Editor’s note. This is another in our continuing series of articles exploring actual people’s retirement stories. Thanks so much to Gary and Pat for sharing theirs. See bottom of article for more baby boomer retirement articles.
September 1, 2017 — When it comes to planning out a retirement and then living it to the fullest, this pair of former educators in the Michigan school system could teach the course. Gary grew up on a farm on Lake Michigan, and Pat grew up nearby. Both learned the value of hard work, and both loved living near the lake and exploring it winter and summer in their childhood and working days.
The pair have always been enthusiastic runners, bikers, and tennis players. They met as competitive cross country ski racers, crisscrossing the Midwest in events during their younger days. They raised two boys along the way and now enjoy their two granddaughters, ages 4 1/2 and 10.
Setting up a financial base
Living on teacher salaries is not the usual path to riches. Fortunately Gary’s impressive skills acquired growing up as a farm boy were helpful. Getting the summers off as a teacher allowed him to start a sideline fixing up, renting, and selling houses. That helped them acquire the seed money to live in a beautiful suburban home near Grand Rapids. Gary comments that while is true that the real estate pursuits gave them some modest chunks of money to work with along the way, he would stress that a life of financial level-headedness and restraint (which probably came from being raised by Great Depression Era parents) has been a key ingredient in their success.
Retirement planning begins
The couple really began planning for retirement while in their late thirties. Grand Haven and Key West were in their plan from the beginning; they fully planned to sell the larger GR home where they raised the family as soon as they retired. Their “long term plan” really didn’t turn out to be so long term since Gary actually retired from his day job of public school administrator @ age 56 with 35 years in the system. His last assignment was in Kenowa Hills Public Schools. Pat was 54 when she retired from the Rockford Public Schools.
Pensions and Social Security
When they retired they had each worked long enough to qualify for modest pensions. The decisions regarding the complicated buyout options were difficult and had to be thought through carefully. For example: do you take more money now and not cover the spouse (who in this case has a pension, albeit smaller) or take less and have the pension continue for spouse once you die. Gary is also eligible for Social Security, which he took at age 62 when he was no longer working. Here is his theory about SS: “If you are still working, generating an income, and paying FICA you should absolutely WAIT! WAIT! WAIT to claim! If you are retired and eligible at age 62 and you do not plan to continue paying into SocSec, it takes you roughly 11 years before you begin realizing the “big” payoff of waiting for the “big” SS checks…I’ve tried for many years and continue to try to prove the simple formula wrong but just can’t do it. Of course if you think you’ll live to be a 100 and if you think you’ll enjoy your money more at age 80 than you will at age 62 by all means, wait til you’re 70!” Pat is very much eligible for Social Security and in fact begins collecting this month since she turned 62.
So thinking about retirement, what would they do?
They both love living near the water, which made the decision of moving out of the big house near Grand Rapids easy with the kids gone. They both loved nearby Grand Haven, MI because it is such a pretty town on Lake Michigan. The first of their three houses in Grand Haven came in 1994. Since Grand Haven is a popular destination town in Michigan, they owned all 3 concurrently for a few years and did short term summer rentals with 9 month tenants in the fall/winter/spring seasons. They were their own rental listing agents, maids, maintenance personnel, etc.etc. They seldom stayed in their Grand Haven or Key West properties because it was more lucrative to keep them rented. Gary commented on this decision: “This took restraint and the ability to delay the gratification of vacationing in our own property. But then again, since we were still working in the schools and raising our sons, it did not seem like too much of a sacrifice.”
Their latest Grand Haven home is an adorable but, at the time, needy 2 story home a block from the harbor. Using sweat equity, they proceeded to rip it apart and completely rebuild it (see photo). Their hard work resulted in a charming, comfortable, and airy home.
The downtown is a short walk away, as are the giant dunes criss-crossed with trails (and a wintertime ski hill!) On the lakeshore you will find the wide beaches of Grand Haven State Park, which was voted one of the TOP 5 Family Beaches in the USA more than once in recent years. Municipal tennis and pickle ball courts, along with Grand Haven’s harbor and lighthouse, are just steps away. Gary and Pat both exercise daily with tennis, yoga, biking, and some running for Pat. A recent thrill for Gary was joining his 30-something sons in the 37th annual DeathRide (DeathRide 2017), a one day 129 mile ride with 15,700 feet of vertical climb thru five mountain passes near Lake Tahoe (Markleyville, CA is the locus of the ride.) Says Gary: “It is a ride…it is not a race. Anyone who can finish the course in a day is definitely a WINNER!”
But Michigan winters are cold, so…
Not having to stick around for Michigan’s freezing winters was important to the couple. As Gary points out: “When we were young and nordic ski racers, we embraced and almost thrived upon winter. But we somehow knew that this would not be the case in later life.” Gary’s first trip to Key West was in 1971; his late brother later moved there in 1984. They loved Key West and its vibe immediately. The couple bought their first KW house, a duplex Conch Cottage high atop Solares Hill in Old Town, in 1993. As they set down roots they followed a familiar pattern. Looking for real estate that was run down but in a nice neighborhood, they are now on their 4th home there. They buy, they fix up, they rent, and they sell. They try really, really hard to not live in a property they are renovating since they both hate the disorder and chaos and filth of living in a construction zone. Their current 2 story home in the Meadows section of town, just a few blocks from the harbor and the Bayview Park tennis courts, is ideal. They live downstairs with some room for visiting children, and they rent out the upstairs for income. Your editor met this lovely couple on a tennis court (they are fearsome, but fun, doubles partners!)
Gary trailered a boat down from Michigan a few years ago, which he keeps on a rack. When he is not doing construction projects at home, playing tennis, or riding around town on his antique (70’s) Italian bicycle, a classic Benotto, he frequently takes the boat out to the Reef. He has a knack for finding experts who like to share their secret fishing techniques with him, and delights in catching yellowtail snapper with his new found skills.
Pat helps out with almost all aspects of the renovation process. She also plays tennis at Bayview Park in the afternoons, exercises, as well as keeps in frequent contact with their boys and the young grandchildren.
What we can learn from the Gary and Pat
This happy couple has what we consider a very good retirement. Blessed with small pensions and combining those with a knack for real estate and sweat equity, they lead a comfortable but modest lifestyle. Much of their success we would attribute to “intent”. They thought through what they wanted to do in retirement, and they carved out a path to get them there. Here is their advice to Topretirements Members: “Hopefully the takeaway for your readers will be: plan early, plan midway, plan late…but plan, plan, plan. Not many of us have an unknown aunt that leaves us a million or two, so it’s up to you!”
We are betting that their current home in the Meadows won’t be their last. A new fixer-upper will emerge, and after turning that one into a charmer they will either live in it, rent it, or spin it off for a profit. As long as they feel comfortable driving they will make the annual trip back and forth from Grand Haven to Key West in their new van, though probably not towing a trailer behind in wintertime! As they age the airlines might be the answer to their annual migration transportation. Once they get even older, they will have to make a decision if living in one place instead of two is still workable, and where that might be.
Comments? Please share your thoughts about Pat and Gary’s intentional retirement planning in the Comments section below.
More baby boomer retirement stories:
Kelly and Demaris: Innkeepers
A Retirement Community Chaplain Shares What He Learned on the Job
My Big Southern Retirement Adventure – Jeff Alden
Jay Michaels Hops on the Retirement Tour Bus – 5 Years Later (a Series)
Jane and Jack: Retired in Place, But Mighty Busy
Sandy’s 8 Year Adventure with Active Adult Communities
The Seafaring Couple Start an International Literacy Non-Profit