Retiring in Hawaii: Pros & Cons (Part 7)

Hawaii’s kupuna are loved and respected (photo credit: Hawaii Magazine)

I have gray hair and I look my age. Unfortunately, as it happens with all too many older people, I have sometimes been judged by the color of my hair and the wrinkles on my face and quickly dismissed, deemed to be an out-of-it old geezer who knows nothing about technology, or about the world or what’s going on. It’s not always true, of course, but it has happened to me enough to have been noticeable.

Although we work hard to stay healthy and active, and living in Hawai’i helps keep us this way, we know a time will come when we will need more care and assistance, especially for possible medical conditions. I’ve covered some of the issues involved with growing old in the islands, especially as it pertains to housing, and present below some more advantages and disadvantages, and how things operate here:

  • PRO: The strong influence of both native and Asian cultures translates into greater respect for the elderly in Hawai’i overall. The islands have a long history of caring for its elderly, or kupuna. Kupuna literally means ancestor but also infers someone who is both wise and beloved. Seniors outside of family are traditionally referred to as “aunty” and “uncle,” and the terms are used by children and younger people of all ages. Both Brett and I have yet to be treated with anything less than full respect here from everyone we have encountered, no matter their age, a somewhat different experience than we encountered on the mainland at times. The trend in Hawai’i is to keep seniors living on their own for as long as possible, and many services exist to help the elderly remain independent, including van service to doctor appointments, senior centers, Meals on Wheels or community meals, and low-cost or free housekeeping assistance. Traditionally families care for their kupuna but with demographics and the state’s economy changing, family care is changing as well and more and more elderly are turning to services provided by the state.
  • CON: While the number of assisted living and retirement centers has been growing in Hawai’i, the costs for them are growing as well. Even with more homes and senior residences available in every price range, with the growth in the elderly population there is a waiting list for vacancies. If round-the-clock health care is needed, nursing home costs in Hawai’i are approximately 44% higher than the national average. However, even having enough money to cover your costs does not mean there will be an open spot when needed. On some of the islands, private homes offer boarding where elderly can live and receive care. However, these are sometimes operated according to the ethnic background of the owner with different cultural norms, customs and even diet a part of the experience. Boarding in a private home can mean a loving, pleasant experience or it could be a nightmare of abuse and neglect. However, Hawai’i conducts unannounced inspections of licensed private boarding homes, and inspections have shown there to be thankfully few problems with these homes.

Brett and I moved to Hawai’i with the intention of remaining there until the end of our lives, but life has had other plans for us. With our son in Japan, and our daughters living back on the east coast, it makes more sense to eventually relocate somewhere other than Hawaii in spite of our love for the climate and lifestyle here.

All of the points made in the past few weeks about Hawaii retirement can of course be extrapolated to any other place. Some of the pros and cons are unique to Hawaii, but all still give ideas for consideration when deciding whether to stay in a location or move elsewhere in retirement.

Retiring in Hawaii: Pros & Cons (Part 6)

Container ship loaded with cars (Photo credit: iStock)

Whether or not to bring your car along or buy here is a big question when considering a move to Hawaii. Maybe you dream of living without a car and using public transportation, or living with just one car in retirement. There are both pros and cons to bringing shipping a car over, and while public transportation is an issue that may not affect many, as with everything else in Hawai’i there are both pros and cons, especially depending on the island you live on.

PRO: The cost for shipping a car to Hawaii from the west coast of the U.S. isn’t as expensive as one might imagine. We paid just $1000 for the service in 2014 but these days the price runs between $1500 – $2100. However, if you own a paid for, used car in good condition or are still making payments on a newer car it can make sense to pay to ship your car over because replacing your car here can cost a whole lot more.

Car registration fees in Hawaii can be inexpensive compared to other states on the mainland. There is an annual base state registration fee of $45 each year, and each county then assesses their own registration fees. On Kaua’i the rate for cars and passenger trucks is $1.25 per pound. We own a Honda Civic, a fairly light car, and our registration fees and inspection came to $178 this past year.

The availability of affordable public transportation means that seniors have the means to stay mobile and active longer, even if they can no longer afford to maintain a car or just want to reduce the amount of driving they do. People aged 65 and older can ride TheBus all over the island of O’ahu at a discounted cost. Those over 60 receive a discounted fare to ride the Kauai Bus, and 55 and older can get a discounted monthly pass on the Mau’i Bus. Bus transportation is free for seniors aged 55 and older on the Big Island’s Hele-On public transportation system (you must provide ID each time showing proof of age).

