What one man’s wilderness adventure can teach you about retirement

What one man’s wilderness adventure can teach you about retirement

Some of you know that my wife is from Alaska.  Her dad (pictured above) was a fighter pilot in the Air Force and Alaska was the final posting.  Until my in-law’s recent move to Washington, we would visit the 49th state almost every year.  It is a beautiful place and I highly recommend it, but it can be a very harsh place too.

Alaska often presents you with unusual situations that don’t come up in the Lower 48.  For example, when playing golf and your ball rolls against a freshly killed moose (unfortunately this is a true story), does the rule book say that you should a) Dislodge your ball and take a drop, b) Take a one stroke penalty and hit again from the fairway or c) Pick up your ball and slowly back away to the next hole because you can hear the moose murdering bear huffing angrily just beyond the tree line?  If you said C, you should start making your summer vacation plans now.

I share my connection to Alaska by way of explaining how I came across a book that I read over the holidays.  On Thanksgiving our post-meal conversation somehow meandered to the topic of the Alaska bush and my father-in-law told me about a book called One Man’s Wilderness.  It is the story of Richard Proenneke who, at age 51, decided he had had enough of “electricity” and “indoor plumbing” and moved out to the bush.  Using a few hand tools, a sharp mind and a strong back, he built himself an amazing little cabin, doing everything from felling the trees to carving the door hinges out of tree stumps. (!?!)  While building the cabin, he had to grow/shoot/catch his food, cut his own firewood, and generally be a backwoods superstar.  He lived that lifestyle from age 51 until he decided it was to time to return to civilization at 86.

His retirement was almost certainly more physical than yours and mine will be (hallelujah!), but something he said really struck me.  He talked about how he needed some money to pay the material cost of his time in the bush (he’d have a pilot periodically fly in certain supplies), but more than the monetary price, he learned that the things he wanted to do had a physical price tag.  From his journal:

“After a supper of navy beans, I sat on my threshold and gazed off toward the volcanic mountains…I thought of the sights I had seen.  The price was physical toll.  Money does little good back here.  It could not buy the fit feeling that surged through my arms and shoulders.  It could not buy the feeling of accomplishment.  I had been my own tour guide and my power had been my transportation.  This great big country was my playground, and I could afford the price it demanded.”

I’ll concede that you probably won’t need to hand carve your own cooking utensils in retirement or build a food cache to keep the neighborhood grizzly out of your supplies, but I’ll bet the things you want to do have a physical price tag in addition to their monetary price tag.  And if you’re like most people, you’re saving so you can afford the monetary price of your retirement dreams, but that won’t matter if you can’t afford the physical price tag.

Yes, you might be able to afford the golf membership, the fancy garden tools or the trip to Spain to hike the Camino de Santiago, but if you can’t afford the physical price that those things demand then they are just as out of reach as they are to a person with no savings.

So as we start the New Year, think about your health and how important that is to everything you want to do in life.  What can you do now to start making deposits into your “health” account so it will be adequate to see you through retirement?

And if you want to read Proenneke’s story (which I highly recommend) you can pick up a copy on Amazon over here: One Man’s Wilderness.

~ Joe


Seven decisions you will never regret

Seven decisions you will never regret

One of the benefits of my job is that I get to see a large group of people all making decisions about the same thing: Retirement. Over the years, that has given me a large data set of decisions and their consequences. Some of those decisions are minor, while others have consequences that ripple out for decades. Some of those decisions pay off big, while others tend to blow up—often in spectacular, catastrophic, almost comical fashion.

Below are 7 decisions—big and small—that will impact your happiness, fulfillment and options during retirement. They are decisions you will never regret.

The decision to decide. Recently a palliative nurse recorded the regrets of her dying patients and compiled them in a book called “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.” The number one regret was “Not living the life I wanted.” To avoid this regret, you need to (Surprise!) decide what kind of life you want to live. But don’t stop there. Once you decide what you really want out of life, you need to start taking those plans very seriously. Imagine the satisfaction you could have if you arrived at the end of your days knowing that you did everything you possibly could to live the life that you wanted. For some practical ideas on how to do this, read Part 3 of the Intentional Retirement Manifesto A Brief Guide to Retirement Bliss.

The decision to “cut the branch.” A month or so ago I brought in an expert to help me trim and prune the trees in our yard. Most of the work went pretty quickly until we got to a large tree in our back yard. He informed me it had a branch that shouldn’t be there, but it had been allowed to grow for so long that cutting it now would make the tree look a bit silly for a few years. As I pondered what to do I asked him “When that little branch started growing ten years ago, should I have cut it then?” He said yes. Then I asked him “Ten years from now, will I look back on today and wish I had cut the branch?” Yes again. So I fired up the chain saw (it was a big branch) and started cutting.

