Monday, July 28, 2014

It's a Date!

One of my favorite restaurants is Texas de Brazil, a churrascaria establishment in Tampa that serves meat of every kind roasted on an open fire, along with condiments, salads that defy imagination, and of course, deserts.

Their dinner prices are a bit steep. However, every once in a while, they offer a 2:1 coupon which is definitely worth the price.

A better deal is Friday lunch, which is a reasonably priced $24.95 at last check. And to celebrate my birthday/retirement, we already have our plans set up for Friday, September 12, 2014, lunch at Texas de Brazil.

Why am I posting this? Because our friends are invited to join us.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

It Never Goes Away

My mother is 87 years old, and seems to be visibly aging by the week.  Her eyesight is diminishing rapidly, as is her hearing.  She has not been able to walk well for about five years now.  Her diminishing faculties have begun to make me reflect about my own aging.

I'm not weak - yet.  Is it a given? I don't know.  I exercise almost daily, watch my weight, and keep my mind stimulated.  I'm busy.  I write, I publish, I laugh, I participate actively in extracurricular activities, and I have friends - although most of my friends are limited to those extracurricular activities, as we rarely meet socially outside of our meetings.

I have been most concerned about suddenly "becoming" incapacitated.  I realize this is absurd, as one does not "become" something one is not.  Aging is a progression; it is more of the same.  My personality is my personality, and is likely to remain such.  Barring a calamitous event, I'm likely to maintain my current health and attitude toward life, my zest for learning and participating, the time I spend with friends, my ability to love and enjoy life is not likely to wane with age.  Indeed, it never goes away - those aspects of life that give it vitality and sizzle.  My emotions will never dwindle; my body may show the ravages of age, but my soul is not going to dissipate.

These are important realizations.  The essence of the person never disappears, except in death, and then it is carried on the wings of those that follow.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

How to Stay Where You Are ...

... stay where you are, as in where you currently live.

I realize the title of this blog may be confusing, but I write this in response to the many articles I have read about relocating out of the country in order to save money, once people find themselves on a fixed income.  Those articles typically cite high taxes, exorbitant medical costs, etc., to which I agree wholeheartedly.  Yep, the United States is not known for cheap living.  Indeed, many members of my family who have never lived in the States are convinced that the streets are paved with gold "in America."  They still imagine "America" as a fantasy land, where the living is easy, and money grows on trees.

There is something to be said for that fantasy: Life IS easy here.  Some of my family live in Japan, where simply getting around is a major hassle.  I recall one visit when my husband and I decided to do some sightseeing, and needed nine forms of transportation to get off the island and back into the city! That's not a typo - bus to the ferry, 3-hour ferry ride to the mainland, bus from the ferry to the train station, train ride to the next bus stop, taxi, etc. - you get the picture.  I found it exhilarating, but I was on vacation, and could afford to be adventurous.  I would not dream of a daily life with so much chaos.  Moreover, transportation costs are quite high in Japan.

Back to the States, where the living is easy.  Here, you hop into your car, and drive to your destination.  Period.  One form of transportation.  Yes, you have gasoline costs, insurance costs, repair costs, and miscellaneous costs, but it is relatively easy to get from one point to another in your daily life. 

How about your housing? If you are fortunate enough to own your own home free and clear, that is indeed a bit of good fortune.  You still have property taxes, insurance, and repairs to contend with, but the overall costs are more or less in line.  Japan (since I referred to it previously, as a point of comparison) is not nearly as onerous a place to own a home as you might expect.  Yes, there were reports of half-million-dollar 500 sq.ft. apartments in Tokyo in the mid 1990s, but that was during the boom.  Moreover, just as with the proverbial "$25 hamburger" touted in Japan, many of those stories are greatly exaggerated, either by reporters, or tourists who are not accustomed to a region, and are led by tour guides, or remain glued to their luxury hotels.  Trust me: You can find apartments for under $100,000.  In good neighborhoods (see my article on Akashi).  Moreover, property taxes in Japan are minuscule compared to the States, as is house insurance.

