I have a lot of books about Retirement and Financial Independence in my personal library, but I seldom go through any one twice. Today’s review is an exception because of a lunch I had with a friend we’ll call Albert (not his actual name).
Albert is a former client with whom I’ve kept in touch. He’s now 70 and just begun to retire. Because of various circumstances, he was unable to engage in most of the basic practices described here or at our sister site, the Financial Independence Hub: so no taxable or tax-sheltered savings for Albert.
Fortunately for him, he bought a house in Toronto at something like a third of what’s it’s worth now, and it’s that home equity that has allowed him to finally stop working. He has no dependents and after going over the pros and cons took out a reverse mortgage.
The Joy of Not Working
But that’s not what this blog is about. Over our lunch, Albert told me he’d been at the public library to check out books about Retirement. Two were by a Canadian writer who has achieved massive international success through self publishing: Ernie Zelinski. He’s written 15 books but the two best-known were the ones Albert got from the library: The Joy of Not Working and How to Retire Happy, Wild and Free. I told him I’d read both a long time ago and likely reviewed them when they first came out.
Retrieving Wild & Free from my office shelves, I noticed I had read it in November 2003, when I was 50 and (as it turned out), still more than a decade from my Findependence Day. I started to flip the pages and noted I had underlined many passages, some of which I reproduce below.
It holds up well. Note the subtitle of Wild & Free: “Retirement Wisdom that you won’t get from your financial advisor.”
Connoisseur of Leisure is now 65
Zelinski is an interesting character. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta and opted for semi-retirement when he was 30, despite having a net worth of minus $30,000 at the time. Born in 1949, he turned 65 last summer. Zelinksi, who is unmarried, has long described himself as a “connoisseur of leisure” who used to work just two or three hours a day.
That work was mostly writing his books, generally in various Edmonton coffee shops. He religiously adhered to a daily writing regime that clearly worked for him: as of 2015, The Joy of Not Working has sold 280,000 copies, Zelinski told me this week.
Zelinski self-published Joy between 1991 and 1997, at which point he handed it to Ten Speed Press, later acquired by Random House. While it has slightly outsold Wild & Free, he makes more from the latter because it’s self published. He says it was rejected by 35 British and American publishers and sent me three rejection letters to confirm it. One New York giant publishing house told him in 2003 that “the retirement shelf” is quite crowded but “we hope you prove us wrong.”
I’d say he did: He has since negotiated 111 book deals with publishers in 29 countries. The two big titles continue to sell, so much so he says he can’t qualify for Old Age Security. “I’m making the best money ever in my life. Only 1% get it clawed back … I guess I’m a 1 percenter among 65-year olds.” He now works about half an hour a day. How he spends the other 23-and-half hours you can divine from his books.
Do we focus too much on the financial side of retirement?
As I perused the pages of Wild & Free once again, I was struck by how little the book dealt with the usual financial matters that the personal finance press tends to focus on. Here’s one passage I had underlined 12 years ago:
“… the biggest mistake you can make with your retirement planning is to concentrate only on the financial aspects.”
Some of the points in the chapter summaries include “You are never too young to retire,” “Retiring too late means you don’t get another chance to do it right”, “Life is short — and so is money,” and “It’s better to live rich than die rich.”
The book nicely touches on the dilemma debated just last week in a MoneySense blog I wrote that was repurposed here at our sister site (aka “The Hub”) under the headline, “Retirement Planning would be so much easier if we knew (exactly) when we were going to die.”
I have to admit that once I re-read the passages I had underlined in 2003, and much more that I hadn’t the first time around, I thought to myself: “Why am I working so hard when I really don’t have to?”
It’s not about loafing but about staying active
Zelinski’s list of things you can do in Retirement takes multiple pages to list and it got me thinking about my own oft-postponed semi-retirement. When I put the book down for the second time, I was even inspired to go back to a hobby that had obsessed me between 2004 and 2011 or so: Internet bridge. Over those years, I had encountered many cyber personalities from around the world and was pleased to reencounter several of them once I did.
While Zelinski doesn’t use the term Findependence, his vision of Semi-Retirement is certainly consistent with this website’s insistence that our last few decades need to have purpose:
“This I can assure you: You won’t find genuine joy and satisfaction by spending all your time sleeping, relaxing, loafing, and watching TV, hoping to live up to the ideal of a true idler … To retire happy, wild, and free, you must stay active.”
As I have noted in other blogs about Extreme Early Retirement, Zelinski is certainly no loafer: he was smart enough to get out of the corporate jungle early in life so he could become an entrepreneur: in addition to his publishing empire he still speaks a bit. Sounds corny but it’s another case of “do what you love and the money will follow.”
I could go on at length but if you want more, go ahead and buy the book, or for $2.99 you could buy this summary e-book by Bob Matthews. It certainly made me think and I’d love to hear from Zelinski fans who have implemented his ideas over the years.
Just drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. In fact, Ernie himself supplied me with a few letters from readers who achieved an even more happy, wild and free retirement than the author himself.
We’ll revisit them in a few weeks.
My latest MoneySense blog is a followup to an interesting piece by actuary Fred Vettese about the curious phenomenon of wealthy couples being able to contort their finances between ages 67 and 70, by which they can receive the Guaranteed Income Supplement or GIS.
Considering that the GIS is aimed at seniors with no savings and minimal pensions, the idea of putting such a gambit in place offends some, although as the blog points out, most of the readers who contacted Vettese just wanted more details on how they could benefit from the strategy themselves.