No doubt each of us can listen to that story and use the branch as a metaphor for something in our own life. What is it for you? A job? A relationship? An unhealthy habit? Whatever it is, maybe now is the time to cut the branch.

The decision to do less. If you’re like most people, your default setting is for more. More commitments, more work, more stuff, more relationships, more money, more sporting events for your kids, more television, more house, more projects. More, more, more. The funny thing about “more” is that it can be incredibly diluting. If you have 30 projects at work, for example, you’ll probably have less impact than if you were allowed to focus on 3. This is the paradox of more. The more you try to do, the less you end up doing. If you want to do more, figure out a way to do less. Cut the unimportant (especially in retirement) so you can free up space, time and money to focus on the things that really matter to you. Less > More.

The decision to improve your marriage. Middle age is a risky time for your marriage. Hardly a year goes by that at least one of my clients doesn’t call it quits in that phase. This year was particularly bad. Divorce is never fun, but it’s even less so when you’re on the doorstep to retirement. Your assets get divided in half. Your kids will likely take sides. Your friends will certainly take sides. The dreams you had for “Someday” are off the table. How much better would it be to enter retirement in a happy, fulfilling marriage—plans, family and finances in tact—ready to enjoy the next phase? Yes, that takes work. Especially if the problems have been allowed to fester over the years. But take a long, hard look at the consequences before deciding that divorce is a better option.

The decision to bury the hatchet. A client called me earlier this year and told me that her ex-husband had just stopped by. They had been through a messy divorce due to infidelity about 20 years previously and hadn’t spoken since. Needless to say she was a bit surprised to find him on her doorstep with tears in his eyes. He wasn’t there to try to fix things. They had both moved on and married other people. He simply wanted to apologize and ask for forgiveness. My client later found out that when her ex left her house he went to her parent’s house and several other people in the family and did the same thing. It’s tough to go through life without hurting someone or being hurt by someone—usually our kids, friends, spouse or extended family. Carrying that baggage around can cause bitterness, resentment, and regret. Why live with that pain year after year until one of you eventually takes it to the grave? If it was your fault, acknowledge as much, apologize and ask for their forgiveness. If it was their fault, have grace and move on.

The decision to bet some chips. Have you ever seen the movie Rounders? It’s a movie about a poker player, starring Matt Damon. I was watching it on Netflix the other night and a quote stuck with me. Talking about poker Damon said “You can’t lose what you don’t put in the middle. But you can’t win much either.” It’s easy to play life too conservatively. God knows I’m guilty of this more often than I’d like to admit. Too often we go through life unwilling to take a chance and bet some chips. This can feel safe in the short run, but like Damon said, it never results in much of a payoff. Is there something that you’ve always wanted to do, but been afraid to take the risk? The clock is ticking. Maybe it’s time to bet some chips. Win or lose, you’ll at least have the satisfaction of having tried.

The decision to get healthy. Most of my clients are in the 50-75 age range. They seem healthier than most, but here’s an abbreviated list of health problems that they have dealt with so far this year: prostate cancer, breast cancer, diabetes, hernia, heart attack (survived), kidney stones, dementia, severe back pain, glaucoma, TIA stroke, broken wrist (due to osteoporosis), arthritis, lung cancer and depression. Those are just my clients, just in the last 10 months. Health problems are a fact of life as we age.  Obviously we can’t prevent all illness, but doing everything you can to be healthy can improve your odds of a long, active retirement.

~ Joe

Two proven ways to delay or prevent dementia

Two proven ways to delay or prevent dementia

Last summer we visited my wife’s grandma in Oregon.  Even though I’ve known her for nearly 20 years, I had to introduce myself because dementia has slowly erased her previous memories of me.  Dementia affects millions of people as they age and often robs them of an active, independent retirement.  Are there things you can do to minimize your risks of developing it?  New research offers encouraging results, but before getting into that, let’s look at a quick definition of dementia and how it affects people as they age.

What is dementia?

Dementia is not a single disease, but rather is a general term used to describe a loss of brain function or decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with your daily life.  It affects memory, thinking, attention, language, judgment, problem solving and behavior.  As it worsens, it can affect your ability to take care of yourself and can often lead to further problems like depression and anxiety.