Back to the $25 hamburger.  How sad that disillusioned tourists return from Japan with sticker shock at the "cost of food."  Sad because restaurants abound with extremely reasonable fare, say, $6 for a full breakfast of cafe-au-lait, toast, egg, and a fruit, or $8 for a full lunch including ramen, fish croquettes, salad, rice, and soup, and dinners with prices comparable to those in the States.

Yet, with all this advice about living abroad in order to save money, you may be just as well advised to stay exactly where you are.  Psychologically, few things are as disorienting as relocation.  Even moving from one city to another, you must say good bye to friends, relatives, your dentist, your familiar surroundings, to start all over again somewhere new.

Next, I'll discuss ways to save money.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Myriad options, myriad voices and opinions

In the process of finding suitable ALF facilities for my mother, I called several facilities on the list the hospital gave me, as well as several I found online.  In the end, they all had about the same price structure.  I personally visited several facilities, and took my mother to visit about four of them: Inn on the Pond, Sunrise Bay, Emeritus and one other that I don't remember now.  Each one had its tour of the facility, and then a very lengthy discussion in the sales office of what the facility offered.  It was exhausting. 

This morning, one of the facilities we had contacted phoned my mother directly to inquire as to her decision, and invite her once again to come in and tour the facilities.  I wondered how they had gotten my mother's phone number to contact her directly, as I had been doing all that research.  It turned out that my mother had contacted them about a month earlier requesting information, and so they mailed her that information.  She did not tell them that she had already been placed.  So it is that signals and communications get mixed up, with too many cooks in the kitchen.  It just confuses matters.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Entitled to my Entitlements!

With President Obama making noises about budget cuts, the word entitlements is bandied about in the media with regularity, from some of the most notable minds of today. They talk about the expenses for Social Security and Medicare as comprising two-thirds of government spending. Cuts must be made, they say, even in these hallowed areas. How else is the budget ever going to be balanced?

Excuse me? "Entitlements" are being discussed as if we are, in fact, NOT entitled to these returns. I am nearing retirement age, and I have worked and paid into Social Security and Medicare (approximately 15% give or take over the years) for my entire working life, half the prescribed amount as an employee, but the full amount for the past 23 years as a business owner. As an American citizen, even if I had chosen to work overseas, my income would still be subject to American taxes. Folks, that makes me entitled to whatever I can get as a benefit for my hard work. Roosevelt, in his wisdom, wrote Social Security into law as a protective measure from the Great Depression. But as such, future citizens did not have any choice of contributing or not -- the money was taken out of our paychecks automatically. We are given the option to escrow or not our property taxes; but not Social Security or Medicare.

Politicians have long known that Social Security is sacrosanct, as it should be. It should be so because we have paid into it. This is not free money that the government is giving us. In fact, it could be said that the government has mismanaged our monies over the years by pilfering it, or not maximizing its potential returns. At the current minimal interest rate environment, we are getting almost no returns on our monies. And the program is supposedly going broke because of the diminishing population.

Several solutions have been proposed, among which was privatization, which was not received very well. I suppose people are afraid of managing their own monies; or feel incapable of such feat; or the government does not trust us to take care of our own financial affairs; or the government does not want to hand over a relatively large chunk of money out of its coffers. Any number of explanations is valid here. But these are irrelevant. What is relevant is that the program is maligned as just another "entitlement" program. Forgive me, but I have owned a duplex that I rented out on the Section 8 program, and have therefore been on the giving end of that "entitlement" program. There were some very able-bodied people taking advantage of the government's largesse, people who could get jobs, people who did have jobs but didn't report them -- in short, people who manipulated the system in order to get some free money.

What about people who cross our borders in order to get free medical care? Are those not entitlement programs? Did those people contribute the least bit into that care?

Please, don't insult my intelligence. The Medicare system is closely tied to our medical delivery system, and as such, I can see the enormous waste generated in that area, the inefficiencies and downright fraud; doctors who order too many tests (I can personally attest to that); medical costs that are simply outrageous, almost criminal (an aspirin dispensed at the hospital for $85?!?). If the government wants to get involved, let's see it control some of those costs. But not what I have contributed with the sweat of my brow.