CON: If you’ve shipped your car to Hawaii, the system for registering your car in Hawaii is convoluted and complicated. The first step requires getting your car inspected, and since it isn’t registered in Hawaii it will automatically fail. The failed inspection inspection report is then taken to the DMV, where you show the title and/or any lien, pay the registration fee, any taxes due, or other costs based on the age of the car, the weight, and so forth. Once that is done you’re given your registration and Hawaii license plates. The car then has to go back to the inspection station to get approved, and inspection stickers are applied to your license plate (you only pay the inspection station when you pass the inspection) and you’re good to go. A new car purchased on the island receives an inspection sticker good for two years; all other cars, including new cars shipped from the mainland, only receive a one-year sticker.

Used cars on Hawaii go for higher prices than they do on the mainland and may not be in as good a shape. Rust, salt and sun damage are endemic. In some cases, it can make more sense to purchase a new car on the mainland and have it shipped over. There are no luxury car dealerships on Kaua’i, for example, and if you want one of those you will have to pay extra to have it barged over from Oahu.

As for public transportation, the system honestly isn’t very good. Other than on O’ahu, public transportation is less than ideal and seniors without a car usually must rely on cabs, ride share, friends, and relatives for transportation. After 10 years and still going, the much anticipated Honolulu light rail system is still under construction and only half complete, and costs for its construction have more than doubled. Bus systems on islands other than O’ahu are also less extensive. For example, on Kaua’i, while the bus travels all the way around the island from Kekaha in the southwest from Hanalei in the north, there are limited bus stops along the route, sometimes with several miles between them. If you don’t live near one of the bus stops then public transportation isn’t very convenient, useful or even worth considering, especially if you need to use it for shopping. It’s the same for the bus systems on Mau’i and the Big Island – they are limited. There is no public transportation on Molokai.

Our entire family were big fans and users of public transportation in Portland, and we were initially interested in using the Kaua’i bus here. We noticed during visits that the system appeared to be used quite a bit, with buses often filled to standing room only. However, the reality turned out to be no bus stops anywhere remotely close to where we lived during our first stay, and the bus schedules didn’t fit the girls’ after-school schedules either.

Staying mobile might not seem much of a hassle in Hawai’i, especially if you plan to bring your car along or buy one here as soon as you arrive (in many cases it costs less to ship your car than buy here). Except for Hawaii, the Big Island, the islands aren’t all that big. Still, gasoline is expensive, there’s wear and tear and premature aging to your car from the elements and you may find yourself sitting in traffic every day if you commute. We considered public transportation, and we currently live nearby to a bus stop, but so far our little car gets the job done and doesn’t cost us much to operate.

Retiring in Hawaii: Pros & Cons (Part 5)

Year-round growing weather means an abundance of fresh, local, and affordable produce at farmers’ markets and farm stands in Hawaii.

Back when we were still in Portland, when I would mention to anyone that we were planning to retire in Hawai’i, many would sigh and talk about paradise in one breath, and then turn right around and talk about how expensive Hawai’i is. Then they would sigh once more and mention paradise and the weather again.

Weather was the number one item on our list when it came to choosing a retirement location. It made no sense for us to move from the cold, dreary and wet winters of Portland to an area with even colder winters just to enjoy a lower cost of living. However, cost of living was still a major factor in deciding just where we could actually afford to live. Paradise is wonderful, but if you can’t afford to pay the rent or get out and enjoy it, then there’s really no point in living there.

The next two points about retiring in the middle of this series of pros and cons of retiring in Hawai’i (or not) are here for a reason. After working your way through the first four, the pros and cons at in this post can and should cause one to pause and maybe even reevaluate whether or not to move all over again.

PRO: The warm weather and tropical climate of Hawai’i is very kind to aging bodies and bones, and conditions like arthritis. Temperatures average between 75°-85° on most parts of all the islands during the day, and rarely fall below 65° at night. Both Brett and I definitely notice a difference in how our bodies and bones feel here. I have arthritis in one knee (from a bad fracture years ago) and the Brett has mild arthritis in some of his joints. We have absolutely no symptoms at all while we we’re here; in fact, we forgot we even had arthritis until we started traveling back in 2018. Anecdotally, I know of elderly who have been able to reduce their use of medication that was necessary back on the mainland, and who are in better health than ever. The tropical climate also means there is quite a bit of humidity, which can drive me nuts, but it’s honestly nowhere near as bad as what we experienced living in the eastern U.S. and Japan (the humidity here is child’s play compared to those places). Year-round warm weather also means a year-round growing season, so (affordable) locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables are always available, and it also means you can stay active year round as well.

