Monday, December 8, 2014

Women are optimistic about retirement but should plan carefully for Social Security

Women represent 57 percent of all Social Security beneficiaries age 62 and older and approximately 68 percent of all beneficiaries age 85 and older - Social Security Administration

With bank savings accounts and CDs paying next to nothing and stock markets in risky territory, how and when to take Social Security benefits as part of your retirement income is a key part the planning, especially for women.
However, the strategy is often more complicated than just delaying benefits, says Kelly O’Donnell, executive vice president of Financial Engines Inc., a California-based investment advisory company. 
“Women face unique challenges in retirement because they typically have saved less but will live longer,” O’Donnell said in a recent telephone interview. “Women need to make the most of Social Security decisions.”
That’s not easy since there are 2,700 different claiming rules related to age, marital status, income and survivorship. Those rules, in turn, generate 8,000 possible claiming strategies for those --- married and single -- nearing retirement.
“It’s not just a matter of delaying Social Security,” O’Donnell said. “It’s a personal decision that requires careful planning and maybe outside financial advice.”
Financial Engines is in the business of helping people with planning as the nation’s largest independent investment advisor. It provides services to more than 9 million employees working for more than 580 companies. Clients include more than 140 Fortune 500 corporations. The company recently conducted a survey to find out more about how people are feeling about retirement planning and life in retirement.
Women look forward to retirement!
The Financial Engines survey determined that despite challenges, more women than men look forward to retirement. Fifty-one percent of women surveyed said that they are looking forward to retirement, compared to just 41 percent of men.
“After spending their lives working, raising kids, and often acting as caregivers to aging parents many women see retirement as some much-needed and well-deserved ‘me time,’” she said. “But to get the most of their lives after work, women need a plan for funding their outside interests in retirement. Given the interest rate environment, there are a lot of people facing retirement who just don’t have enough…delaying Social Security is the best deal in town," she said.
That’s because (if you were born in 1943 or later) for every year you delay claiming benefits, Social Security tacks on an 8 percent increase in the annual benefit payout up until you reach age 70.
According to the Social Security Administration as reported by Financial Engines, when a member of a married couple dies, the survivor, who is more likely to be the woman, will live an average of 11 years on his or her own.
When and how you claim Social Security affects the benefit amount you’ll receive and potentially your quality of life in retirement, cautions O’Donnell.
Claiming too early can mean missing out on as much as $100,000 or more in benefits for individuals and $250,000 or more for married couples.
“Deciding when to claim Social Security is an important decision for everyone, but it’s especially important for women,” explained O’Donnell. “The bottom line for women is that it’s important to have a plan to maximize your income in retirement.”
To help women (and men) make informed Social Security claiming decisions, Financial Engines has made its Social Security Planner (click here) available to everyone at no cost. Additional planning information and resources can be found at
O’Donnell said it is “amazing”  that when she talks to educated working people that there is still a big “wow” when it comes to the complexities of Social Security.
“Lack of information can mean leaving a lot (of money) on the table,” she said.
Other Financial Engine survey results:
- 29 percent of women vs. 40 percent of men are worried about retirement.
- 20 percent of women vs. 25 percent of men are worried about getting bored in retirement. Women looking forward to retirement are most excited about spending more time with family and friends (74 percent), travel (58 percent), pursuing a favorite hobby or passion (56 percent) and volunteering (44 percent). Forty-eight percent also expressed interest in sleeping in later.
“While women have to plan for living longer and often start out retirement with less accumulated wealth due to absences from the workforce , our survey found that they are more comfortable with themselves as they get older and want to do more in retirement,” O’Donnell said. While the majority of women were looking forward to retirement, one-in-four (27 percent) admit to feeling anxious about their financial futures, regardless of how much money they earn now. Women are most concerned about rising health care costs (44 percent), running out of money (43 percent) and Social Security going bankrupt (30 percent). That general anxiety around retirement is not entirely unfounded, said Financial Engines.
A 65 year-old woman today can expect to live to 86.6—more than two years longer than men. According to Financial Engines, the median 401(k) account balance for men age 60 and older is about $84,000 and only $43,000 for women in that same age group.
According to the Social Security Administration, when a member of a married couple dies, the survivor, who is more likely to be the woman, will live an average of 11 years on his or her own. When you claim Social Security affects the benefit amount you’ll receive and potentially your quality of life in retirement.
For more – Financial Engines recommends these Web sites:
Administration on Aging: National Education and Resource Center on Women and Retirement
Employee Benefits Security Administration, click here.
Financial Literacy & Education Commission, click here.
IRS: Changes in Your Life May Affect Retirement Planning, click here.
Retirement Toolkit, click here.
Securities and Exchange Commission: Office of Investor Education and Assistance, click here.
Social Security Administration for Women, click here
USA.Gov: Retirement Resources

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Why and how to hold a family money-summit when everyone is together

"Be careful to leave your sons well instructed rather than rich, for the hopes of the instructed are better than the wealth of the ignorant," --  Epictetus, Greek philosopher. (55-135 A.D.)