I wonder if anyone has proposed a wholesale refund to everyone who has contributed into the system, and simply doing away with it outright? Just give out a lump sum of all your contributions to date, without recourse to any future assistance from the government. Yes, it would be a large outlay, but there would be no further debt overhang, and the recipient would then be in charge of managing those funds and his or her retirement. Of course, the fear mongers would tell you that wouldn't be the end of that, and those recipients would still be out there with their hands out looking for government assistance. I don't know; I, for one, would rather manage it on my own.

Another thing: I know a few, shall we say, well-off individuals, people who have "made it." A couple of friends of mine who are retired have a cumulative income of approximately $250,000 a year from pensions, Social Security and savings; and yet they choose to do nothing with their money - they don't travel, don't eat out, don't go to the movies. Fine. That's their choice. But there are others who have made huge sums of money, and yet are still entitled to and receiving Social Security benefits. Shouldn't people with incomes of greater than $X, be barred from receipt of benefits? After all, there is a limit of $106,800 income above which Social Security is no longer paid. So what if a person makes $1 million? What about the likes of Bill Gates or Warren Buffett or George Soros or the (undeserving) executives on Wall Street who received those huge bonuses? These are inequities which must be addressed fairly, rather than talking in sweeping terms about so-called entitlements. It is not enough to lament the great expenditures that the government has. It would be far more constructive to create some rigorous oversight conditions to the gratuitous doling out of monies from the government. There is a reason why Medicare is so corrupted with fraud - government money is too easy to come by. The Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) is another example where banks received huge sums of money from the government, with very little oversight or accountability required, with the result that they have been hoarding monies, unwilling to lend, yet all-too-willing to enrich themselves by investing in the stock market and give enormous bonuses to their executives. Methinks somethin' wrong here!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

JAPAN - Land of Courtesy, Safety -- and Now on Sale!

If you can live without melons!

Much has been written about life abroad. TV shows abound on international living. In fact, there is an organization called International Living that scours the earth for affordable and pleasant relocation areas for those so inclined.

As foreign-born Americans, both my husband and I have regularly talked about relocating abroad. We both love the United States, but we also both have family abroad, mine in Israel, his in Japan. And to be sure, we sometimes miss our respective country's food, culture, family and old friends.

The magazine, International Living, frequently touts the benefits of living in various South American countries, such as Belize, Ecuador, Uruguay, to name a few. Yes, they also discuss Thailand, Ireland and France. But for as long as I have read their magazine, I have never seen anything written about Japan. And for good reason: Japan is universally thought of as “expensive,” certainly not a “retiree's dream.” Visitors often return with bulging eyes at the “$25 hamburgers.”

And yet …

Consider Akashi, a town about 15 minutes by train from Kobe, about 50 minutes by train from Osaka. Akashi has a population of about 300,000, Kobe 1.5 million. Akashi has the “feel” of a large, bustling city. New elegant condominiums are sprouting everywhere; new highways; the Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge connecting Kobe to Awaji Island over the Akashi Straits (the bridge is open to the public as a museum and tourist attraction, being able to ride the elevator to the top, then walk through a selected area and view the engineering marvel that it is). Most importantly for me, is that Akashi is located on the coast, and has several miles of gorgeous beach.

As it is not everyone's dream to retire to a bucolic countryside, and vibrant and energetic city life is more to one's liking.

Medical care: Our medical care system in the United States has been in the forefront of our social consciousness for years, and is being hotly debated during this election season. Our health care system is in trouble; it is extremely expensive and bureaucratic, and any changes proposed by the government are met with vocal opposition as well as approval. In Japan, health care is what one would call socialist. There is medical insurance which is very reasonable, compared to the States, costing approximately $50 per month for a family of two; but much more important is that excellent care is available to all at a reasonable price. For example, a few years ago, my husband came down with what we thought was pneumonia. He was coughing blood, and we thus rushed to the hospital. He was given almost immediate medical attention, x-rays, blood tests, a consultation by the physician, then an intravenous medication and a stay in the hospital for about a half day, after which he was dispensed antibiotics, all for the price of $350. In the States, the same services would be much more expensive. On another occasion, my husband got a crown for one of his teeth that cost him $80, and was quoted as $650 in the United States by his dentist.