CON: We call it the “paradise tax,” but everything costs more in Hawai’i. Everything (except maybe a trip to the beach). Although we save on income taxes, housing is more expensive than on the mainland, as are utilities (Kaua’i costs for electricity are the highest in the nation). Gasoline costs more. Food and medical costs are both expensive and also taxed (4%, although prescriptions are exempt) as Hawaii imposes a general excise tax versus a sales tax. All living expenses should be carefully investigated and evaluated before deciding whether a move to Hawai’i is feasible. The best means of keeping costs down in Hawaii is to not expect to live like on the mainland, but to learn to live like a local. That can mean changing habits, learning to eat new foods (and giving up old favorites), and practicing frugality at every turn.

I think the biggest reason Brett and I have succeeded here is because we w-a-y over-budgeted before we ever arrived. We researched rental costs for nearly a year to see what we could get for how much and where. We kept up with gasoline prices on the island, and food prices as well, and did our best to understand how much utilities would be. We made choices on where to live based on how a location would affect our budget. Once here, we learned over time where to shop and how to shop like a local (Costco, Walmart, Big Save, farmers’ markets and farm stands). We stuck with an economical small car and kept/keep our gasoline costs down. Our determination to live under our means in spite of the high cost of living here has provided us with a quality, healthy life using only our retirement income, and has allowed us to save, help our girls get through college, and enjoy travel out of the state and overseas. Living in Hawaii is expensive, but it can be doable.

Retiring in Hawaii: Pros & Cons (Part 4)

One of our favorite parts of living in Hawaii is giving and receiving the Shaka. It can mean hello, thank you, take care, right on!, goodbye, but most of all . . . aloha. (photo credit: Kukui’ula)

Once we decided that we wanted to retire in Hawai’i, Brett and I began reading as much as we could about the state and living there as retirees. We also talked with as many different people as possible, those who were living on Kaua’i when we visited, or had previously lived in Hawai’i, to pick their brains about the best and worst of life in the islands. This week’s positive and negative reasons for retiring in Hawai’i are the two aspects that almost everyone spoke about or mentioned most often.

PRO: We have found that Hawai’i residents are, without exception, the friendliest people that we have ever encountered. From locals who were born and raised on the islands, to those who relocated years ago to recent residents, almost everyone we meet takes the time to talk with us (‘talk story’) and offer help when needed. Almost without exception, everyone we pass on our walks greets us, friends and strangers alike and asks about YaYu. Residents gave us tips on how to settle in, get involved and make friends, and let us know where volunteers were needed. We were told about the best hula instructors, where to learn ukulele, take cooking classes and so forth, but also the best markets to shop and find bargains, best places to eat, best places to visit. Aloha is something we read about, but to experience it is something else.

CON: Geographically speaking, the Hawaiian islands are one of the most isolated places on the planet, alone and surrounded on all sides by thousands of miles of the Pacific Ocean. One of the most difficult adjustments new residents face is that distance from everything else, especially family and friends. Almost everyone we spoke with before we moved here told us the importance of budgeting in an amount every year for travel off the island you live on. Whether it’s to reinforce ties with family and friends back on the mainland or just to visit another one of the islands, everyone said it’s important to be able to “get away” somewhere once a year.

The spread of the virus has made it difficult to impossible for us to get away since we arrived back in March of 2020. Visits to Japan are off the table for the foreseeable future as they deal with their own surges and quarantines remain in place, and we haven’t felt any desire to return to the mainland. Savings goals have kept us from visiting another one of the islands. We’re looking forward to our daughters’ visits at Christmas this year, and to see other friends next month when they come to Kaua’i. In the meantime we stay hunkered down in order to stay healthy, but we do miss greatly being able to get away once in a while.

Retiring in Hawaii: Pros & Cons (Part 3)

This week’s positive and negative factors for retiring in Hawai’i both concern housing. If you’re retiring and plan on buying a house, in spite of extremely high prices there is some good news; if you need specialized housing, the news is not so good.

PRO: Houses in Hawai’i are an extremely costly proposition these days. However, Hawaii property taxes are still fairly low (we are frankly amazed by how low they are in Hawaii compared to other states), and senior homeowners receive additional exemptions on their taxes. Back when we were considering buying, because our ages our annual property taxes would have only been around $150! Currently, all Hawaiian homeowners receive a $160,000 tax exemption on their home but seniors 60 and over receive the following exemptions.

  • $180,000 for ages 60 to 79.
  • $200,000 for age 80 and above

Every little bit helps!

The old Lihue theater has been refurbished and repurposed as low-income senior housing.