Financial advisers recommend that families regularly hold "money-summits" to keep everyone in the loop on estate plans, wills and financial decisions. Once a tool of the ultra-wealthy, the family meeting is now used by families of all economic levels, says financial adviser Gordon Bernhardt.
This of course assumes that the people in your family are getting along, are reasonable and can listen to each other without interrupting. If the people in your family don't fit this "normal" profile then this post may not be helpful. Although there are tips lower in this post that may give you a strategy for handling that difficult family member.
The point here is that holiday family gatherings can be a time for good food, football and for (drum roll please) talking about money.
You might ask, why ruin a perfectly good family get-together by bringing up financial matters? Eventually, every family has the conversation. It just might not happen at a very good time, say when there’s an emergency because of a catastrophic illness or accident, or somebody’s funeral when family members turn to each other with blank looks because no body knows where the will is or what the person’s wishes are when it comes to health care or asset distribution or who is in charge.
Good estate planning, say advisers, is all about including all family members in the process. That means talking about it. But while everybody thinks these discussions are important, few actually have the conversations. Why? Because money is a touchy subject, people are afraid of offending each other by bringing up issues and some family members may be competing for influence for how the discussion goes, writes Robyn Post for in a post "How Families Can Talk About Money over Thanksgiving."
But parents who are still in charge of their finances and estate planning should talk to their kids and even grandkids about where their wills are, who might be assigned power of attorney when they become incapacitated and how assets will be distributed when they die. A big issue for baby boomers may be how to manage grandma, who at 90-something can no longer care for herself. (See previous post). You may believe that only the wealthy 1 percent need to have a family meeting about money. Not true. Tangible assets such as uncle George's clock, the handmade quilts from a great-great-grandmother or uncle Pete's car and savings account, may be worthwhile topics. Family get-togethers offer an opportunity to have a conversation about these all these issues.
How do you bring it up?
There are do’s and don’ts, experts say.
The No. 1 don’t: Don’t bring money matters or inheritance issues up at the holiday dinner table after everyone has had a few drinks. That may not go so well. Instead, let everyone know ahead of time that you’d like to talk about family money matters some time during the get-together. Set a time that’s convenient for everyone…after breakfast first thing; the day after the holiday or the afternoon before the family socializing starts. If you’d rather, have the money-summit as part of a family vacation or get-away some other time.
“Discussing your will and estate planning needs can be a tough topic because it requires coming to terms with mortality,” say advisers at Fidelity Investments. Your plans may stir reactions from some of your heirs. But a will and a financial plan also can lower the stress and give everyone (including you) peace of mind.
My ex-parents-in-law, who both died in their 90s a couple of years ago, held regular money summits with their two sons during holiday get-togethers. The meetings were behind closed doors, separate from any socializing or meals. No wives, no girlfriends, no grandchildren. It was about managing their assets while they were alive and how they would be distributed when they died. I have no idea what they talked about but as far as I know, the planning went well.  
My mother on the other hand struggled to remain in control but left herself open to bullying until she turned her asset management over to a bank trust department. That wasn't easy but she did it.
Barton Goldsmith writing for Psychology Today magazine offers these tips:
Keep your family meeting upbeat. You might begin with a light-hearted story or two. Ask for family remembrances from those attending. A family meeting is about communication, which can lead to better connections between family members, Goldsmith writes. If you keep the conversation light, it makes the communication easier.
Decide who you want in the meeting. Probably more inclusive is better than, not. Feelings can be hurt. There can be resentment. Every family is unique so plan a careful and thoughtful strategy.
Be creative with the meeting space. It could be a back yard, or a park. Go out. Maybe there’s a restaurant with a private space. Avoid the holiday dinner table.
Be flexible with the agenda. Ask those attending to talk about what’s been happening in their own worlds, what their future plans might be. Start off easy.
Consider one-on-one chats
Ideally, before the first meeting you might meet with each family member separately to hear their issues, give them a chance to talk one-on-one. Then put together a short agenda. First question…what would you like to accomplish as a family in 2015?
Hold these meetings regularly….twice a year or more, so everyone gets used to the format and the goals.
All of this assumes that families are not having troubles, that there are no dysfunctional family members who dominate discussions, who become emotional or angry. Who have an abuse problem or face financial difficulties.
If that’s the case, then careful advance planning may be needed. Or you may decide the holidays may not be the best time. A one-on-one conversation with each family member may be the only thing you do. Or, if you have a meeting, lay out clear ground rules for the discussion.
"Waiting until the holidays to tackle every money skeleton knocking around in your family’s closet may wind up putting you through a lot more stress than necessary," say writers at, a bank-sponsored Web site. "If time is on your side and you’d like to be more involved in the family’s financial planning then why not use the holidays to decide on a recurring time when you can meet throughout the year to check in on one another," they suggest.
Why are these conversations worth the effort?
Families need to plan for the future. There’s nothing worse than not talking about money, not talking about who you see handling your finances when you no longer can do it yourself. Surprises can leave bitter feelings that destroy relationships. 
This is heavy duty stuff. It gets more complicated and harder to do the longer issues are ignored.
Your children may be more likely to understand your planned distribution of property if they hear the motive behind your decisions directly from you, say Fidelity experts. Your children may have good ideas and opinions that can improve your plan. Talking about estate planning allows you to control how our children learn about your decisions….one-on-one or in a family conference.
First steps before a meeting
The first step is to write a will, designate who will have power of attorney, if you need help. Final wishes are also important. Those spell out your burial or cremation desires and what you want in a memorial or funeral service.
Things to consider: Setting up a trust to protect assets and ease the distribution process. Determining a charitable giving strategy. Writing a will outlines how you want your property distributed at your death or who will be your personal representative of your estate. A will provides for paying costs incurred in settling your estate.
There are many resources available to help with family estate planning through brokerage firms, at bank trust departments and certainly online.
Here are a few Web sites to get you started:
“How Families Can Talk About Money over Thanksgiving,” click here.
“Mediation for Family Money Disputes,”
click here.
"Holding a Monthly Family Financial Meeting," click here.
"The family meeting: An Essential Part of the Estate Planning Process," click here.
"What Would a Family Meeting Do for My Family?" - click here.
"How to Talk to Your Parents About Money," click here.
"Try a Family Meeting on Your Summer Vacation," click here.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

