Was it worth it? Yeah, to me it definitely was. (For you maybe the reverse is true.)
With my 53rd birthday now in my rearview mirror, I can’t claim to know everything about the learning that comes with age, but I have started to notice a certain upper classman status that comes with being in one’s fifties. It’s something that I sure as heck didn’t have in my forties, and wouldn’t even have recognized had it hit me in the head, during my thirties.
(And, as far as my twenties go, well… there’s a whole middle part of that decade that I can’t seem remember at all… LOL)
I think it’s during your fifties that you start looking back and assessing the value of your memories… in other words, it’s when you start to realize what was and wasn’t worth it. I’ve given it some thought and I think it’s because at 50 you know what 20 years feels like. At 50, you can remember when you were 30… and as a result, you also become able to see yourself at 70. And that means thinking about retirement and how much you haven’t saved by now.
I’m sure there’s someone somewhere that’s done everything perfectly in terms of saving for retirement… the sort of person that saved diligently every year ever since his or her 25th birthday… I’m sure such a person exists, but I certainly don’t know him… or her.
So, when most people start thinking about retiring, I think it’s impossible not to feel at least a twinge of regret over some of the money you’ve spent along the way. It’s not like you dwell on it… it is water under the bridge, after all… but I think the thought has to at least cross most people’s minds at one moment or another. It has in my case anyway.
For example, I have a sweater that I’ll always remember. It’s a Coogi brand made of cashmere, the sort of thing you’d have seen Bill Cosby wearing back in 1993. It cost me $900 at Nordstrom, and even though I haven’t worn it for at least 15 years, I’ve kept it in my dresser to remind me of the fact that I am more than capable of being a total blockhead.
It’s far from the only thing I’ve purchased that required no more than a double-digit IQ. I’ve got a drawer full of watches that have been long since replaced by my iPhone (FOR SALE), and I’ve got a pipe collection from when guess I thought I’d look sophisticated smoking a pipe that could have easily paid off a late model car. (ALSO, FOR SALE) Hanging in my garage I’ve got a bicycle that was almost two grand that I think I’ve ridden twice in 25 years. (LIKE NEW, CANNONDALE FOR SALE) And for well over a decade I’m incredibly embarrassed to say that I paid $300 a year to carry around a grey piece of plastic that I referred to as “platinum.”
There is one thing, however, that we’ve done every year that I’m sure many would consider extravagant… our annual vacations to Hawaii. But, even though they were expensive, when I think back on those yearly trips to the islands I think of it as the best money I’ve ever spent. And if I had it to do all over again, I wouldn’t change a single thing about those weeks spent in paradise.
We started out vacationing in Hawaii in 1992. We went to Maui, and because back then we were DINKS… dual income, no kids… we decided to throw caution to the wind and stay at The Four Seasons. In a word, it was heavenly. The resort was as close to perfection as one could imagine…they spray you with with Evian spring water while you’re lying by the pool. And the food was fantastic, from the expansive breakfast buffet to the dinners lit by flaming torches.
Ever since I was nine years old, when my father took me to see the movie “Jaws” on the big screen and I spent most of the movie on the floor of the theater, whenever I was swimming in the ocean, I’d been apprehensive at the idea of what might be going on under my dangling feet. So, while we were in Hawaii that year, I took advantage of a free scuba diving lesson and ended up becoming a certified open water diver by the time we went home.
That was the year I solved the mystery of what’s under the sea. Nothing. Oh sure, once in a great while you might get lucky and catch a glimpse of a sea turtle or two, or maybe you’ll get a peek at the head of a moray eel poking out of its hole, but as far as finding Jaws or any fish big enough to eat… well, not so much.
That was also the year I walked into Bounty Music and saw, hanging from above… ukuleles… there were too many to count… gorgeous instruments made from Koa wood, as I’d soon learn. From the moment I walked in, I was mesmerized. I asked how much they cost, stupidly figuring that something so diminutive couldn’t cost more than maybe 20 percent of one full sized guitar, and he replied: “Depends which one.”
I pointed at one that had caught my eye, and he used a long pole to get it down, turned the price tag over and said: “This one… $600.”
“WHAT? YOU’RE KIDDING,” I exclaimed, totally taken aback at the price. I knew what a ukulele was, of course, I had seen Tiny Tim on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In, during the late 60s. But, in my mind they were something just north of a kazoo, and for $600 you could buy an entire guitar with a case.