CON: Inexpensive elderly housing and assisted living can be difficult to find in Hawaii, especially if you need it sooner rather than later. Housing for seniors, government subsidized or otherwise, exists on most of the islands and as might be expected, most of it is in Honolulu. However, space in these places is limited, they can be costly, and it can take years to gain a spot in a government-subsidized housing facility. We know of three retirement/senior living facilities on Kauai, although there may be more. One is a full-scale retirement and assisted living center in Lihue. It is fairly new and is also very expensive. Another housing option for low-income retirees is the old Lihue theater, which has been remodeled and turned into subsidized one-bedroom apartments for seniors, a very clever way to save and utilize a historic building. There are income limits to qualify for one of these apartments, and our income is too high. Another senior housing complex exists in Kalaheo, near where we live, but we again have too high an income to qualify. I’ve recently seen openings advertised on Craigslist – when we lived here before I never once saw an ad – the only notice I ever saw was an announcement on the theater marquis.

In Hawaii, it’s very common for extended family to live together and manage care for elderly family members, possibly with help from the community. Continuing home health care is a frequently used option for seniors here, and Kapuna Care (kapuna = grandparent, ancestor, or honored elderly), funded by the State of Hawaii, allows seniors to stay in their homes and provides assistance with daily living activities. Other private companies and services exist as well to help elders remain in their homes or with family.

While not the only reason, current housing costs play a major role in our decision not to remain in Hawaii, as does the lack of options on Kaua’i for senior care, which may be needed in the future.

Some Things We Did Right

I’m still somewhat amazed at times at what Brett and I have accomplished on a not very big income, and the life we enjoy now. It wasn’t that long ago we thought Brett would be working into his 80s, and worrying about how we’d get the girls through college. We certainly never thought we’d be enjoying the good life in Hawaii or that we’d be able to travel and see the world (and never thought we’d be affected by anything like COVID either).

Looking back, it’s easy to see all of the things we did wrong. We spent when we should have saved. We almost always carried some debt, whether that was a car payment or a mortgage or consumer debt. We should have saved more, although there were times when that was impossible even when both of us were working. In retrospect we can see we did make the right choices in four critical areas and at four critical times, sometimes inadvertently, all of which have helped lead to the life we have now. We have more than most and less than many, but we are enjoying the comfortable retirement we once thought we’d never have.

Although it wasn’t obvious at the time, below are the four things in our lives that made a difference:

Senior Chief Petty Officer Brett, about a year before retirement from the navy at age 42.
  • Staying in the navy. Brett ended up serving 22 years in the navy, but while he was in, retiring from the service was never a sure thing. It was a good life, but a hard life too, with lots of moves and deployments, and lots of time spent away and apart from each other and family. We used to joke that the first thing he had to do at each new duty station was turn in a list of all family birthdays, anniversaries, and other important dates so they could make sure he would be deployed at those times. Brett did his service enlistment by enlistment. However, because we eventually made the choice to stay for retirement, we have had a guaranteed income every month for as long as Brett’s alive, and equally good, outstanding health insurance for life as well (that will continue even if I outlive Brett). That monthly income has made sure our rent or mortgage has been covered ever since he left the navy, and we’ve never had to worry about health care. We never thought about what it would be like not to have those things while he was on active duty, but we are grateful every day now that we stuck with it to retire.
  • Sticking it out at a miserable job. Brett spent his last 14 years before retirement working for a great company, at a job he mostly loved. He worked with and for people he enjoyed. However, he went through a really bad stretch of two years when he worked under the Manager from Hell. Miserable can’t begin to describe that period of time. The manager was the one who abruptly ended Brett”s overtime, causing his income to drop by a third and sending us spiraling into debt (the work never away either; it just kept piling up because he couldn’t keep up with it). Things got to the point where I begged him to quit because the girls and I couldn’t take his misery any more. He did look for, interview for, and was offered other employment during this time, but none of these employers offered anywhere near the benefits he received from the company, so he stayed while other co-workers, equally miserable under the awful manager, headed for other employment. The manager was eventually demoted, and Brett was subsequently offered his dream position within the company with a boost in pay for his final two years before retirement. Because he stayed, Brett was able to beef up his 401K before retirement and he also receives a small but steady pension, a benefit I will continue to receive if I outlive Brett.
The cheap house
  • Buying a cheap house. When we bought our second home in Portland over 16 years ago, we decided to buy the nicest but cheapest house we could find that was convenient to the girls’ schools. The house we ended up purchasing fit the bill perfectly. It was new construction with simple, inexpensive finishes but a fantastic floor plan that was walking distance from the girls’ elementary school. However, it was located in a neighborhood that had friends and family wondering whether we had lost our minds because the neighborhood’s nickname was “Felony Flats.”. Almost to a person we were asked, “Why did you buy here?” and told we “could have done so much better.” But guess what? Our low mortgage payment helped us pay off our debt when times got tough. The house not only held its value, but increased enough that even following the burst of housing bubble we ended up making a small profit. In the nine years we lived in that house the neighborhood became a desirable location within Portland with the elementary school located across the street earning awards and developing a waiting list to get in. We could have afforded a much larger mortgage in a different neighborhood at the time we bought our house, but seven years after its sale I am still so thankful we bought that cheap house, and shudder to think about how things might have turned out if we hadn’t.
The girls
  • Adopting our daughters. One of the biggest reason we carried debt into our 50s and beyond is because we adopted not once but three times, beginning in our mid-40s. We knew with each adoption that we were spending or taking away from our retirement and future financial security, but we also knew it was the right thing for us to do, no matter the cost. Neither Brett nor I have ever regretted for a moment what we spent to bring our girls home and raise them, but we knew there was a chance we would maybe have to work nearly into our 80s because of our choices. However, unbeknownst to us, because we turned out to have dependents under the age of 18, Brett was eligible to receive extra Social Security benefits for the girls which along with our debt elimination made it possible for him to retire at age 63. By the time YaYu finally aged out, I was eligible for my Social Security and a lump-sum pension payment from Oregon. While we would most likely be enjoying an even more comfortable retirement if we had not adopted, we can’t imagine our lives without our daughters, and adding them to our family when we did surprisingly ended up providing us the opportunity to retire earlier than expected rather than face long-term financial hardship.