In-Home Caregiving: Often a task for women that can leave them broke

8 Rules for New In-Home Caregivers
1. Talk about it with family members. Determine needs. Designate roles. Listen to concerns.
2. Set priorities. Make a list of what needs to get done and how it will get done.
3. Build a support network of family, friends and neighbors, civic and religious groups.
4. Delegate. Ask others to check in, to provide respite care and/or transportation services.
5. Offer alternatives. Family members with young children can prepare food. Those who live far away can help with bills or use the phone or Internet to research services.
6. Hold family meetings. Schedule them regularly and link up distant family by phone. Consider hiring a geriatric care manager to run the meeting.
7. Involve your own children. Listen to their concerns, plan time for fun activities and request their help.
8. Talk to your spouse. Have a discussion about your care giving responsibilities. What will their role be? Talk about frustrations. Your own relationship is a priority. Keep it that way.  Source: AARP.

“Don’t keep it a secret.”
That’s some of the advice offered by Joan when she spoke with me about her ongoing struggle to care for her 82-year-old husband at home.
First diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2011, he is still able to dress himself and eat on his own but he can’t leave the house and needs constant management.
Joan describes her situation as an ever-tightening trap.
“My kids and my friends understand the pressure I’m under,” the 72-year-old woman told me. “It’s an emotional and financial roller-coaster.”
Joan (not her real name) and her husband live in a single-family home in Washington state near Portland, Ore. Living on Social Security and some savings, they can not afford the $5,000-a- month services offered at a 24/7 Alzheimer’s care center for her husband. On the other hand, they have more assets than qualifies him to receive care paid for by Medicaid, the state-run federal program for low-income people.
That leaves Joan as his around-the-clock primary caregiver.
“Physically, there’s nothing wrong with him,” she says about her husband who she married in 1998. “I’ve looked into places where he might be comfortable but we can’t afford that. I tried adult daycare but he bolted… set off the alarms. They asked me not to bring him back.”
Joan is not alone with her burden. There are an estimated 850,000 people in Washington state alone who are providing unpaid in-home care for a disabled and/or aging parent or family member, reports the Washington State Council on Aging. Nationwide, there are millions of people in this situation, many of them women.
Informal, uncompensated caregiving is estimated to be valued at $10.6 billion in Washington state. But money may not be the biggest issue.
“It’s such a stressful thing especially if you’re dealing with dementia,” said Gail Haskett, Washington State Council on Aging chairwoman and owner of Northwest Healthcare and Aging Resources in Vancouver, Wash.
Established 16 years ago, her firm provides a range of in-home care, hospice and companion services.  Haskett is a licensed nursing home administrator.
“In-home care may start with just drop-in visits by a family member just a couple of times a week,” Haskett said. “But often it goes up to a 24-hour situation. Families must ask themselves how much time are they able to give to it. If it’s just two people it’s hard.”
As an industry, in-home health care in Washington (and nationwide) is struggling.
Haskett said that’s because demand for services is increasing, employment regulations regarding caregivers have changed, costs are going up and finding qualified and dedicated caregivers is a challenge.
“A big worry is that people are trying to stay at home with help from family members,” Haskett said. “Many of these families are taking on too much, which opens the door to burn out and to emotional abuse. The stresses can be unbelievable.”
Family responsibility
Those, like Joan, who take on the responsibility of an aging or disabled family member, often battle to balance the demands of full-time care giving with the need to have a life of their own. The good news is that there are resources in your community where you can find advice and assistance. For Joan assistance has come in several ways:
She sought counseling and information through her local Area Agency on Aging & Disabilities. Most towns and cities have these centers.
“I found those folks to be really helpful with all kinds of information,” she said. 
With assistance from agency advisers, Joan is arranging for 20 hours of “respite” support care a month. The reduced cost for those services is linked to her household income.
Meanwhile, she has hired someone to stay with her husband for four hours on Fridays so that she can get out of the house.
“My advice is to not keep the situation a secret,” she said. “Talk about it with your (affected) family member before they can no longer work with you. Find out their wishes. When I look back I wish I’d put my assets in someone else’s name years ago to protect my financial future after he’s gone,” she said.
Joan said her single greatest resource in managing her situation has been classes offered for in-home caregivers through the Family Caregiver Support Program in her home town that’s available through the area office on aging.
“Get as much help as you can from anywhere you can get it,” she said.
Lexie Bartunek, coordinator for the local in-home caregivers program, says her office helps hundreds of people a year.
Her best advice for someone beginning the planning process for in-home care is to contact the program’s information and assistance line.
“We have specialists trained to help people sort things out and set priorities,” Bartunek said. “You don’t have to be a blood relative to get this support; this is available for anyone in an unpaid family caregiver role.”
Mayo Clinic experts offer advice
If a person is in need of care, they likely are dealing with loss…lost of physical and mental abilities, loss of memory and independence. According to experts at the Mayo Clinic based in Rochester, Minn., caring for the elderly is particularly challenging, if the person is resistant to care.
If a spouse or parent always has been in charge, it can be difficult for them to give up that control. To encourage cooperation, they suggest:
- Giving care giving services a trial run.
- Describe care to the person in need in a positive way. Talk about a home provider as a friend or respite care as a way for them to do something they enjoy.
- Explain your needs. Remind the person that there is sometimes a need for compromise.
- Explain how care might prolong independence. Explain that loss of independence is not a personal failing. Keep in mind that these strategies may not work when dealing with someone who has dementia, the experts say.
“Of course, the key to all this is advance planning,” Haskett said. “That planning should occur before grandma or a spouse loses their capacity to provide direction. Sit down with them sooner than later and lay out what they want done…that’s hard to do.”
Not always a ‘loved one’
In addition to the financial and care challenges facing families who might be organizing in-home care, there may be emotional “baggage” that can affect relationships.
“Loved ones aren’t always loved ones,” Haskett said. “Your relationship with them may have been challenging. Your relationship with them as an adult child may be strained. They may resist care,” she said.
Haskett recommends that families find out about what in-home care Medicare might underwrite and what it will not. Unless there are doctor’s orders related to recovery from a fall or from a home-bound situation, Medicare may not be part of the picture, she said.
“Advance financial planning and advance emotional planning are both important,” she said. She agrees that if someone is in the beginning stages of dementia, family members may have little power to do anything. And elder law attorney may be a helpful resource.
Meanwhile, Joan said that as her husband’s dementia has worsened. She said that she has “dealt” with his driver’s license and financial management issues. She has updated their wills and spelled out health care directives.
“He’s been declared incompetent,” she said with a sigh. “But by the time I acknowledged that something was really wrong he was beyond the ability to make decisions, to let us know what he might want to do,” she said. “At this point, whatever decisions I make, my kids will support. (She has four who live elsewhere). They call me often and tell me to be safe.” Of some compensation in the bigger scheme of things, Joan, says, is that her husband still tells her that he loves her.
Books for Caregivers:
“Caring for Yourself While Caring for Your Aging Parents,” by Clair Berman.
“The Caregiving Wife’s Handbook,” by Diana Denholm.
“A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Aging Parents and Ourselves,” by Jane Gross.