He handed it to me and I was both in love and $600 plus tax poorer, but I didn’t care. I carried that ukulele everywhere I went for the rest of that first trip to Hawaii, serenading my wife and those nearby from breakfast to bedtime, thus driving her brink of insanity. And the thing was, wherever I went I’d find a Hawaiian that knew how to play… I’d hand over the uke and before I’d know it, I’d be learning how to play something new.
We both loved that first week spent on Maui, and as we flew home, we both knew that we’d be back. I don’t remember what we spent on that vacation, it certainly wasn’t cheap, but if you were to ask me:
Was it worth it? I’d answer without hesitation: Yeah, to me it was.
And before we knew it, we were planning our next vacation and the vote was unanimous… we’d go back to Maui.
We both knew we were doing something fairly extravagant by any standard, but we didn’t care… it was simply that good. And this time I wanted two weeks in paradise, nothing less would do. I had been working hard, building my own company, and I was succeeding financially so why not? I needed to re-charge my batteries, I told myself.
Every year, I got healthy in Hawaii, drank fresh vegetable juices with wheat grass, took vitamins, found special bath salts to detoxify my system, and exercised on machines and on the beach, and when I returned to the mainland, I was a completely different person.
So, just as we were leaving for the airport that second year, I remembered my ukulele and asked my wife: “Oh wait, should I bring my uke?”
“Oh, please don’t.” She said in a deadpan voice.
I laughed and said okay… and we headed off to LAX, unable to contain ourselves over the prospect of landing in Maui, feeling the air, remembering the smells and the smiles of the Aloha state. This time we knew where we were going, and we knew exactly what we’d do from the moment we arrived… we didn’t know it then, but we were starting a family tradition that would last for 20 years.
The first evening was always room service and a movie. The next morning we couldn’t wait to head down for the breakfast buffet. After that, however, she wanted the pool and the beach, while I came up with a reason I needed to drive into town… and then I drove straight to Bounty Music.
“Is that an 8-string Kamaka?” I asked.
“No, that’s a 6-string. It’s got a deeper sound.” He answered, as he took it down for me. Somehow it was easier to spend $900 that year than it had been to spend $600 the first time around.
When I returned to the resort, my wife was her usual all-knowing self. “I knew that’s where you were going, why didn’t you just say so?”
I was far too distracted to respond. “I’m going to change, be right back… order me a Mai Tai, I’m under doctor’s orders to have at least one Mai Tai by lunchtime.” It was a joke I’d never tire of telling.
Our daughter took her very first steps on Maui. She went for her first swim there as well, when she was an infant. My wife put her in the tube, making the assumption that it would be stable and we both watched in horror as she just immediately flipped over, going completely under water and staying there for several seconds.
We both lunged to rescue her, ready to perform mouth-to-mouth, but she just popped up with a smile on her face as always. I guess human beings know instinctively when to hold their breath, thank God.
Somehow I talked my wife into a helicopter ride one year. We took the red one with no tail rotor, the idea being that it could get in closer to the waterfalls. But our pilot was ex-Army, had served in Viet Nam, and had quite the sense of humor.
He played Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” in our headphones, which you might remember from the movie, “Apocalypse Now.” I loved the music playing as he dove into what looked like dense jungle, and was thrilled as he came up right next to a waterfall… the sort of scene you’d never see on foot, but my wife found it about as fun as actually being in Viet Nam during the war years, and she never considered going again.
Each year we’d walk around Maui for two full weeks, me carrying my uke-of-the-year, and I’d run into the same Hawaiian guys who would always teach me something new that I’d practice throughout the trip. I’d go diving, and our second year there convinced my wife to get certified too, although she never liked it nearly as much as I did.
Years later, when we had switched to vacationing on Kauai, I’d get to take my daughter diving with me, through the caves at a beach dive site called “Turtle Town.” I think she was 13 or 14 years old that first time, and she handled it like a pro, while I acted like a proud dad. All three of us fell in love with Hanalei on Kauai’s North Shore.
Kauai’s North Shore looks like King Kong’s island and the breathtaking view from the Princeville Hotel’s outside deck of Bali Hai and Hanalei Bay bay is second to none. It’s also where we’d have breakfast every morning, complete with fresh guava juice and every type of breakfast food imaginable.
One year, while shopping around in Hanalei, we came across a jewelry collection designed by someone in the islands. There was a surfer, a flower and a turtle… they were all in white gold and our daughter loved them… so did we. So, after some serious deliberation, we went for it and bought all three on white gold chains. I’ll never forget the look on my daughter’s face as she wore her first piece of real jewelry on that vacation.