Brett and I made many bad financial choices and mistakes along the way to retirement. A few times it seemed we had done nothing but the wrong thing, and would pay dearly for it later. Now we can see we actually did the important things right, even though we usually couldn’t see it or imagine it at the time, things that are now providing us financial security, allowing us to make dreams come true, and providing a comfortable life as we age.

Retiring In Hawaii: Pros & Cons (Part 1)

It’s tempting to think of sunny weather, palm trees, ocean breezes and mai tais in the evening when contemplating retirement in Hawai’i. For Brett and I, the weather was probably the main factors in deciding to retire to the islands, but there are many other things about Hawai’i that work in its favor as a retirement location. However, there are also several other factors that are not so positive. While it’s easy to consider the good, the negative or not-so-good aspects of living on the islands must be honestly considered as well.

Before we relocated to Kaua’i in 2014, we did a lot of research. A LOT. One of the best resources we came across on relocating to and succeeding in Hawai’i was So You Want to Live in Hawai’i by Toni Polancy. Besides having loads of a great information about the ins and outs, ups and down of daily life in the state, the book also had a chapter on retirement, and outlined eight good reasons to retire in Hawai’i as well as eight good reasons NOT to retire in Hawai’i. All of these pros and cons were factors we weighed carefully before making our move to Kaua’i in 2014.

So You Want to Live in Hawai’i doesn’t appear to have been updated since 2010, but the general information presented in the book, for the most part, is still on point and worthwhile. I ran this seven-part series several years ago in a former blog, and in the coming weeks, I want to again present two points based on Toni’s list from the retirement chapter, one positive and one negative, and discuss where we how we have dealt with them.

  • PRO: Statistically, living in Hawai’i may add four more years to your life. You may also be thinner and more active in Hawai’i than you were on the mainland. Hawai’i has the fewest overweight people of any state. Those are statistics, but the (mostly) good weather and availability of outdoor activities mean that there is more potential to get out and stay active here year-round. The abundance and affordability of locally raised fruits and vegetables and the higher cost of food otherwise has turned out to mean we eat less of some things (like meat) than we might have in another location, but more fruits and vegetables overall. It’s truly easy to stay active here, whether that’s walking, swimming, hiking, doing yoga, or participating in other activities – we just want to be outside as much as possible! I honestly believe we’re in better health, and in better shape here than we would have been in any other location we considered.
  • CON: Although you’ll be living in paradise, once the initial thrill is gone it’s possible you’ll miss family and old friends more than you imagined. Loneliness is a major issue for many who move to Hawai’i, especially those who have grandchildren back on the mainland (or like us, in another country). The average stay for new residents is under two years, and loneliness is a major factor in many transplant’s decision to return to the mainland. We currently don’t live near any close relatives, nor do we see them frequently, and Hawai’i didn’t actually put us nearer to our son and his family as flights from Japan to Hawai’i are about the same length as flights were from Japan to Portland. Our distance from our family has been one of the most difficult aspects of living here for us but we have found ways to communicate frequently and keep up with each other. There have been no rose-colored glasses either when it comes to settling in and making new friends and connections here, or what we gave up leaving Portland. People are very friendly, here but it can take time to make friends and find your place in your community as locals have seen newcomers come and go for years and like to see first whether someone is committed to staying or not.