Web sites:
"Who Pays Mom's and Dad's Nursing home bill? Filial support laws, click here.  
National Family Caregiver Support Program, click here.
Alzheimer's Association, click here.
Hiring In-Home Help, click here. Family Caregiver Alliance.
Protecting Assets, Preserving Quality of Life, Aging Options, click here.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

My Turkish bath! Women are packing their bags and seeing the world

"Paris is always a good idea,"  --  Audrey Hepburn, British actress and humanitarian, 1929-1993.

Let me tell you about my Turkish bath.
This was a real Turkish bath (hamam) in Antalya, a city on the Mediterranean southeastern coast of Turkey where I found myself on a Rick Steves' "best of" 13-day tour of a country about which I knew next to nothing until going there.
The Turkish bath experience was among my favorites during a 30-day adventure that began and ended in Greece but included six days in Crete as well as a loop around Turkey that started in Istanbul and continued to Ankara, Cappadocia, Konya, Antalya and Kusadasi. My excellent traveling companion? My husband, Ken. But I could have made the trip on my own or with a friend. In fact, six of the 21 people in our Rick Steves' tour group were women traveling on their own. So back to the Turkish bath.
We were into the final five days of our tour when our well-informed guide gave us the bath opportunity in Antalya, a stop with free time options meant to be "a vacation from our vacation."
"It would be authentic," he said about the bath experience as he gave us enough detail to make sure we knew what we were getting into and that only the most adventurous would sign up. Bottom line: You need to be okay with being totally starkers in front of a lot of strangers (other women, of course) who don't necessarily speak English.
Four of us raised our hands.
In late afternoon, a taxi whisked us to our bath house, which didn't look like much from the outside; Just another two-story building in a city of chockablock two-story buildings on narrow meandering streets. A hostess signed us in and directed us to upstairs changing rooms where we exchanged all our clothes for a nice large, but thin, bath towel. From then on things became a bit blurry because there was so much to take in and because I wasn't wearing my glasses and because I had my eyes shut a good part of the time so as not to get caught staring or being stared at.
As we walked into the "real" bath area, we found all sorts of unclothed Turkish women in stages of steaming, washing, rinsing and massage.
That Roman connection
Right away, it occurred to me that this was likely the closest experience one could have to what the Romans enjoyed 2,000 years ago with their central baths. While only Roman men enjoyed the public baths of ancient times in modern Turkey both women and men have their separate public facilities. ( on Turkish baths, click here.)
Stage one meant being rinsed off with nice warm water while still wrapped in our towels. We then were guided into a large (and very hot) room where we were directed to spread our towels on a large circular marble slab (called a gobektasi) in the center of the space and lie face-down on the towels. Try imagining a synchronized swim team in a pinwheel formation, heads toward the center. You lie there enjoying the heat from the marble that soaks into your body but after a short while, you think you're being cooked.
Soon one of the attendants -- dressed in black panties and bra because of the heat -- asks you to return to your feet and directs you to marble benches on the room's perimeter where you sit, meditate and rinse using a small pan that you can fill from adjacent hot and cold faucets. The idea is to endure as much heat as possible while splashing cooler water on yourself to regulate your comfort level. Other women in the room were in various stages of washing and grooming.
Looking around, it turns out that we were a bit under-dressed. The Turkish women all were wearing thongs. Who knew? Our young male tour guide hadn't mentioned that particular detail. I'm thinking I could write a little (women-only) handout that would contain a few Turkish bath tips for the uninitiated. Ideally, I would have done some advance research on Turkish bath etiquette because there are certain procedures and courtesies. (For more, here's a first-person story written by Erlend Geerts for Witt Hotels magazine, click here.)
After about 20 minutes in the "very hot" room with the marble slab (gobektasi), we were led one by one to another room where we were laid out on tables for a thorough scrubbing -- front and back -- with sudsy water. Then there was the scrap-down with really rough scouring sponges (I think).
I say, "I think," because I had my eyes closed a lot of the time, so I don't know what these sturdily built bathhouse workers were using. It might have been sandpaper. At one point, my attendant tapped me on the arm to show me how much dead skin she was rubbing off of me. It looked like, well, dead skin...a lot of it. Who knew? Again the Roman thing. I was definitely getting cleaner and maybe a shade lighter.
Our guide who had arranged the bath opportunity had told us earlier in the tour that only men went to public baths in ancient Roman times where they exercised, bathed and talked politics. Roman women had their bath parties at home. No wonder the Romans built viaducts to supply water to their cities. It mostly went to the baths or to public fountains.
At our bathhouse, once we'd been scrubbed within an inch of our lives, we next enjoyed a few relaxing moments wrapped in towels while being served Turkish tea in glasses on saucers. This was while we waited for our massages with olive oil (or something akin). Oh, so Roman.
This was no la-te-da massage...these women meant business with every muscle they "attacked" crying for mercy. My back and shoulders were better for the pain.
Then it was over. We returned to our changing rooms, dressed and looked wide-eyed at each other as we paid our bill and left,  thanking and waving goodbye to our hosts. All this took about an hour and cost about US$50 to US$60 including tip. It seemed a bargain even for Turkey because this was not a tourist facility but catered to local women.
(By the way, I am hoping I have the sequence of the bath experience in order. My companions may have different recollections.  I claim being a bit overwhelmed by it all.) I do know that all of us thought the Turkish bath outing was not to be missed ---- an original experience for both its cultural and historical aspects. Truly unique.
Women traveling solo
Which gets me to my broader point. Two women in our group of 21 were traveling solo and paid extra to have rooms of their own. Four others were sharing rooms . All seemed to have a great time.
There's some debate about whether single women traveling with married couples is a good way to go. Those I spoke with about that issue on our tour found no problem with the interaction or compatibility.
The oldest among our independents was a woman (retired nurse) age 82 who was a joy to have along. Another was retired and married who said her husband's lack of interest in travel was not going to hold her down. There were many opportunities to get to know these women over dinner when we dined as a group or on nights when we could dine out for smaller encounters our own. On the tour bus we exchanged book recommendations and shared our personal stories. Most of us were retirement age or older, so that created some automatic sympatico. Meanwhile, more tour companies are catering to single female travelers. (For my blog post from 2011, "Women traveling solo? You're not alone," click here). According to 2013 data from Intrepid Travel, the global travel market now is 64 percent women. In the past 10 years, travel agents report an estimated increase of nearly 60 percent in female clients travelling by themselves.
Rick Steves devotes a page on his Web site to Tips on Traveling Solo. He is passionate about how travel allows us to meet people, hear their stories, find out what they think, how they live.
"You'll run across vaga-buddies every day," he writes. "If you stay in hostels, you'll have a built-in family (hostels are open to all ages). Or choose small pensions and B&Bs, where the owners have time to talk with you. If you're feeling shy, cameras are good icebreakers; offer to take someone's picture with his or her camera," he says.
He suggests playing with kids as a way to interact. He suggests connecting with other solo travelers through social media such as  Meetup, an app that links like-minded individuals. Or join a hospitality-exchange network such as Or of course, consider a Rick Steves tour or other similar tours that cater to the more adventurous by organizing smaller travel groups and off-the-beaten track itineraries. That way you get a built-in group and some structure around a travel plan where you can add days at the beginning or at the end.
Travel services that cater to women-only.
Try, operated by April Merenda, president and, which offers 30 women-only tour destinations..some in the U.S., some, which offers both women-only and co-ed tours of exotic places such as Cambodia, Burma or Bhutan, India. is a Web site offering travel resources for women -- tips, advice and ideas. 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Exquisite Female Voice: My literary journey

