Tag Archives: housing

Retirement Transitions Requiring Exploration

I have to downsize my library. Two years ago, while moving from a house to an apartment, I reduced shelf space by fifty percent and now a new move is demanding another one third reduction. Many of these books are easily replaceable and I know about the value of letting go to create space for the new but I really struggle to let go of books in my collection. Many have special meaning because of relationship with the author or a period of my life which allowed a deep dive into an interesting topic. The books tell the story of my journey.

A friend of mine who is also experiencing significant downsizing is taking photographs before disposal not so much of books but of a wide variety of valued possessions. I love the idea although letting go of the physical may not create the space for the emotional or spiritual to come forth. Maybe it is more of exploration. Henry David Thoreau said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” As we experience transitions before, during, and after retirement, and prepare to downsize and let go of our physical bookshelves, we can also examine our mental and emotional book shelves, and maybe let go of some things we have held onto for too long. I invite you to join me this week in examining what is really important in our lives and what we can let go.

Paul G. Ward

Live Longer, Lighten Up

With a headline like that, you’re expecting some dieting tips a la Dr. Mehmet Oz, right?  Nope.  What inspired this post were two things.

First, this morning, we took a walk along the beach and I found myself wondering who lives in these sprawling homes so precariously perched along the water as if challenging the next hurricane to take them out?  But the better question is why anyone needs that much space.  There are two double-wide homes in particular, next to each other, in competition perhaps.  I can’t help but think how much energy must go into maintaining this kind of lifestyle, not to mention the stress on the body/mind.

Second, when we returned to our relatively modest home seven miles inland, I opened up my laptop to Seth Godin’s blog and as often happens found a post that spoke to me.  It is built around an article about living more lightly from a devoted backpacker.  So, I’m looking around my desk and, yikes!  Laptop, printer/phone/fax combo, lamp, another phone, Rolodex, cup of pens, most of which I never use, stapler, holders for this and that, box of mints, post-it notes.  Then, the tangle of wires under the desk and the stack files of papers on the floor…let’s not even go there.  I’m nauseous.

One of the things you realize as you age is how little you really need to be contented.  In a warm climate, it’s even less: a pair of shorts, t-shirt and sandals and you’re dressed.  A piece of fruit, half a bagel and tea, and breakfast is done.  A good book, a good conversation, a walk in nature — what could be better?  Thoreau’s advice (Simplify!  Simplify!) rings louder in my ears these days, and I find myself less tempted by the life-is-beautiful catalogs that continue to arrive in my mailbox every week.

That said, I’m the last person to give advice on clutter, so just read the link and see if it opens up a space in your head like it did in mine — the right place to start.


This is probably not the best time to bring up home values since many of us have seen the valuation of our homes drop significantly over the last year or so.  This is all the more painful if we’ve come to think of our homes more as nest egg than as nest.  But since the housing follies are where the current financial meltdown began, I’m going to do it anyway.  I’ll begin with a caveat: Economics 101 was not my favorite subject and my understanding of finances is primitive.  That said, I know a sound explanation for a complicated problem when I encounter it, so if you are trying to understand how we got into this mess, I recommend you check out a 60 Minutes edition called House of Cards which aired in January this year. This past Sunday (October 5), a 60 Minutes report updated that information, A Look at Wall Street’s Shadow Market. It was chilling.

What I want to explore here is a different kind of value altogether: the value of a roof over your head, whether you own it or rent it.  To put it into context: homelessness is on the rise in America.  Not only that, homelessness among people in their 50s and 60s who once enjoyed a middle-class income, is also soaring.  In No Place to Call Home, the current issue of the AARP Bulletin describes the plight of older people — some 4,000 Americans over the age of 55 — sleeping in their cars in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, CA, one of the most affluent of American cities, in many instances because they lost their homes to foreclosure.  Kind of brings the magnitude of the current crisis home, doesn’t it?

Homeownership has long been the American Dream, the one thing we were willing to save and sacrifice and postpone gratification for.  Today, the notion of 20% down and proof that your income could cover loan payments sounds positively antique.  One of the things banks always looked for — and these were typically a local branch where you did your other other banking so they knew you — was that your mortgage and real estate taxes not exceed 25% of your gross monthly income.  Those were the rules and, like them or not, they concentrated the mind wonderfully.

Some time in the 80s, as homes in many suburbs began to appreciate significantly, the idea of a home as an investment, or something that you could borrow more against, and even ‘flip’ to make money, came into being.  It seemed to have happened overnight.  One moment, you were perfectly content with a 30 year mortgage at 7% on a property you’d bought for 2.5 times your gross family income (another guideline), and the next, everyone had a strange gleam in their eyes.  You couldn’t go to a backyard cookout or have coffee with a friend without real estate being Topic #1.  Novelist Ann Beattie wrote of moving from her Virginia suburb to a rural area because she could not stomach this conversation any longer.

The idea that one’s home could become the source of significant wealth was very hard to resist for most people.  As long as homes continued to appreciate, salaries were rising and there were tax incentives to trading up, it made sense to do so.  The idea was that one day, you could sell that big house, downsize to something smaller, and pocket the difference.  Indeed, this was how many intended to finance a portion of their retirement savings, and for many it worked.  For a long time, trading up fever ruled. People who felt justified in buying as much house as they could carry were taking on financial risks they might never had considered had it been a different kind of investment.

Some how, we lost sight of the fact that our homes were valuable for the kind of life (as opposed to lifestyle) they provide for us.  They represent shelter, safety, refuge, the one place where, as Robert Frost famously wrote, “when you have to go there, They have to take you in.”  I read those lines as a deep sense of responsibility to each other and for one another, a feeling of belonging to something larger than ourselves, of putting down roots, of having reasons to give as well as to get.  As older Americans, let’s model to others that we can, we must, go home again.