In fact, Japan is not the only country with reasonable medical care. Consider how popular medical tourism has become to countries like India, Thailand and Indonesia. It is definitely high on my list of considerations when I retire.

Cost of living: While it is true that many things are expensive in Japan (as everywhere else), the cost of living as a whole is certainly not ( However, this does not apply to melons, which are exorbitantly expensive, with a single cantaloupe costing upwards of $50.00 – not a typo!

Transportation: Akashi has the same bustling transportation system as all of Japan, which is arguably the envy of every other modern city. Trains and subways run everywhere; connections are fairly easy; many traffic (and train) signs are now written in English as well as Japanese; and Akashi also has a central station for the shinkansen. Taxis are everywhere, as are buses, and the ubiquitous bicycle. As noted earlier, Akashi is a comfortable 50-minute train ride to Osaka's Kansai International Airport.

Food: Japanese food is renowned the world over as being delicious and healthful. Very few Japanese are obese. Japanese restaurants have sprouted all over the world precisely because of its freshness and healthfulness; the vegetables and seafood that are served elegantly prepared, simply cooked and full of flavor. And unlike the tourist fare of the $25 hamburger, Japanese food is quite reasonable. Many cafes serve a breakfast consisting of coffee, a soft-boiled egg, toast and an orange for about $3.80. Lunch typically runs about $8.00 for noodles, some fish, a bowl of rice and some pickles. Dinner might be a bit more expensive, but again, but for about $15.00, one can eat quite well, including fish or meat, vegetables, rice, soup, and tea. Beer and liquor cost more, of course. There are also fabulous food markets in the underground train stations where hundreds of vendors prepare and display freshly prepared food every day.

Housing: We went to Akashi to visit my husband's high school teacher. While waiting for the 86-year-old gentleman, we happened upon a real estate office, and as I am wont to do, I looked at the window advertisements. I did this just for fun, never expecting to see anything we could afford. After all, we all know that Japan is “expensive,” and memories of million-dollar cubbyholes were still dancing in my brain. I absent-mindedly perused the ads, all written in Japanese, with the tiny pictures that can't possibly do justice to the interiors, and found the expected apartments listed in the hundreds of thousands, when I saw a few ads for condos at under $100,000 US. Wait – that has got to be a typo. No, my husband assured me, as he reminded me how to read prices posted in yen and translate them into our familiar US currency. I found a “3 LDK” for about $89,000 (LDK stands for living, dining and kitchen – Japan does not list the number of bedrooms as we do states-side; however, real estate listings typically show a diagram of the apartment, and thus one can easily note the number of bedrooms. It is interesting to note that one such “bedroom” is reserved as a “tatami” room, which is used for entertainment in the traditional Japanese home. Of course, depending on one's needs, this room can also be used as a bedroom). Looking a bit further, now with increasing interest, I found an ad for a 3 LDK condo with a beach view for $79,000. Are you kidding me? With a view on the beach? This has got to be a mistake! In Japan? Where things are supposed to be “expensive”? The ad even had thumbnail images of that view on the beach. To say that I could not believe my eyes is an understatement.

We did not have time to walk in and discuss the ad with the real estate salesman, nor to ask relevant questions, such as the age and condition of the condo, property taxes, condo fees, insurance, etc. But you can be sure that on our next trip, we will perform due diligence on all these issues.

Courtesy: It is almost axiomatic that Japanese people are courteous. Everywhere you go in Japan, from the gas station attendant to the bus boy, everyone bows and says “Hai!” the English equivalent of “Yes, Sir.” While in the United States, we have become ever more casual in our interactions with each other, not so in Japan, which maintains a level of courtesy rival to none. In fact, even the aircraft marshaller, after going through the necessary maneuvers to guide a plane to its appropriate dock, bows deeply when he is finished. I suppose many would deride such courtesy as phony, but it cannot be denied that these simple acts are extremely pleasant, and are the social grease of society's wheels. I, for one, revel in such luxuries, and find such an environment one of the highlights of living.