Preparing to spend the next month exploring Greece and Turkey, I have put a variety of reading material on my Kindle including Mary Renault’s “The Bull from the Sea.”  As a young reader I was fascinated by the Ancient Mediterranean, the Minoans and the Greeks.  Renault’s fictionalized histories (there were eight of them) satisfied my craving. I’m going to again read her work for the fun of rediscovering that enchantment.
It crossed my mind that I’ve read many wonderful women writers over the past 50 years, starting with Renault and fantasy-science fiction writer, Andre Norton who I discovered on a dusty junior high book shelf. Norton’s “Beast Master,” sent me down an obsessive fantasy-sci-fi trail that lasted through high school.
Some historian (a woman no doubt) ultimately will summarize the 20th Century as an amazing moment when the female mind was unleashed to think and to write.
Let’s call it “When Women Found a Voice," or "The Exquisite Female Voice of the 20th Century," or "The Female Writer: American women take up the pen and build a literary legacy."
This fabulous female intellectual effort continues. Only in the past year did I finally read the enthralling true story, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," by Rebecca Skloot about a poor black woman’s unknowing contribution to modern medical research. Friends had been raving about “Henrietta” since it was first published in 2010. Skloot’s work over many years in sleuthing out the story impressed me for its doggedness and completeness as well as for the storytelling.
Soon after, I plunged into a marathon read of Donna Tartt's novel, "The Goldfinch," a modern masterpiece with twists and turns that had me crying for mercy. I’m convinced that Tartt will one day win the Nobel Prize for literature. She’s that good.
The two books are only the latest in my lifetime of reading female writers. Not that I had a plan for doing so. Reading female writers was more an accident. I didn’t think in terms of male or female but of good reads. I caught the reading bug early thanks to my fourth grade teacher who read aloud the Nancy Drew mystery stories by Mildred Benson.
By the seventh grade I was using a flashlight to read at night under the covers when my parents thought I was sleeping. I read in class instead of paying attention to teachers. It was so easy to lean the text book up on my desk to conceal my book of delicious fiction behind it. Reading became a way of keeping the world at bay while at the same time, learning about it. I could lose myself in the imaginary of fiction and take on the drama played out on the page.
Only later did I learn that Andre Norton was a woman, born in 1912 in Cleveland Ohio. That was something of a revelation for me as a girl growing up in a male-oriented world where being a tomboy was the closest that I could get to what I found interesting.
Maybe Norton’s stories resonated because they were tales of “alienated outsiders” on a personal journey of salvation.  Critics describe her characters as resourceful and capable…loners on a mission to overcome situations. That was just what I needed.
Oh I read plenty of books written by men from Robert Heinlein to Ian Fleming, from Ernest Hemingway to Arthur Conan Doyle.
I always had a book at hand as a defense against boredom, against depression or in case my mother got “lost” shopping.
Looking back I’d say that some of my greatest pleasure came from reading women writers. Those authors have fallen into several now obvious categories, the most important being history and fictionalized history.
Barbara Tuchman’s “The Guns of August,” along with her other huge works, “Proud Tower: Portrait of a World before the War,” “March of Folly,” and “A Distant Mirror” rocked my world for their readability and thorough treatment.
I was curious this week to read James Warren’s glowing reminder of how great Tuchman was in his article, “Barbara Tuchman’s ‘The Guns of August’ Is Still WWI’s Peerless Chronicle.”
Antonia Fraser can claim a separate but equal place on my bookshelf for her “Mary, Queen of Scots” and  “The Weaker Vessel,” which delves into the lives of 17th Century English women deemed unworthy of educating or teaching to read. Fraser followed up with “The Warrior Queens,” and “The Six Wives of Henry VIII.” I loved them all.
She wrote a series of detective novels with Jemima Shore as her main character.
I’ve just complete Joan Connelly’s “The Parthenon Enigma: A new understanding of the West’s most iconic building and the people who made it.” So well researched with annotations filling pages and pages at the back of the book.