Hypothetical but max out your TFSA while you can
I’ll be doing more on this but it seems that the strategy is not so much likely to become widespread as it is an example of the inherent contradictions and unintended consequences that accompany such a proliferation of government programs. This one is based on suspending most sources of income from 67 to 70, except Old Age Security (OAS) and the GIS, plus taking tax-free income from the Tax Free Savings Account or TFSA. TFSA withdrawals are neither taxed nor trigger clawbacks of OAS and GIS. In fact, it’s arguable TFSAs were created expressly to motivate low-income workers to save without being penalized by the taxes and clawbacks that accompany RRSPs and employer-sponsored pensions plans.
Will Ottawa move to crack down on this theoretical loophole? Who knows but the TFSA was the Conservative administration’s creation and if they lose the next election, it’s quite possible the Liberals or NDP would move to tweak either the TFSA rules or the GIS qualifying rules. Best advice? Max out the TFSA while you still can!
Here is my MoneySense blog about Malcolm Hamilton’s talk to the Retire Rich event on the weekend.
Or you can read it here below:
Actuary and pension guru Malcolm Hamilton has already achieved what many MoneySense readers aspire to do one day: he retired at 62. But, he confessed at MoneySense’s Retire Rich on the weekend, despite his vast pension experience and gold medals in mathematics, he probably over saved. “I was cautious and now have more than I need. I have no good use for the money, although I might if we have another 2008.”
Now 63, Hamilton is mostly retired, although he is also a senior fellow for the C.D. Howe Institute and continues to do some writing and speaking. As one of the media’s go-to-sources for all things retirement and pensions, he reiterated a theme that has long been picked up by the country’s financial writers. He continues to believe most Canadians don’t need to “replace” 70 or 80% of their working incomes, which are the percentages usually proffered by our financial institutions. Most of us will be able to get by with 50% or even just 40% of what we earned in our working lives. “No one can tell exactly how much we will need to save. Canadians are unduly and irrationally discouraged about their prospects.”
Headlines downplay the good news on saving
He highlighted several pessimistic headlines produced in recent editions of our newspapers, most of them variations on the theme that Canadians aren’t saving enough. Not making the news were statistics like the fact Canadians’ collective net worth doubled from $4 trillion to $8 trillion in the 13 years between 1999 and 2012, and that’s after inflation is backed out. And that was over a period where interest rates hovered near historic lows, the stock market crashed twice and the world experienced a financial crisis almost as severe as the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Over that same time, Canadians’ retirement savings also doubled, from $1.5 trillion to $3 trillion, Hamilton said. “There’s something good going on that doesn’t seem to be reported.”
Most Canadians retire voluntarily between 60 and 65. On average they retire at 62, although that is “creeping up.” That’s not as early as most retired in the 1990s, he said, but it’s earlier than the late 1960s and 1970s, “when seniors were poor and almost no one retired at 65.”
Like Hamilton himself, most of today’s retired seniors don’t spend the money they have and own houses that are mortgage free. If they ever face financial duress, he said, they could tap the equity from those homes: renting rooms out, selling or downsizing, or resort to reverse mortgages. But most don’t do any of those things. “They live in their houses as long as they can. They don’t access home equity. They don’t withdraw money from their RRSPs as fast as possible. They continue to save as seniors.”
While the event was billed as “Retire Rich,” Hamilton said “saving for retirement is not about getting rich. If you want to get rich, you save as much as you can all the time and never spend. You live like a pauper but you won’t be happy and your marriage won’t last. Retirement saving isn’t about getting rich; it’s about finding a way to save enough of the income earned in your work life so that in retirement you can have a similar standard of living.”
Those making a minimum wage can save nothing and end up with as much disposable income in retirement as during their working lives. That’s because at age 65, the Government will give a single Ontario resident $19,000, most of it after-tax income. That consists of $7,000 from Old Age Security and $11,000 from the Guaranteed Income Supplement, $2,500 from refundable tax credits and “believe it or not” $500 from CPP, he clarified in a later Q&A session. “There is no poverty for Canadian seniors; the poor people in Canada are young.”
Why 52% replacement ratio may be fine
MoneySense subscribers attending such an event will of course be aiming for a higher retirement income. Hamilton said a typical Toronto couple with two incomes totaling $120,000 a year probably spend $480,000 on a modest house and have two kids. If they save five times their gross earnings and accumulate $600,000 in capital, they could replace 52% of their income in retirement. To get there, they’d simply need to save 6% of their income between ages 25 and 65, at which point they could retire. They would direct 23% of earnings to taxes, CPP and EI, and another 23% to pay for the house and kids. In all, 52% of their gross working income goes to taxes, savings, the house and children. At 65, all those expenditures disappear. The $600,000 capital will replace 20% of the income they were earning in their working lives, and CPP and OAS will generate 32%, for a total 52% replacement ratio. That will allow them to spend as much on themselves as they did when they were working.
Ironically, childless couples that rent will need to replace more of their working income – probably 70% — because they have been accustomed to having more disposable income. For parents, the house and kids should be the spending priorities in the first half of their working lives. They should be fine if they start to save a reasonable amount by their 40s.
While the pre-budget hype was that Canadian baby boomers were going to have to delay their retirement after Thursday’s federal budget was unveiled, their Findependence Day has not been severely postponed for anyone who is now 54 years old or older as of March 31, 2012.
As expected, the Old Age Security eligibility age will rise gradually from the current 65 to 67 but this doesn’t start to happen until 2023, according to the just-released budget. When you add the 11-year notification of this change to the six-year phase-in between 2023 and 2029, I’d agree with Finance Minister Jim Flaherty that Canadians [or their financial planners] have “ample time to make adjustments to their retirement plans.”
For younger people born on or after Feb. 1, 1962, OAS eligibility will be age 67. Technically, boomers were born between 1946 and 1964 but in my view, if you were born between 1962 and 1964, you likely didn’t grieve over the JFK assassination and can hardly be considered a true baby boomer.
Delaying retirement: OAS takes a leaf from deferred CPP benefits