Until One Is Committed

“UNTIL ONE IS COMMITTED, THERE IS HESITANCY, THE CHANCE TO DRAW BACK, ALWAYS INEFFECTIVENESS. CONCERNING ALL ACTS OF INITIATIVE (AND CREATION), THERE IS ONE ELEMENTARY TRUTH, THE IGNORANCE OF WHICH KILLS COUNTLESS IDEAS AND SPLENDID PLANS: THAT THE MOMENT ONE DEFINITELY COMMITS ONESELF, THEN PROVIDENCE MOVES TOO. ALL SORTS OF THINGS OCCUR TO HELP ONE THAT WOULD NEVER OTHERWISE HAVE OCCURRED. A WHOLE STREAM OF EVENTS ISSUES FROM THE DECISION, RAISING IN ONE’S FAVOUR ALL MANNER OF UNFORESEEN INCIDENTS AND MEETINGS AND MATERIAL ASSISTANCE, WHICH NO MAN COULD HAVE DREAMT WOULD HAVE COME HIS WAY. I HAVE LEARNED A DEEP RESPECT FOR ONE OF GOETHE’S COUPLETS:
WHATEVER YOU CAN DO, OR DREAM YOU CAN, BEGIN IT.
BOLDNESS HAS GENIUS, POWER, AND MAGIC IN IT!”

William Hutchinson Murray

(This was first posted on January 16, 2018, but it seems timely once again, even in this time of unknowns.)

The best description I ever heard of the China adoption process was that putting the dossier together was like doing your taxes over and over and over and over and over and over . . . again and again and again and again . . . .  A slew of documents needed to be assembled upfront: a home study, birth certificates, marriage certificate, medical reports, police reports, financial statement, adoption statements, immigration forms, etc. – there were nearly 20 documents required in all. Each one of them had to be notarized in the state where they originated, then each notarized document went to the Secretary of State of that state for the notary to be certified. After that, the entire stack, by now nearly three inches high, was sent by courier to the U.S. State Department for certification, and then to the Chinese Embassy for each document’s final certification and approval. Four copies had to be made of every page of the entire dossier and only then could it finally be sent to China and put in line for us to be matched with a child.

The process took several months to complete, and along the way, there was always the possibility for China to tweak or change their requirements. For example, we were almost done with the dossier for Meiling’s adoption when China suddenly announced that physicals could no longer be more than six months old, and ours were seven months old at that point. Panic! But, our doctor squeezed us in, and every other part of the certification process worked flawlessly (for a change) and in just a few short weeks the dossier was finally complete and off to China in late May of 1996. Matches and referrals were taking only three or so months back then, so our hopes were high that by the time we returned home in August from taking our son to college we would have news of a new daughter.

However, when we returned home and called our agency the news was not good; in fact, it was very bad. China had shut down adoptions for families that already had children, which of course included us. Our agency was moving families into other adoption programs, but China had been the only program that worked for us because of our ages (we were each over 40 years old). What had happened, we later learned, was a power struggle over the international adoption program had broken out between two different political bureaus in China, and adoptions had ground to a halt while they fought it out and reorganized. (We also learned our agency was convinced at the time that the entire program was going to collapse.)

All of our hopes and love, and quite a bit of money, had gone into the adoption process for more than a year, including all of Brett’s and my work assembling our dossier. I was in graduate school at the time, and my work began to suffer because I could barely concentrate. Brett unhappily slogged off to work each day as well. Our son was at college in another state, so it was just the two of us at home each evening, and we were glum, depressed, and unsure of what to do or how to proceed.

On one particularly bad day, one of my professors emailed me the quote above, and told me to “hang in there.” I shared it with Brett that evening, and we talked about how deeply committed we still were to adopting from China and had been from the start. All sorts of unexpected and serendipitous events had happened and helped us along the way to make our adoption dream so far a reality, and we decided that rather than pull out we would stay with it to the end and see what happened, no matter the outcome. We both felt in our hearts that our daughter was waiting for us there.

The William Murray quote was a turning point for us. And, it has proven prescient ever since. When we have committed to something, whether it was adding an additional child to our family again through adoption, or getting ourselves out of debt, or moving to Hawai’i, or planning a trip – when we have committed ourselves, as the quote says, Providence has always moved too. Things we couldn’t have imagined happened to help make our plans a reality, and we were given the drive, vision, and persistence to see our dreams come true and our goals reached.

Commitment has been the step where we’ve gone from “do you think?” or “should we?” to “let’s do this” and then started figuring out how to accomplish it. The path to success has not always been straight or smooth or easy, but time and experience have shown that the unexpected does and will occur along the way to help, especially when we need it most. As each journey continues we begin to see things in different ways and act on them accordingly, with our commitment to finishing growing stronger the further along we get.