To be sure, Japan has a few disadvantages. The weather is not always sunny; there is smog in the cities; traffic can be horrendous at times, and highway tolls are quite high. Japan is far from the States, which makes visiting States-side family and friends difficult. There is the language barrier: not everyone speaks English in Japan. Television programming is mostly Japanese. There is the so-called culture shock. But for each such disadvantage, the adventurous would find solutions: a retiree might enjoy teaching English, a quite lucrative enterprise; one might decide not to battle traffic during rush hours, or use the back roads instead of the highways. One might either enjoy the four seasons, or simply move to a warmer part of Japan. But for each disadvantage, one might say that no country is perfect.

Japan may be a place affording a safe lifestyle, replete with activities, friends, good food and an economical retirement.

Japan – up for consideration as a retirement destination.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

With my talents, I should be a millionnaire!

Do I sound conceited? delusional? megalomaniac, perhaps? Psychologists, go ahead and have a field day if you like.

Truth be told, I AM talented and multifaceted, skilled, competent and accomplished.  Yet, why am I not a millionnaire?  More to the point, why are my talents not manifesting in a lot of money in my coffers? There may be some interesting explanations.

For example, I don't believe I am "business minded."  I have resisted starting a "real" business for as long as I can remember.  I've given myself multiple excuses, including the hassle of hiring good personnel, the paperwork hassle of dealing with corporations and tax implications, the laws involved, etc.  To my own credit, I did try all of the above at the time I started my medical transcription career: I hired personnel, some of whom were woefully inept, and found that it took me more time to train them than get the work done; and some of them were untrainable.  When I found an excellent assistant, she promptly announced that she was going off on her own, to start her own business.  At the time, I was in constant contact with my accountant, and it seemed awfully cumbersome - and expensive - to file all that paperwork associated with workers' compensation, corporate taxes, etc.  Even going the sole proprietorship route seemed daunting.  Ergo, not a business, but doing the work myself.  Result: Limited money.

What about my art? By some accounts, I am a talented artist (see  Thank you very much.  But hard as I try; much as I exhibit; regardless of how many solo shows I do, the money remains in the paintings - not in my pocket.  Sure, people gawk and admire; they attend the shows, and comment about how lovely things are, but they do not buy.  It's like going to a museum: You stare at the walls, but the thought of purchasing does not cross your mind.

I've always had a "head for numbers," and the options bug bit me hard in 1998-1999.  For a short while (about 5 minutes), I was wealthy.  By my standards.  The money rolled in.  LOTS of money.  I remember one trade that I put on just before lunch, with a sell order at a particular price, coming back from lunch having made $3,000.   My money at risk was about $1000.  That's my idea of good money.  But then the market crashed badly, and I'm still recuperating 12 years later! Where is all that talent I thought I had?  Do I not have the courage to buck the system and trade the downside?  Apparently not.  If I was successful once, that success did not seem to have followed me all these years.  The market crashed in 2000, fear gripped me, and I'm still reeling.  Psychologist to the rescue!

What about real estate?  I have been a licensed realtor for 20 years; have bought and sold about 19 properties during my life, have applied for, and been granted many mortgages - you'd think that some of those would have panned out into very profitable investments? Noooooo.  Oh, yes, actually, one of them did.  But all that gorgeous profit went to pay down margin calls from the stock market fiasco of 2000!

So here am I, nearing retirement, lamenting some of my missed opportunities, lamenting my anxious personality, yet curious about why my abilities have not served to create a more, shall we say, generous lifestyle.

On the other hand, one might look at it in an entirely different light: I AM enjoying a very generous lifestyle indeed!  I am living in a lovely townhouse that is paid for (no mortgage this time); I have taken up public speaking, and find myself enjoying it and being successful at it, and aspiring to become professional; I continue my medical transcription, and continue to enjoy painting.  Some of these activities provide remuneration in the form of money; others provide the rewards of personal accomplishments and self satisfaction.  How could I complain?