353: A Retirement Dilemma: Wisdom You Need Before Leaving Full-Time Work with Steve Lopez
Today, I’m talking to Steve Lopez. Steve has been a writer for the Los Angeles Times since 2001 and a four-time Pulitzer Prize finalist. He’s won over a dozen national journalism awards and three local news Emmys, and he’s written three novels, including The Soloist, which was adapted into one of my favorite movies.
In Steve’s new book, Independence Day: What I Learned About Retirement from Some Who’ve Done It and Some Who Never Will, he explores the meaning of work and how it defines us in a combination of memoirs, interviews, and guidance.
The book features conversations with a wide variety of people, including some who chose not to retire (like director Mel Brooks) and those who simply can’t retire, as well as aging scientists, geriatric specialists, and psychiatrists.
In today’s conversation, Steve and I talk about what it means to live with purpose and passion, how to tell which of the five categories of retirees that you fall into, and the big financial trends we should all be thinking about as the world around us changes.
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In this podcast interview, you’ll learn:
- Why retirement isn’t necessarily about recreating your identity, but bringing a sense of identity with you into your next act.
- What Steve learned from retirees who didn’t have enough structure when their primary careers ended–and from guys like Mel Brooks and Norman Lear, who are happily working in their 90s and 100s.
- How boomers entering retirement with medical debt, climate change, and other factors are going to impact life for all of us, regardless of age.
- What happened when Steve told his wife that working from home during COVID was a preview of retirement–and how they resolved the conflict that came from it.
- What it truly means to go where life is and do what replenishes you.
- "It's good to have an idea and a plan but keep in mind that retirement, like life, is full of surprises, victories and losses, successes and disappointments. And you have to build into your life the notion that plans go awry and you have to keep adapting." - Nancy Schlossberg, @LATstevelopez
- "Take the time while you're still working to sample the dream. Give it a try with an extended vacation. Go on sabbatical, whatever you need to do to make sure that this thing you've idealized in your head for the last 20 or 30 years is really something that's going to be fulfilling." - Rabbi Naomi Levy, @LATstevelopez
- Steve Lopez on Los Angeles Times
- Connect with Steve Lopez on Twitter
- Connect with Steve Lopez on Facebook
- The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music by Steve Lopez
- Independence Day: What I Learned About Retirement from Some Who’ve Done It and Some Who Never Will by Steve Lopez
- Rabbi Naomi Levy
- Dean Niewolny
- Halftime Institute
- Mel Brooks
- Norman Lear
- Nancy Schlossberg
- Father Greg Boyle
- Homeboy Industries
- Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Gregory Boyle
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Casey Weade: Welcome to the Retire With Purpose Podcast. I am your host, Casey Weade, and it is our mission here at Howard Bailey to help others gain clarity and purpose and elevate meaning in their daily lives through practical and proven financial strategies. We do that with you here on the podcast every single Friday. You'll join us for a weekend reading podcast. That's a short form podcast where we update you on some of the latest trends to help you make better decisions about your life and finance. Get yourself signed up to get that email. Just shoot us a text at 866-482-9559. Just text us “WR” and we'll get you signed up to receive that weekly email and all the other goodies that come along with it. And what we're doing here today is what we do every other Monday. So, every other Monday here on the podcast, we bring on one of our world-class guests where we give to you a long-form interview on guests talking about everything from the financial to the nonfinancial aspects of finance and retirement.
Today, our guest is Steve Lopez, award-winning columnist, bestselling author. He's been writing for the L.A. Times since 2001, a four times Pulitzer Prize finalist. He's won more than a dozen national journalism awards, wrote for TIME, Sports Illustrated, Life, and Entertainment Weekly. He's won three local news Emmys, author of three novels, and the bestselling nonfiction book, The Soloist, which you probably remember if you're a movie buff like me. I love the Soloist and it was one of my favorite movies. I just watched it again, a New York Times best seller as well as turned into the DreamWorks picture, where Steve was played by Robert Downey Jr. And we had his friend, Nathaniel, played by Jamie Foxx. Today, though, our focus will be, of course, around retirement. As Steve recently wrote a book titled Independence Day: What I Learned About Retirement from Some Who’ve Done It and Some Who Never Will.