“Wolf Hall,” and “Bring Up the Bodies,” by Hilary Mantel tell the fictionalized story of the rise and times of Thomas Cromwell, the man behind Henry VIII. She’s won the Booker Prize twice for this work. Her third installment is out next year.
I’ve read biographies of women written by women:
How about Stacy Schiff's, "Cleopatra: A Life."
“Marie Curie,” by Susan Quinn tells the story of a brilliant scientist who was discounted by male colleagues but won worldwide recognition for her work with x-rays. Never mind the personal tragedy of her husband’s untimely death or the public embarrassment for an affair. Nancy Matthews wrote a great biography of the American painter and printmaker, “Mary Cassatt,” who lived and worked in Paris in much the same time frame as Curie. Both are stories of women overcoming the obstacles of gender.
The biographies of interesting women writers come to mind: Zelda Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker. Among my favorite fiction writers and essayists:
Anne Tyler, who has written 19 novels focused on the American family…marriage, relationships, children and their attachments and conflicts. My favorite, “Breathing Lessons.” Tony Morrison’s, “Song of Solomon,” is among the many works that won her the Nobel Prize in 1993. Brilliant.
Annie Dillard’s “An American Childhood,” resonated with me as did “The Writing Life,” and “For the Time Being.”
In case you think that I’m sharing these authors and their work because I want to brag about what a great reader I’ve been, think again. I read for a living, I read for pleasure. I’m sure there are many people who read more constantly and with greater speed than I do. But I’ve loved reading books over my lifetime. This is just a moment of sharing. Books are like children to me….I loved reading them, love seeing them on my book shelves to remind me how much I loved reading them. Who knows when I or someone else will have to take my beloved books off the shelves, box them up and hand them over to Powell’s Book Store for recycling.
There was a time in the 1970s and 1980s when I found comfort in witty American women’s fiction: “Fear of Flying,” by Erica Jong, “Cracker Factory” by Joyce Rebeta-Burditt. and “Heartburn,” by Nora Ephron. (Never betray a woman who can write).
There was “A Map of the World,” by Jane Hamilton,Charing Cross Road,” by Helene Hanff and “Final Payments, by Mary Gordon. What about Harper Lee’s, “To Kill a Mockingbird” or Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club?”
I read Jean Plaidy’s historical novels about English royal families.
There was Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love.” I wish she hadn’t made quite so much money from dumping her poor boring husband but I did like her journey of self actualization.
I loved “The Shipping News,” by Annie Proulx.  Catherine Marshall’s “Beyond Our Selves: A woman’s pilgrimage in faith,” resonated. So did Gail Sheehy’s “Passages,” written in 1976 when working women began to ask a lot of questions about life, marriage and longevity. And thank you, Oprah, for creating your Book List that has brought attention to so many good writers who happen to be women.
Miscellaneous good reads:
Didn’t we love, “Eats, Shoots & Leaves,” by Lynne Truss? How about Anne Lamott’s “Traveling Mercies?” I personally benefitted from “The Journey from Abandonment to Healing, by Susan Anderson (no relation).  I far as I can tell she is the only person to expertly and clinically look into what abandonment can do to us as a terrible “gift” that keeps on giving.
Someone has got to notice what women writers have accomplished in the past 100 years starting with Rebecca West with her “Return of the Soldier,” “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941)” and “The Fountain Overflows” and Pearl Buck’s “The Good Earth.” (1931). There was Ayn Rand, “The Fountainhead” (1943) and “Atlas Shrugged.” (1957).
Isak Dinesen wrote “Out of Africa,” in 1937.
There’s a list of 100 Great 20th Century Works of Fiction by women at Who am I to argue with this list.
I haven’t read every woman writer. I haven’t read Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf or Dumaurier or Marilyn French or Katherine Ann Porter or Susan Sontag.
I’m not particularly interested in “feminist” writers as much as I’m interested in real lives, real stories told through a woman’s eyes and life experiences and through women’s interests. This is a remarkable age. May it continue.
Thanks for allowing me to indulge. - Julia