As the new year began in 1997 we were still waiting, but Brett and I had reached the depths of despair. There had been no positive word from our agency for weeks, and we felt like we were hanging on to hope by our fingernails. We had enjoyed having our son home for Christmas, but he returned to school on January 9. So, when the phone rang on the morning of January 10 I assumed it was him asking about something he had forgotten and wanted us to send. I had been lying on our sofa, crying and asking God for some kind of a sign, that if there was to be no adoption to let us know somehow and we would let it go, but if we were to continue to hope then we would continue to hang on. When I answered the phone though it was not our son but our social worker: “Laura, there’s a baby girl waiting for you in China.” On March 12, 1997, in the hallway of a hotel in China, we met our little Meiling for the first time and she was ours.

This was the only picture we received of Meiling before we met her.

Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it!

Back to the Future: The R-Word

I was very surprised when I came across this post from January 2011 because I thought this part of our journey had come much, much later.

Brett and I have long called ourselves “accidental retirees.” We had never thought much about or discussed retirement although we did save, but at the beginning of 2010 we did not believe we would ever be able to retire. We were drowning in debt at that point, had depleted our savings, and we were still raising young children – retirement was nothing more than a pipe dream. While we had committed ourselves to getting out of debt we were unable to see ourselves ever surviving without being employed somewhere. However, it appears that after just one (very difficult) year of debt reduction, we were not only thinking about but apparently actively starting to plan Brett’s retirement!

The game-changer was not only the elimination of over half of our debt, but discovering Brett would qualify for an additional family allowance from Social Security. Before January 2011 we had no idea such a thing even existed, let alone that we would qualify for it. I remember Brett and I talking with a counselor at Social Security, and finding out that because we had three children under age 18 that we would receive the full allowance, at least for a couple of years. With that, and with Brett’s military retirement, a small pension from his employer, his regular Social Security, and our debt eliminated, retirement became an affordable reality.

Brett did not retire in 2012 – that didn’t happen until June 2013 because stuff continued to happen and the rest of our debt did not get paid off as quickly as we hoped. However, at the beginning of 2011, we finally knew where the path we were on was taking us and how we were going to get there, and we had an even bigger motivation for finally getting rid of our debt. That journey never really got much easier, but knowing what awaited us at the end made a huge difference. 

The R-Word

No, it’s not Rest, Relaxation, Reuse or Recycle. The R-word here is Retirement. 

Brett is eligible to retire (Social Security-type retire) in just a little over a year. This is both exciting and somewhat frightening at the same time. The date is coming fast too, although frankly, not fast enough for Brett. He wants to be done with work yesterday, although he plans to continue working at his current position until the end of 2012. His huge desire to retire is the primary factor behind our urgency to pay off our debt.

The conventional wisdom is that you should work as long as possible, and put off taking your Social Security benefits in order to draw the full benefit upon retirement. We’re in a somewhat unique position though because we have dependents under the age of 18, so Brett will be eligible to receive the full family allowance for a while along with his standard Social Security payment. It makes sense for him to retire earlier rather than later. Social Security, along with his military retirement and pension from his current job, will provide us with an adequate income when he does leave his job. He will probably continue to work part-time somewhere because he’s not a sit-around sort of guy, but that’s an unknown for now. Right around when the time comes for our youngest (YaYu) to age out of eligibility for the allowance, my Social Security and pension will kick in to bring our income back up, although my pension will probably be just enough to buy milk every month. We’re not going to be rich by any stretch of the imagination, but we’ll be OK, especially if we don’t have any debt.

One thing we are talking about now is whether to stay in Portland or move elsewhere and if so, where? Brett and I are both getting tired of the rain and the cold of Portland winters, but the girls love it here. Any move would have to be done after Meiling graduates from high school in 2014 as she does not do particularly well with change, and is the most embedded here. But I’m not sure we will want to stay an additional four years after that for YaYu to graduate. We have long dreamed of moving out to the Oregon coast, but realize we would face the same weather there as we do here. Although I’m originally from California, I have little desire to go back there, and any place on the east coast would be too far away from our son, daughter-in-law, and grandson in Japan. Hawaii is a possibility, although the cost of living is quite high there. We have lots to think about, and thankfully don’t need to make any quick decisions.

We made some not-so-smart financial choices in the past and would be in even better financial shape if we’d done a few things differently, but we also did some things right or smart, like making the commitment for Brett to stick it out with the navy for 22 years, even though it was not an easy life. Adopting three children when we were in our mid- to late-40s was maybe not a smart financial move, but the right thing for us, and the best thing we ever did in every other sense. Going back to school in our 40s and borrowing for that was also not the brightest choice we made, but we’re both glad we have our degrees, and in Brett’s case it has paid off. Sticking with his current employer for all these years has also turned out well, although he could have made more money elsewhere. His Fortune 500 company has provided incredible benefits that no one else could come close to matching, and some of those will continue to be there after retirement.

