Calculating Retirement’s Cost-Comfort Ratio

Russell Frank
By Russell Frank December 15, 2016 19:04

When I was in my 50s, I boasted that I’d work ’til I’m 90.

When I turned 60, I decided I’d be ready to walk away at 70.

Last summer, a few days after my 62nd birthday, I briefly considered turning in my office keys this spring. Here is what happened:

In September, the bean counters at the university where I have taught for the past 18 years sent me a letter telling me how much they appreciated my contributions and my dedicated service.

Uh-oh, right?

Then they told me of an “important opportunity” that I might “wish to consider.”

Finally, they got to the point: As old as I am, and as long as I’ve been haunting the hallowed halls, I was eligible to participate in a Voluntary Retirement Plan. Participation in the Voluntary Retirement Plan, they assured me, was “entirely voluntary.”

You know the mathematical formulation, “two negatives equal a positive?” This felt like a case of two positives equaling a negative. Something about being told that voluntary retirement was voluntary made me feel like I was being shoved out the door – in the nicest possible way.

What made it nice? Well, while they were frog-marching me toward the exit with one hand, they were trying to jam a roll of bills into my pocket with the other. Specifically, they were offering me one year’s pay if I agreed to get out and stay out at the end of this academic year.

My reflexive response was the same one that would be triggered if someone waggled a chocolate bar in front of my face: Take the candy and run.

But after reflex must come reflection.

I wouldn’t grab the chocolate bar if I knew it would be the last chocolate bar I would ever eat. I certainly didn’t want to grab the buyout if it meant this would be the last money I would ever earn.

It didn’t have to be the last money I ever earned, of course. Nothing would stop me from trying to draw a paycheck from some other source. Being retired doesn’t conjure images of rocking chairs and golf carts anymore. It can mean freelancing or consulting or just doing something different from whatever you’ve been doing. You know, like building rocking chairs or repairing golf carts.

Before the buyout offer, my vision of retirement was indistinguishable from my vision of the perfect Sunday: I saw myself reading the paper, solving the crossword puzzle, taking a walk, playing guitar and watching baseball on TV.

Pleasant pastimes all, but seven Sundays a week sounded like six too many. I knew I would still want to work and that I might still have to work, but I hadn’t thought very hard about what other work I wanted to do or could do – apart from going back to being a newspaper reporter, but what editor would hire a geezer like me?

Nor had I crunched the numbers to figure out if and when I could afford to earn less money or even earn no money at all.

Such contemplations and calculations were still down the road a piece. Now, suddenly, they were right on top of me.

The university gave me a month to decide. It wasn’t enough time. True, once I blew out the candles on my retirement cake I would have an entire year – with pay, remember! – to listen to the deepest yearnings of my soul and mine the deepest creases of my sofa for lost quarters.

But what if at the end of that year I haven’t found anything else to do and haven’t recovered enough coin from under the couch cushions? I don’t know which scares me more, the thought of being bored or the thought of being broke.

My father, bless his heart, was both. He retired at 62, lived another 34 years and during much of that time he had too little to do and too few greenbacks in his wallet. His progeny – me included – had to help out. I don’t want that to happen to me or my progeny.

So I decided to soldier on. And as I do, I have to figure out what my near-grab of the chocolate bar means. Before the buyout offer arrived, I would have said that my job had its frustrations – what job doesn’t? – but that on balance, it was a great gig. Thus my braggadocio about never retiring at all.

Now I’m asking myself if I pretend to like my job more than I do because staying the course seems easier (and more remunerative) than looking for something new.

That’s probably somewhat true. Also true, though, is that you don’t have to be fed up with your current life to be intrigued by the possibility of living a different one. I was fortunate to get my job and to keep it. But now, after all these years, it’s exciting to think about doing something else.

It is also exciting, needless to say, to think about getting paid not to work. Which is why, if the university offers me the same deal (or, thrillingly, a better one) next year or the year after that, I may decide I’m close enough to the finish line to say, “Don’t mind if I do.”

But I’m still going to want to balance my blissful Sundays with some weekdays. That is why even though I spurned the buyout, I’m glad I got the offer. It has prodded me to get serious about planning for retirement.

Russell Frank is a former Sonora resident who, at least for now, teaches journalism at Penn State.

Copyright © 2016 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Russell Frank
By Russell Frank December 15, 2016 19:04
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