Casey Weade: With that, Steve, welcome to the podcast.
Steve Lopez: It’s so good to be with you. Thank you for having me.
Casey Weade: Well, I'm really excited to have you here. I got to be honest. When I first saw that we had booked you for the interview, I said, “Who's Steve Lopez?” And then I got online. I said, “Oh my gosh, The Soloist. I love this movie.” And I actually went back and I watched the movie again, and I just never recognized. I never put two and two together that Steve Lopez, Robert Downey Jr. was playing you in that movie but what a fantastic movie. I just watched it again. Again, I hate to derail the conversation into The Soloist. However, it is a great movie and I think we can tie this right back into retirement as well. So, I think there's a tie in here. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions about that. I was curious how it felt for you to be played by Robert Downey Jr. And I always kind of wondered, how did Nathaniel feel about the movie? How did he feel about getting played by Jamie Foxx, if he felt anything about it?
Steve Lopez: Well, it's interesting that this comes up today because when you and I are done, I'm on my way to go and see Nathaniel, who is The Soloist. And so, I met him in 2005. So, what is this now? We're coming up on, I guess, an 18-year relationship. And so, we're still very close. He lives in a nursing facility. He's now in his early seventies and he still plays music every day and he listens to music every day. And in fact, one reason I'm going to see him today is to take my guitar and play some music with him. And he always has these requests like, “Can you bring me this or that CD?” He's still listening to CDs and no streaming of music for him. He's old school if you can call CDs old school. I guess you can. Anyhow, I've got a CD with me that I've got to take to him. And as for your question about what was it like to be played by Robert Downey Jr, I thought he was too old and too short to play me. Look, I was shocked when they said they were going to make a movie based on my book, The Soloist. And Living in Los Angeles, you hear a lot of stories about plans that go awry and projects that fold up and I was pretty convinced there would never be a movie. A lot of movies are shot that never make it to the screen.
I don't know, it seems like a one-in-a-million thing. I had written two novels that had been optioned for film versions, and they just kind of quietly died and I assumed the same thing would happen with this one. And so, I would hear from the producer on what actors they were considering for me and what actors they were considering for Nathaniel. The first time he called, he said, "Well, it looks like maybe Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington.” And it was kind of fun to hear about that but I just thought, "No way,” and I was right. For one reason or another, three, four, or five different actors to play each of us, it fell through conflicting schedules, whatever. You know, there are a million reasons why things don't work out. So, when they started shooting that movie and when I met Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx, I still couldn't believe it. And as for Nathaniel, we had one really crazy experience where we were in the habit, Nathaniel and I, going to Disney Hall. Disney Hall in downtown Los Angeles is where the Los Angeles Philharmonic plays and this is one of the world's great orchestras. Nathaniel and I, once I got to know him, he was still homeless but we would go to see concerts at Disney Hall.
And when they were shooting the movie, the producer asked if it would be okay for Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx to go to Disney Hall with me and Nathaniel. And I said, “What are they going to do?” And he said, “They're going to sit behind you and just watch you,” which I found to be a really odd notion, but they did it. And I think Nathaniel what he liked most about the movie and the whole experience was validation. This had been a Juilliard-trained, very talented young musician who kind of went off the rails as a 20-year-old when he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent many years homeless and lost and kind of stigmatized and just wandering the streets of Cleveland and where he was born, and then over to L.A. So, I think for him, the movie was a validation. That's like, hey, this is a somebody, and a lot of people that you see on the streets were once a somebody, and they still are and here's the story. So, I think he appreciated that.
Casey Weade: So, you're going to see Nathaniel. I've got to ask you, are you going to be riding that bicycle? Did you give that up?
Steve Lopez: Yeah. In the movie, I fall off my bike and smash up my face, which actually did happen. But no, I am not going to ride my bike. I'm going to drive, which I think is maybe a little bit, but not all that much safer here in L.A. but I am going to drive.
Casey Weade: Right. And when I think about Nathaniel, to me, it looks like someone that just has an extremely high and focused sense of purpose, someone that knows what brings meaning to their life, which was in his world and still is sounds like it is music. And I was curious how that has shaped your thoughts on passion, specifically, purpose, even so maybe as it relates to retirement.