Friday, September 19, 2014

Help!! I've fallen out of the Middle Class and can't get up.

"It isn't what you earn but how you spend it that fixes your class," - Sinclair Lewis, American novelist. (1885-1951).

Belonging to the American middle class was never doubted when I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. My parents both knew where they had come from -- hard-scrabble farm life and running a boarding house -- and certainly knew where they were going --- straight into the post-World War II middle class.
By the time I came into the picture, they were leading a relatively secure, if not comfortable middle class life with a new car purchased with cash every three years and an ambitious remodel of their farm house that gave them the amenities of  suburban living -- living room with an open brick fireplace, big picture windows, redwood paneling and a wall-mounted GE refrigerator in the tidy kitchen.
By the 1960s, there was enough money to send both me and my sister to college over an eight-year period without taking out student loans. My parents traveled, enjoyed their friends who were mostly in the same socio-economic class. My mother did not work outside the home but was always on the look-out for bargains at local clothing stores and in the grocery aisles. There was that frenzy of collecting Green Stamps and turning them in for "rewards" out of a catalog.
Mother made our prom dresses more for fun than to save money. She canned peaches, made grape juice and froze green beans. She had a garden. She bought corporate stocks a few shares at a time. Exxon and IBM were her favorites.
Growing up, it never occurred to me that we were anything but middle class although I did go through my own little rebellion after reading "Main Street" by Sinclair Lewis. His was a brutal attack on the "petty backstabbers and hypocrites of small town America" in the early 20th Century. I bought into some of that but never really walked away from my roots.
Yes, my parents were careful with money, avoided debt and spent within their means. There was tension in their relationship but what they had built together meant more than any other issues.
Up until lately, I too felt solidly anchored in the middle class. No longer.
In fact I'm pretty sure I've slipped totally out of the middle class. My kids certainly have. Here's how I know:
- I no longer even think about buying a new car every three years or even every six years. Come to think of it, I never buy a new car at least not since 1971.
- Tickets to Broadway road shows that come through my city are out of my reach. $100, $200, no way!
- Taking my grandson to a Mariners baseball game in Seattle is nearly out of my reach. Going to an NFL professional football game...forget it.
- After more than 25 years, the Nordstrom store that anchored my hometown mall is closing. That tells me that I'm not alone in no longer fitting the Nordstrom customer profile in a smaller market. Nordstrom has moved into the luxury retail category and left me behind.
Hey, I've been a card-carrying Nordstrom's customer since 1973 when I lived in Seattle. But my shopping there has declined as store prices even with deep discounts have became unreasonable.
My kids have never owned homes. I bought my first home at age 25. My mortgage payment on the house I own now is half what they aree paying in apartment rent.
They aren't saving money or investing. They can't. Their income and household expenses don't allow it.
It seems like our kids have either made the leap into upper class six-figure incomes or they've slid into just getting by.
I ask myself who IS buying the new cars? Who IS shopping at Nordstrom?
Who can afford those Broadway show tickets that seem to sell out? Hey, I know the super rich have gotten richer. I know that wealth is concentrated in fewer hands. Certainly not mine.
With more baby boomers retiring by the day, I can't help but think more of them are reconsidering their status and putting extraordinary spending on hold. That's got to be having an impact on the U.S. economy. I am no longer a consumer and we know that consumers drive the economy, right?
I'm not buying a new car.
I'm not buying a house.
I don't subscribe to cable television.
I'm spending less on clothes, gasoline and even food since I stopped working full-time.
Heck, I'm spending less on shampoo and cosmetics. Working from home does have advantages. No, I have not given up my hair stylist or a good bottle of wine, although that bottle is less expensive than what I was drinking eight years ago.
Of course I'm not the first to notice this erosion of middle class buying power or economic security. Many have measured and commented on the trend.
("Middle-class squeeze: Costs rise 32 percent while wages stagnate" - Seattle Times, click here.)
Joel Kotkin, writing at the DailyBeast,.com sees the economic "yeoman" that Thomas Jefferson recognized as the backbone of his democracy in decline.
"While middle class incomes have fallen relative to the upper income groups, house prices and health insurance, utilities and college tuition costs have soared," he notes. "By margins of more than two to one, more Americans believe they enjoy fewer economic opportunities than their parents, and will experience far less job security and disposable income. This pessimism is particularly intense among white working class voters, and large sections of the middle class."
I am not completely without hope that younger Americans will find their footing and re-invent the middle class.
The other day while shopping at a second-hand sporting goods store in downtown Portland, the young man helping me told me that he and his wife had recently bought a house. It was located in a lower-income suburb and sold for several hundred thousand dollars less than what they would have paid if it had been closer to the trendy Portland urban core. He was proud of the investment and confident of the future.
Maybe the new urbanites are not a permanent generation of renters. Maybe the middle class will, after all, experience a revival. My guess is that the new middle class will look a lot different than I do.
The new middle class will buy soccer tickets instead of NFL game tickets.
The new middle class go to less expensive clubs rather than spend money on mega-concerts at arenas.
The new middle class may ride a bicycle rather than own a car.
The new middle class may be able to build wealth through homeownership but that home is going to look different than mine --- smaller, more energy-efficient.
Those Broadway tickets? We will leave those to the rich people.
Popcorn, anyone?. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Six Steps to a 'phased-in' retirement. Start negotiating now.