If I know just one thing now, it’s that time passes way more quickly than you ever think it will and suddenly something like actual retirement looms. When we were young, when Brett was deployed, time seemed to stretch out forever. I never gave much of a thought to retirement or what we’d be doing or how we’d pay for things but all of a sudden . . . here it is. “Old people” were always talking about retirement and saving and investments but we felt like we had forever to get there. How wrong we were! We know that Social Security, in its current form, should be there for us and for that we are immensely grateful. For our son, or our daughters, or others younger than us, maybe not. We’re lucky and we know it.

P.S. I was doubly surprised to see Hawaii mentioned this early as well, as I remembered that as coming much later too.

P.P.S. Neither of us has ever had to (or wanted to) work after retirement – with a changed, more frugal lifestyle, our income, approximately two-thirds of what we earned pre-retirement, has turned out to be enough that we haven’t needed additional employment.

What To Do, What To Do

Should we keep traveling or should we settle down? That’s the BIG question for the Occasional Nomads that we have been and are STILL discussing.

Both options have their advantages and disadvantages, which is why it’s become a neverending topic of conversation for Brett and me. How do we see our future unfolding? That changes frequently, sometimes from day to day. Have we had enough of all this moving around? Some days yes, some days no. Should we settle down? It sounds good for a while, then it doesn’t, then it does again, and so forth. Won’t we get restless if we stop?

It’s wonderful to have options and talk about them but at the same time, it’s beginning to get a bit confusing and even boring at times too. Thankfully it’s not something we ever argue about – we share similar concerns. However, we’ve been going back and forth about this for months now and have reached a point where we need to decide the direction this journey is going to take going forward and then get on with it.

The primary benefit of continuing our nomadic lifestyle is that our income can be devoted almost entirely to doing something we love: travel. We’re not paying for utilities, insurance, and home maintenance, and so forth – we pay for an Airbnb rental and all those other things are included. We also don’t have the expense of owning a car and all that goes along with that, or other expenses that come with staying in one place. We’re blessed with excellent medical insurance that covers us worldwide at no cost. By carefully selecting our rentals we’ve been able to enjoy a quality lifestyle and experience locations and life around the world that would have been difficult to impossible for us to do otherwise.

At the same time, our fund for transportation expenses is diminishing and we’re not able to replenish it now that we’re committed to contributing a not-insignificant amount each month to help YaYu with her college costs. Since we’ve also decided to upgrade our seats for longer flights, we’re eventually going to have to dip into other savings if we want to continue traveling before we’re able to start building it up again.

We’ve discovered along the way though that we don’t like staying in a place too long and begin feeling restless after a couple of months. This is the biggest concern and fear we have about settling down somewhere. One – to two-month stays seem to be the ideal for us, with three months in one place too long (except for Japan because of family there). On the other hand, we dislike short stays because of having to pack and move everything after a few days, and the go-go-go of it wears us out. Being Occasional Nomads versus Short-Term or Long-Term has turned out to be a very good fit for us.

Brett is more enthusiastic about settling down than I am, but we both like the idea of getting our mail sent directly to us, having a regular family doctor and dentist, getting our prescriptions renewed easily, and having a place with our own things where the family can gather. We like the idea of learning to live frugally in one place, from getting haircuts to buying groceries. However, when we think about possibly owning a car again or paying utilities or having a mortgage or keeping up with home maintenance, those sort of things immediately take the shine off of the idea. Having to acquire furniture and other household items once again leaves us cold. Weather, particularly cold weather, has become an issue for both of us as well and limits where we could or would want to settle. We’re not even sure at this point if we want to live in the U.S. anymore.

I’ve always been someone who likes to know what’s happening and see the path going forward. I like to have a plan. When Brett was in the navy and it was getting close to the time for a transfer, I would become an absolute nervous wreck as he waited for orders, wondering where the navy was going to send us next. The not knowing was hard for me because until we had those orders there was no way to plan anything or get ready to move again – we were in limbo. We have plans now for the next seven months, but if we’ve learned nothing else it’s that the time goes by very quickly these days and before we know it that those seven months are going to be over. It’s starting to feel now like it did when we were waiting for orders.

We still have a bit of time on our side, but by early next year a decision is going to have to be made, one we can commit to and make plans for. Our hope is that a compromise solution can be found, one that satisfies our love of travel but also gives us a chance to settle for a while. That, however, may be an impossible dream. We will be talking with our children in the next couple of months to get their feedback, ideas, and concerns, and will work toward figuring out the “big picture” of what our future could, would and maybe should be.

What to do, what to do?