Steve Lopez: Casey, I'm going to give you an A-plus for segues because that was a perfect one. When I was thinking about writing this book and when I was thinking about retiring, I told Nathaniel I was visiting him on one of our many visits before the pandemic. It was maybe once a week we would get together and I told him, I said, “Hey, I’m thinking about retirement.” And he stopped and he looked at me and he said, “What?” I said, “I'm thinking. I've been doing this for almost half a century.” And he said, “You're going to retire?” “Yeah.” “And do what?” And I said, “Well, I haven't quite figured that part out.” But I said, “Do you ever think that there might be a time when you don't play music?” and he said, “Absolutely not.” And I said, “Well, how long are you going to play?” and he said, “Until I drop.” And he said it as like a judgment. Like, why wouldn't you write until you drop? Isn't that not only what you do, but who you are? And there was a time when I met Nathaniel back in the early part of this, well, it was around 2005, 2006, 2007 where I was thinking of getting out of journalism. And the newspaper industry has had its challenges. I mean, it didn't look like there was much of a future and I was thinking of moving into something else.
And I would look at Nathaniel, who you would think, “Oh, my God, what a lost soul,” but he had what everybody was after, all of us, purpose, passion. He knew why he existed and when he played music, which he did every day, sitting on a milk crate in a tunnel with cars whizzing by. He had a smile on his face, an obvious ecstasy, playing what he called the music of the gods. So, I used to admire that. I think way back then I suggested to him that I might try something else. And he said, “Like what?” And I said, “I don't know, but I want to do something that I really love. You really love what you do.” And he said, “Well, don't you have the same thing? Don't you get to tell stories about people like me and don't you love that? And wouldn't you miss it?” And it was quite an astute observation on his part. So, yeah, it became my big conflict here as I contemplated retirement just a couple of years ago and began writing this book. I love, love, love what I do. I feel really lucky, especially being in an industry that has shed so many thousands of jobs across the United States. I still got a job, and my job is not a bad one. Find the story you want to write, share an opinion you think is an important one to share. So, why would I walk away from that?
And if I were to leave that, what would fill my life? What would give me a sense of purpose and engagement? What would drag me out of bed in the morning if I left something that I really loved? And then, on the other hand, the other side of the equation for me was I have some health issues. I've been doing this thing for 50 years. There are things that I always thought I might want to do, like get better at music or language or learn how to cook or take more time to travel or more time with family. And am I running out of time? It's like, okay, am I going to be one of those people, Casey, who does this and then, finally, here's my big retirement day and we have the send-off. And as I begin my adventure, maybe traveling around the world, I don't remember my wife's name or I've had another physical failure and I'm kind of hobbled and I'm not going to be able to enjoy doing all these other things I wanted to do. So, for me, the equation was partly about what's the timing here? And we don't know the answers to that. I don't know how long I'm going to be well enough to enjoy other activities and new pursuits. So, I really wrestled with all of that stuff and the book became a kind of a search for my own identity. Who am I really? And if I leave journalism, who will I be next?
Casey Weade: Well, you said identity. That seems to come up in a lot of these conversations and individuals saying you need to recreate your identity as you step into retirement. But do you find that that's really the case? Have you found through everything that you've done that it's not really about recreating your identity? Maybe it's about something more. Maybe it's about bringing a sense of identity with you.
Steve Lopez: I think that's a really wise observation, Casey. I think that you don't necessarily step out of one body and mind and into another. There's a woman in Florida who is in my book. Her name is Nancy Schlossberg. She's in her nineties. And since she transitioned out of life as a college professor, she has written a few books about what a huge and challenging transition retirement can be. And that's one of the things she talks about is different types of retirees. And when she heard my story, she said you're going to come under the classification that she calls continuous and she said, "You're not going to completely shed what you did. You might mentor young writers. You might become a freelance writer who writes occasionally. You might segue more into books out of daily journalism but you have a curious mind and you kind of know how to find and tell stories. That's not something you're going to leave behind and create an entirely new identity, such as you're going to learn to fly or how to knit rugs unless you really want to do that. But if you think you want to do it, you better really think that through because you strike me,” she said, “as somebody who's going to hold on to a big part of his identity.”