We celebrated our wedding anniversary on Kauai that year too, ordering dinner for three to be served to us at a private table that the hotel set-up on the beach just for us. We drank champagne and watched the sun go down over the water before devouring a fantastic meal… all three of us together, and I don’t think it’s possible to feel closer as a family.
In later years, we made the major change to Oahu and it’s world renowned, Waikiki Beach, which is the polar opposite of Hanalei and Kauai. We were afraid that we wouldn’t like Hawaii’s most populated island, with its capital city of Honolulu, but our fears were unfounded and we enjoyed our two weeks at the Kahala every bit as much as our trips to Maui or Kauai.
Lumpy, one of the Waikiki Beach Boys, taught our daughter to surf in the waves of Waikiki. And looking at the photos of her surfing for the very first time instantly brings me back to those days we spent in Hawaii… days I wish I could re-live over and over again forever.
And then there were the songs that became the soundtracks to our vacations. My memories of those times we spent together are so closely tied to the music we listened to, that today there are songs I can’t listen to without feeling a painful longing to be back there, the three of us singing along to Bruddah IZ performing Hawaii ’78, or Ehukai performing Molokai Slide… and the year we were on Kauai when Jason Mraz released his mega-hit, “I’m Yours,” was unlike any other, in large part because of the songs on that album.
Last year, for the first time, we spent almost two weeks on The Big Island… the actual Island of Hawaii… at the Hapuna Prince Beach Hotel, which boasts the best white sand beach on the island. Each of the Hawaiian Islands is entirely unique, the Big Island even more so.
One night we went snorkeling to see the giant Manta Rays, which is an experience no one could ever forget. You hold on to a floating bank of lights, and the enormous rays come right up to you, to the point that you’re sure they’re going to bump into you. It took our collective breath away for a moment or two, but as soon as we realized we were safe… we relaxed and wondered at these magnificent creatures of the sea.
We’ll also always remember seeing a real, live volcano, complete with molten lava glowing just below the surface. It’s the sort of thing you can’t compare to anything else… the sheer power of the Earth makes you realize how powerless man can become in an instant.
There were also a few years, while our daughter was in elementary school, that we brought Grandma and Grandpa with us on our annual Hawaiian vacation. We said it was because they could babysit while my wife and I went out on the town, but that wasn’t the real reason.
It wasn’t easy. Taking two extra adults with you to Hawaii turns an expensive vacation into a whole year of college tuition… or two years of future retirement income… or you could pay off your car… that sort of thing. It’s not an easy decision to make, nor an easy feat to pull off, believe me. And it wasn’t like my wife demanded it, or anything like that. It was something I wanted to do.
I wanted to do it for my in-laws… and for our daughter… and for all of us.
My in-laws were children of the Great Depression. They raised four children, living in inner city Chicago, and somehow managed to get all four through college on a blue-collar type of income… although I don’t know how. I knew they would never be able to enjoy the kind of vacation we took in Hawaii each year, and I wanted them to be able to do it with their granddaughter at their side… and while they were still young enough to enjoy it.
My father-in-law has been gone for a couple of years now, but I know he remembered those trips with us throughout his lifetime. I think it was the sort of special time that any of us is lucky to experience even once in a lifetime. But the truth is, I did it for me. I wanted to give those times to them and to my daughter… and to my wife, and no matter how hard I had to work to pay for it… to me it was worth it a hundred times over.
Retirement is Scary…
These days, I find myself talking with seniors and others about some aspect of retirement almost every single day. And although at 53, I couldn’t claim to know everything about one’s retirement years, there is one thing I do know for sure: Running out of money at 83, and then living until you’re 93… would absolutely suck.
Can you imagine spending the last ten years of your life… in abject poverty? It’s a fate I wouldn’t wish on anyone, and it’s a very real possibility for millions of Americans today.
All the studies show that the average balance in a 401(k) plan of a 65 year-old today is well under $200,000. I know that’s an average, and many people have more saved, but very few have been able to save enough to ensure that they won’t outlive their nest eggs.
And that’s why I find it so distressing that so many seniors have been led to believe that reverse mortgages are somehow a bad or risky proposition, something to be considered only as a last resort, as opposed to the valuable source of funds and financial planning tool they actually are.
