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By Joel Dresang

I recently went to Florida with my wife to help her mother vacate the condo where she and my late father-in-law had wintered for nearly 25 years. It was a cathartic visit spent discovering, sorting, prioritizing, packing, discarding and reminiscing. It also was enlightening.

Besides the opportunity to assist my mother-in-law, the visit gave Mary and me a glimpse at ourselves 30 years down the road. We got to imagine how to get there from here and what we might expect in those intervening years.

I occasionally thank my mother-in-law for her example. At 97, she is independent, social, curious, engaging. On our first night in Florida, she came up with a game of competitive solitaire. Each of us had our own decks and kept points to see who played the most cards. We listened to music – a mix of classical, show tunes and old standards – and my mother-in-law frequently named the tune within a few measures. One night, she played her piano from sheet music she had never seen before.

Each day in Florida, Mary and I took a walk. Often, inspired by what we witnessed of her mother, we talked about our retirement. We have had such conversations before, but in Florida, the ebb and tide along the beach, the swaying palms amid the salty breezes gave us a more vivid context.

We contemplated our possible living arrangements and lifestyles in retirement:

  • We talked about whether we would want a winter getaway and if it would be in one spot, such as my in-laws have had. They developed a sense of belonging in Florida, making friends among similarly situated residents in their condo community, at their church, at their golf club.
  • If we did want a winter residence, we wondered whether we should buy a place – as my in-laws had – or rent?
  • We agreed that we might enjoy traveling more, especially at first, and wouldn’t want to be tied down by one place. Maybe we’d like to explore our options. For instance, we think we would prefer New Mexico and Colorado over Florida. My oldest brother and his wife spend time in Tucson. Maybe we should visit them next winter. We have friends in Savannah. What are winters like there?
  • And maybe in retirement we won’t need more than a short visit here or there rather than a months-long diversion. We’ve been weathering Wisconsin winters most of our lives. It’s our retirement. We don’t have to be snowbirds if we don’t want to.

One morning in Florida, the tune “Pop Goes the Weasel” was stuck in my head, and I couldn’t figure out why. Did I hear something that reminded me of the song? Finally, I sang it to myself and landed on, “That’s the way the money goes…”

Of course, all our scenarios of where to live in retirement entail financial consequences – along with investment implications. For instance:

  • We would have to examine the costs and affordability of owning a vacation place vs. renting one.
  • There might be tax consequences, depending on how much we would reside in another state.
  • We would have to compare living costs, including transportation to and from the seasonal place, getting around once we got there, furnishings, upkeep on wherever we were staying, dining in vs. dining out, entertainment, recreation, health care.
  • Downsizing would be another consideration. Would we sell our current house to help afford another place elsewhere? Should we buy a smaller house? Rent? Pay down our mortgage and stay put?

My in-laws were in their 70s when they bought their Florida condo. Theirs is a story with similarities to many children of the Great Depression, with lifetimes of hard work, financial discipline and sacrifice. Frugality and practicality are rooted in my mother-in-law. Though she can afford new footwear, one day I found her gluing back bits of tread that had broken off the bottom of her slippers.

Glimpsing at retirement through our visit has impressed on me that retirements are as different as the individuals who take them.

On living arrangements alone, we have a staggering array of variables to consider. The limits of our resources will narrow our options. As we plan the changes we face in retirement, we have to look at the price tags and think about how we’ll pay for them.

Our advisor can’t make our choices for us, but he has worked with enough retirees encompassing such a variety of scenarios that he can help us eventually sort through how we want our retirement to play out – within our means.

Joel Dresang is vice president-communications at Landaas & Company, LLC.

(initially posted March 1, 2024)