Dementia was referred to as far back as Aristotle and Plato and has long been considered to be an inevitable sign of aging.  Only recently has the “inevitable” part begun to change, which brings me back to the research that I mentioned earlier.  It points to two key ways to slow, minimize or even prevent dementia.

Exercising your body

A pair of studies out of the U.K. reveal that exercise seems to play a significant role in reducing the risk of dementia and improving cognitive function later in life.  In other words, what is good for your heart is good for your head.

In the first study, researchers tracked the exercise habits of 9,000 different individuals between the ages of 11 and 50.  They interviewed each person about their workouts at ages 11, 16, 33, 42, 46 and 50 and then tested their cognitive functioning at age 50.  The results?  The more intense and regular a person’s exercise was throughout life, the better they performed when tested on things like memory, learning, attention and reasoning.

In the second study, researchers tracked 2,235 men over 35 years to see how things like regular exercise, not smoking, low bodyweight, healthy diet and low alcohol intake affected their probability of getting different diseases.  People who followed at least four of those variables had a 60% decline in dementia rates, with the number one factor being exercise.  As a bonus, they also had a 70% decline in diabetes, heart disease and stroke compared to the other participants who weren’t following any of the five variables.

Exercising your brain

Exercising your body seems to be an effective way to stave off dementia, but what about exercising your brain?  Companies like Lumosity offer “brain games” that purport to keep you mentally sharp, but do they work or are they just expensive computer games?  The National Institute on Aging just released a major study that finally provides some concrete evidence.

The study was published last month in the Journal of American Geriatrics Society.  It followed 2,800 people in their early 70s and gave them both computer based and pencil and paper tests.  The volunteers were divided into a control group (which received no training) and three test groups, which received training in either reasoning, information processing speed or memory.  Immediately following the training, the three test groups were performing significantly better in their particular area of training compared to the control group.  Those benefits were still evident five years later when all four groups were retested.  Ten years later the reasoning and speed groups were still showing significant benefits, but the effectiveness of the memory training seems to have faded.

Still, study coauthor Sharon Tennstedt, said that the training “helped participants carry out everyday activities as if they were about 10 years younger, allowing someone at 80 to function more like a typical 70-year-old.”  Interviews with participants seemed to back this up.  Most reported less difficulty than the control group with everyday activities like shopping, cooking and handling their money.  The bottom line?  Brain training won’t prevent dementia, but it can delay its arrival.

Focus on what you can control

You’ve heard me say before that you should focus on what you can control when planning your retirement.  That includes things like saving, reducing debt, deciding when to take Social Security and planning meaningful pursuits.  We now know that minimizing your risk of dementia is on that list as well.  Do what you can to keep yourself physically and mentally fit and you will greatly increase your odds of an active, independent, rewarding retirement.

~ Joe

A new tool to help reduce prescription costs

A new tool to help reduce prescription costs

It’s no secret that prescription drug costs can put a big dent in your retirement budget.  What you may not know is that the cost of those drugs can vary (sometimes drastically) based on which pharmacy fills your prescription.

The assumption is that drugs have set prices and every pharmacy charges the same price for the same drug.  The reality is that pharmacists charge what they want.  If you have a high deductible health plan or you’re in the “donut hole” on the Medicare Prescription Drug plan, going to the wrong pharmacy can mean much higher out-of-pocket costs.  Until recently, there was no tool to compare what different pharmacies were charging for a certain drug in your area.

Doug Hirsch and Scott Marlette have changed that.  They were early employees at Facebook until eventually moving on to pursue other ventures.  One day Doug had a prescription that he needed to have filled.  The price of the drug at his regular pharmacy seemed really high, so he shopped around and found that the cost varied significantly.  Long story short, they figured out a way to create a huge database of drug prices from all over the country and launched a new website called GoodRX where people can enter a drug name and their location and get a comparison of what pharmacies are charging.

To get an idea of the diversity of prices, I went to GoodRX and compared prices on a variety of different drugs.  For some drugs, the prices were very consistent from pharmacy to pharmacy.  For others, there was a huge difference.  For example, I looked up a variety of drugs used in the treatment of colon cancer.  The high and low for my area are listed below.

Leuprolide—High: $436.17, Low: $188.52

Taxotere—High: $640.61, Low: $275.12

Flutamide—High: $50.14, Low: $29.20

As you can see, those are some pretty wide swings.  If you visit the site, you’ll notice that there are coupons available for many drugs and there is also a mobile App available so you can check prices while you’re actually in the pharmacy.

Have a great weekend!