"Retirement is not in my vocabulary. They aren't going to get rid of me that way." - Betty White American actress, comedian, singer and author (1922 -   ).

Retirement fact: Six out of 10 older Americans want a phased-in retirement while only 13 percent of employers have a program to allow that to happen.
If I could have had it all my way, I would have gradually moved from full-time employment into that something else place that we call retirement.
Instead, my work mates hosted an office farewell party with cake and lots of well wishes as I went cold-turkey out the door with an “early buyout” in hand. It was a deal that many in my newsroom over the age of 60 had already accepted.
In hindsight, I should have negotiated a gradual glide path to the end of the job I’d held for more than 25 years. But my employer had no plan for that so I took the buyout and left.
It was scary. Giving up a regular paycheck with a 401(k) match took my breath away but I'm  risk taker and it seemed like the right move. Four years later, it still does. The fact is that I didn’t retire. I work from home as a professional journalist with a bunch of clients. I balance time at my desk with family, travel and work on my 20-acre property. Yes, my income is half what it was before I left the job but I'm doing nicely, thank you. Get the idea?
However, it would have been financially better for me if I could have waited at least until my "full retirement age" at 66 (as determined by Social Security) before I started tapping monthly retirement benefits to bolster my income. It would have been better if I’d not had to draw money out of my long-term savings account to help my Rollover IRA get where it needed to be. But that's what I did and I'm OK with it.
(Ironically for many, the five years from age 60 to age 65 when Medicare kicks in or 66 when Social Security says you're at full retirement age can be tricky. I often wished that I were older.)
Now, plenty of older American women are hoping to phase into retirement just as I wished that I had. Something like six out of 10 want that gradual adjustment with fewer work hours, continued health insurance coverage and more time to build up the nest egg before starting Social Security or tapping into savings.
The bad news, according to a Society of Human Resource Management report, is that few employers (only 13 percent) offer workers such a phased-in retirement opportunity.
There’s hope that things are changing as the economy continues to recover and employers gain more flexibility in how they let go of valued (higher-paid) long-time employees. A recent change in federal employment regulations may help.
New rules (starting in November 2014) allow workers to move to a 20- hour work week, receive half their pay but also start receiving half their retirement annuity. In other words, their take-home income doesn't change even though their work hours are cut in half.
It may be a bit more complicated in private industry but it seems to me that there are incentives for employers to set up such programs. This year, the last of the baby boomers are turning 50. A work place brain drain could gain momentum.
With a phased retirement program, employers can gradually allow long-time employees to hand off their knowledge and expertise to younger workers and at the same time reduce their payroll costs.
At, writers analyze five factors that can affect your phased retirement planning: Pensions distributions, health insurance coverage restrictions, scheduling flexibility, profit-sharing incentives and Social Security issues.
A survey by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies found that 65 percent of baby boomers plan to work past age 65 (or do not plan to retire) and just 21 percent expect to immediately stop working when they retire.
Negotiating your retirement
If you are an older worker looking ahead to retirement, it likely will be up to you negotiate a plan. Here’ are tips from the retirement studies center:
No. 1 Plan to do your homework. What will a part-time employment plan look like for you? Can you avoid taking Social Security benefits? Are your household expenses in line with a reduction in household income? Can you let your 401(k) nest egg grow a few more years? A one-time visit to a fee-for-service financial planner might help.
No. 2 Network. What’s going on in your industry? What are your employment opportunities beyond your current job? Are you meeting new people who might have a need for your skills?
No. 3 Keep your skills up. This may mean taking a class on social media or staying up to speed in your area of professional expertise or acquiring new skills. Do you know how to use Twitter, Instagram?
No. 4 Preserve your health. As we age, it is important to manage our health by staying fit, seeing your physician and staying on top of any chronic problems.
No. 5 Have a back up plan. Set up an emergency fund in case you are forced into retirement sooner than expected for reasons of ill health, job loss, family obligations. Do not assume your employer will go along with your phased-in plan or that health problems might interfere. Plan for the unplanned.
No. 6 Talk confidentially to your HR department. A phased retirement plan may mean negotiating with your employer. While baby boomers have intentions of transitioning from full- to part-time work, their employer may not have a program to accommodate such a change. Be the first to talk about it. Make sure your job-performance ratings are top notch and that you are in a good position to negotiate a workable plan.
“Baby boomers who are envisioning a transition into retirement that involves working should do a reality check whether their current employer will support them,” says Catherine Collinson, president of the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. “The best intentions to continue working and fully retire at an older age can be easily derailed with a lack of planning.” Collinson said. Job No. 1 is to be proactive.
As for my own semi-retirement, I now work at my own pace, sometimes in my bathrobe. I have fewer work-related expenses --- gasoline, clothes, lunches out, networking. I have more time for family and for travel. I go to a lot fewer meetings. I write about stuff that is interesting to me. Life is good.
For more online resources:, click here., click here., click here, click here., click here.