If you’re over 62, and you have equity in your home, you should take time now to learn everything you can about reverse mortgages, because if you wait until you need one, you very well may not be able to get one. And the lending environment today has changed. Today, the only way you’ll be able to access equity in your home is either by selling the home, or by taking out a hard money loan, neither of which is something you want to do in your 60s, 70s, 80s, or beyond.
I recently spoke with a couple in their very early 70s. They had done much better than average, had over $1 million in savings, and only owed about $290,000 on their mortgage, after refinancing in 2006. Their home, they said, was worth something like $1.1 million, and both were still going to work at least part-time. All in all, they were feeling pretty secure for retirees these days.
I told them they should absolutely switch from their traditional mortgage to a HECM reverse mortgage and I explained why…
Think of a traditional mortgage as having sharp edges and hard corners. If you miss a payment, someone calls you, your credit score drops, if you miss three payments you can find yourself in foreclosure. Right now you’re both still working, at least part-time, but God forbid you become ill or get injured, or maybe your kids need financial help, or maybe something else happens.
If you switch your traditional mortgage to a reverse mortgage and you miss a payment, no one cares… if you miss three payments, no one cares… want to take the whole year off and make no mortgage payments… perfectly fine… no one calls… no one cares. It’s just a softer and gentler sort of mortgage.
Why would you want a mortgage with sharp edges and hard corners during your retirement years when you don’t know what will happen from one year to the next, and you could have one that’s softer and more forgiving?
I also asked them if there was anything they’ve always wanted to do, but weren’t doing, because to my way of thinking, at 70 years old, waiting to do something that you’ve always wanted to do is not a great plan. And I couldn’t help but wonder what would it be worth to them to take their grandchildren on ten, $10,000 vacations… or five, $20,000 vacations?
The couple said they’d always talked about buying a luxury motorhome in which they’d travel the country visiting friends and relatives while seeing the country and I said they could use funds from a reverse mortgage for something like that. With no more mortgage payments required, they could easily afford to spend the next several years traveling the country just as they’d always dreamed… and while they still could, physically.
After the death of the last surviving spouse, while they’d leave the kids a home with a lien, they’d also leave them a free and clear motorhome… and whatever cash remained, of course. The way things stood today, there would likely be enough to pay off the reverse mortgage, and even if the funds came up a little short, so what?
Sitting home dreaming when you could be doing is a tragic way to finish a rich, productive and wonderful life. I’m sure some would tell this couple not to do it… some would scare them into sacrificing their dreams in favor of being prudent.
But, what would the memories they’d create mean to them and to the members of their family? What would they say when asked one day if it was worth it? Would they look back and say: “To us it was,” just as I answered when I asked myself the same question about our Hawaiian vacations?
What would you do if someone handed you $50,000 or even $100,000 tomorrow… money that you didn’t have to repay? Would you take the family on five or ten unforgettable vacations? Would you cruise from New York to London on the Queen Elizabeth… go on the African safari of your dreams… or visit family members overseas or here in the U.S.A.
Whatever your dreams are, don’t give up on them… ever.
Think of it this way… it’s a source of money that doesn’t have to be re-paid until you want to repay it… which could be after your death. Yes, it’s secured by the equity in your home, but your credit score doesn’t matter and neither does your income. What’s the point of having a home if you can’t rely on it to make your life more comfortable during retirement?
This is NOT a Dress Rehearsal…
I guess what I want to say is that we’re living our lives every single day… it’s not a dress rehearsal. And when it’s over, there’ll be no second chances, no do overs, no matter how much any of us might want one.
When the lights go out, they go out for good.
After that, all we leave behind are our loved ones and their memories of how we were with them… of what they learned from us… shared with us… how we showed them how much we loved and cared about them. It’s the times we spend with those we love that make up the treasured memories that become the most valuable currency in our life accounts.
So, I say live your life… every bit of it you can. While you’re here… go on ALL the rides. Life offers us so much… so many possibilities. And yet, so many of us never explore beyond our own backyards. We dream, but never seem to find the time to make those dreams come true.
And before we know it, we’re all out of time.
I guess we could have skipped our Hawaiian vacations and instead done lots of other things with the money. And maybe we’d have a lot more saved today had we made different choices, but you want to know something… I don’t care one bit about any of that. I can’t even imagine our family absent those times we spent together on the islands of Hawaii.
I wouldn’t trade the memories of our being in Hawaii together all those years for anything in the world. And I hope we’ll be together there again next year… and for many years to come.
Whatever you do, don’t let someone scare you into being afraid of your retirement years. Live each day like it’s your last, because one day you’ll be right.