Photo by Wil Taylor.  Used under Creative Commons License.
How to stay mentally sharp as you age

How to stay mentally sharp as you age

Most of us know what we need to do to keep our bodies fit, but how can we keep our brain fit? It turns out that the answer might be the same for both: Exercise.

An article in the Wall Street Journal recently highlighted a study that has been following a group of Scottish school children born in 1936. In 1947, at age 11, those children were tested for cognitive ability. Sixty years later, a group of them agreed to retake the same test.

In addition to the cognition test, they filled out lengthy questionnaires that examined things like family history, health history and level of physical activity. They also underwent MRI brain scans. The results? There appeared to be a direct correlation between physical activity and brain shrinkage. Those who were inactive had more brain shrinkage and greater cognitive decline. Those who were active had less. Alan Gow, one of the researchers conducting the survey, summarized it this way: “People who exercise more have better brain health.”

Somewhat surprisingly, the study didn’t find a similar correlation between brain health and things like social interaction or intellectual activities. In other words, if you want to keep your brain fit as you age, put down the Sudoku and pick up the barbell.

Fit by 40 Update

While we’re on the topic of health, I thought I’d give you an update on my own quest to get into shape. My trainer continues to come up with workouts apparently taken from the Rocky IV playbook (push this box, life this weight, chase this chicken). So far I’ve dropped ten pounds of fat and replaced it with five pounds of lean muscle. I still have a ways to go, but so far so good.

Thanks for the encouraging notes that many of you have sent. Hopefully some of you will use my story as motivation to start a program of your own. Especially now that we know how exercise can benefit our brain as well as our biceps.

Have a great week!

~ Joe

Photo by Kiran Raja Bahadur.  Used under Creative Commons License.
Houston, we have a problem.

Houston, we have a problem.

For the past year or so, I’ve noticed a disconcerting trend.  Each time I step on the scale, the number gets larger.  Has there been some sort of change in the gravitational pull of the earth or am I putting on weight?

In 2003 I ran the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington D.C.  I weighed about 185 pounds and could run 10 miles without breaking a sweat.  Now I weigh 215 pounds and get winded chasing my daughter around the park.  If that trend continues, in 10 years I’ll weigh 245 pounds and will be pricing mobility scooters.

In life, there are certain problems that are easier to solve sooner rather than later (more on that below).  I turn 40 in December and getting into shape is not getting any easier.  Not only is my body clinging to calories like a tiger clings to its kill, but finding the motivation is getting harder as I get busier and take on more responsibilities.  If I want to be around for another 40 years, however, I need to put the excuses aside and reacquaint myself with physical activity.

Fit by 40

And so, about a month and a half ago I started going to a personal trainer.  I had been lamenting to my boss that I wanted to get in shape, but 1) I needed some accountability and 2) I needed to workout during the day because mornings and evenings were too busy with work and family.

As luck would have it, his son (who plays college football) had gone to a trainer for years.  My boss had recently started going as well and he invited me to come along.  Not only that, but he told me to take off work early three days a week and he would pay for it.  Hard to argue with that.

My first day at the “gym” was pretty humbling.  First off, it was not a gym, but a converted warehouse.  Imagine that barn in the middle of Russia where Rocky trained in Rocky IV and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what I’m talking about.  Lifting rocks—check.  Chopping wood—check.  Pulling Paulie on a sled through a snowstorm—well, you get the idea.

The people training there were serious: Elite high school, college and professional athletes; ultimate fighters (all wearing oxygen depravation masks to simulate altitude); and…me.

So far my time there has been great.  My mantra is “Fit by 40.”  The pounds have started to come off.  I have more energy.  Most of all, I feel good that I’m actually being proactive about a problem that I (and millions of other Americans) struggle with.

Why am I mentioning this?  Two reasons:

First, I don’t want to publicly fail in front of hundreds of readers who I respect and admire.  Thanks for the motivation!  🙂

Second, and more importantly, I wanted to get you thinking about issues or problems in your own life that need some sort of solution.  Too often we sweep our problems under the rug because we’re too busy or scared to deal with them.  Then someday, when we shed the competing tasks and responsibilities that used to drown out our problems (a.k.a. retirement) those problems come bubbling to the surface.

Rather than enjoying a meaningful, rewarding retirement we spend our time trying to salvage our marriage, get in shape, recover from a preventable illness, mend neglected relationships or figure out what we really want out of life.  Don’t ignore your problems.  They’re only going to get worse.

Is there something you need to fix?  Start down that path today.  If I can help, just let me know how.


Photo by Laura Gilmore.  Used under Creative Commons License.