mistakes I see people make has nothing to do with money.  It’s that they constantly defer their dreams.  They just don’t do stuff.  Everything is “someday” this and “someday” that.  And I totally get it.  It’s hard to decide what you really want out of life.  It feels risky to put yourself out there to try stuff.  But you absolutely have to do it.

The best advice I can give you for 2020 and beyond is to start taking some at bats.  Right now.  Even if you’re not retired.  Especially if you’re not retired.  The worst that can happen is that things don’t work out, you get rolled a little bit, so you dust yourself off and try something different.  Ironically, that’s also one of the best things that can happen.  Because that failure is feedback.  It turns out we’re pretty terrible at knowing what’s going to make us happy.  The more stuff you try, even if you don’t end up liking it, the better idea you’ll have of what’s important to you, who’s important to you, what you like, what you dislike, what makes you happy and what you’re passionate about. 

All of those things help you understand yourself and they make you more self-aware so you can design a life that takes you where you want to go.  Finding out that you actually hate to travel or you stink at gardening or golf is awesome.  That means you won’t waste any time or money on those things during the prime of your retirement.  Instead you can triple down on the things that you do care about. 

So start taking some at bats today.  Get out there and try stuff.  Take a trip.  Pick up a new hobby.  Learn something new.  Meet new people.  Challenge yourself.  Get outside your comfort zone.  Sure, you might strike out a few times.  But you’ll get better.  You’ll figure out what you really want out of life and you’ll be doing something about it.  And that’s what living an intentional retirement and an intentional life is all about. 

Be Intentional,

Joe

The importance of friends to a healthy, happy retirement

The importance of friends to a healthy, happy retirement

How healthy are your friendships?  The answer will have a huge impact on your retirement.  Research shows that friends (or lack thereof) can affect your health, happiness and even your habits.  Let’s look at the findings, examine some of the challenges your friendships will face as you age and discuss a few ways to make and maintain friendships during retirement.

How Friends Affect Us

According to the Mayo Clinic, friendships can affect your health and happiness in a number of important ways:

  • They provide support in tough times.
  • They help you find belonging and purpose
  • They reduce your stress and increase happiness
  • They give self-confidence and self-worth
  • They can help you through difficult times like death, divorce, illness or job loss
  • They provide accountability and positive peer pressure
  • They help reduce the risk of things like depression, high blood pressure and unhealthy BMI.

In addition to the benefits above, friendships can help keep your mind sharp.  Several studies have found that there is a strong connection between loneliness and cognitive decline.  For example, a 2018 study in the Journals of Gerontology found that loneliness was associated with a 40% increase in dementia among study participants.  In another study, researchers in the Netherlands found that people who feel lonely are about 1.6 times more likely to get dementia.

There’s also evidence that the importance of friendships increases as we age.  Dr. William Chopik at Michigan State University conducted a study on how our relationships affect our health and happiness as we age.  The results showed that the benefits we get from healthy family relationships stays level throughout life, but the value of good friendships has a greater impact on our health and happiness as we age.  According to Dr. Chopik:

“Friendship quality often predicts health more so than the quality of other relationships.”

The Problem + The Solution

So the benefits of friends are huge, but there’s a problem.  Making and maintaining quality friendships gets harder as you age.  In mid-life you have competing priorities like kids and work.  As you age, caring for your parents often gets added to the list.  And life isn’t static.  Circumstances change and friendships ebb and flow.  Major life events—death, divorce, job loss, moving and retirement—can derail even the best of friendships.  So if you want to enter retirement with good friends that have a positive impact on your health, happiness and cognitive function, you need to be intentional.

That means investing time, effort and often money into your friendships.  It means being kind, likeable and trustworthy.  It means listening and being transparent.  It means being reliable and available.  It means celebrating victories and being there when life is challenging.  It means being loyal and avoiding drama.  It means being proactive about spending time together.  All those things have a compounding effect over time.  They deepen friendships and give them a solid foundation.  And as we saw earlier, those deep friendships take on added meaning as you age. 

A Few Practical Applications

The primary takeaway is this: Don’t underestimate the power of friends.  They can make or break your retirement.  Start working on them now.  If you’re looking for a good place to begin, forward this article to one or two of your friends and start a conversation.  Ask how you can be a better friend.  Plan an adventure or fun outing.  Start a new tradition.  Discuss ways to deepen your friendship.  Compare retirement plans and make sure they overlap in ways that will allow you to maintain your friendship.  All of this takes effort, but it’s worth it.  The payoff is a healthier, happier life for both you and those you care about. 

Be Intentional,

Joe