And I think she was right about that and I think that's good advice, too. And you make a good point about you don't necessarily have to leave one thing entirely behind and you don't have to. I mean, come on. Create a new identity at 70? How are you going to do that? What would my new identity be? I'm not sure.
Casey Weade: Yeah. Well, I love that piece on Nancy Schlossberg in the book. For those that haven't read the book, the other five categories are easy gliders, adventurers, searchers, involved spectators, and retreaters. And I like this segment because I think quite often we're told we should do things in this transition. You should get a new hobby. You should find a new identity. You should find a new job. And when I look at this and go, "Well, reality is we’re all different. We all have different ways of showing up, different categories that we fall into.” What was the importance of identifying your own category? Or in another way of asking that, what would be the importance of someone identifying for themselves their own category prior to retirement?
Steve Lopez: I don't know that you need a category. You just need to think it through. I mean, what Nancy told me and, look, I’ll tell you one thing that I really, really love about many things about Nancy and my interview with her, but she is 92 when she started writing these books on retirement. She had been a college instructor on psychology in the field of psychology and had studied transitions and the psychology of transitions. And so, she thought she was set when she retired in her sixties. She was married and lived in Maryland, the Maryland area. She taught at the University of Maryland, and she and her husband had a routine in which they would vacation down in Sarasota, Florida. That was where they loved to go for their getaways. And so, here she is now retired and they moved down to Sarasota and she loses her husband. Her husband died. And so, now Nancy is transitioning from married to single and widowed. She is transitioning from working to not and she is transitioning from a network of easily reachable friends and a whole social group of acquaintances to she is in a new city. And so, she really struggled with that, understandably.
But even if you don't have major moves like that, Nancy said to me, "Retirement is a big transition. It'll change everything about your relationship with your spouse. You've got to recalibrate how you spend time with each other and how much time you have with each other. Your relationship to your ex-friends will change. You might develop new friends. This is all very difficult and you need to have something of a plan for building yourself some new sense of how you're going to spend your day.” And she didn't do it very well which is why she ended up further investigating these transitions and writing books about it. And she told me that after she lost her husband, she never would have thought at her age she'd start another relationship but she did. And then he died. And while I was interviewing her on the phone, there was a beep. The call was interrupted and Nancy said, “I got to take this.” And when she came back to me, she said, “I got to go. That was my boyfriend.” What I took from that was, as Nancy says, "It's good to have an idea and a plan but keep in mind that retirement, like life, is full of surprises, victories and losses, successes and disappointments. And you have to build into your life the notion that plans go awry and you have to keep adapting.”
And here she was dropping her call with me to go talk to her boyfriend, who I think also was in his nineties. So, way to go, Nancy. She's just still living life. And to me, that was quite good advice that I got from Nancy. I really enjoyed talking to her.
Casey Weade: Well, with all that change, the ambiguity, it seems like it'd be difficult to be 100% prepared for something like that. However, one of the individuals you interviewed, Lilian, Lilian gave you some specific advice that if you're going to retire fully, you better be 100% ready. I saw that and I go, “Man, you think that's true?” Is anyone really 100% ready to retire?
Steve Lopez: Well, I’ll tell you what. I'll tell you what. There's another person in my book who could not wait to retire. She was a clerk in the patent department of a toy company in Southern California and she'd done it for a long time and somebody who liked her job. She enjoyed what she did but she also wanted to do other things and thought about it. I mean, she was one of those people who had the day circled on the calendar. This is when it's all over. And that's when they have the Friday send-off in the office and I move on to the next thing. So, she had that little sendoff. She got up on Saturday, woke up, and, "Oh, boy. Here it is. You know, I hope the world is ready because here I come. It's the new life. It's the new me.” And she just kind of, I don't know, sputtered around over the weekend, just taking it easy. And then she gets up on Monday. And Monday was when it hit her because Monday is a ritual day for people who work Monday to Friday. It's like your body clock has got you waking up to go to work. And on her first Monday, she really did not know what to do and she was thrown off. It was almost like the way a time change hits us. It's like, "Oh, God. What now?” You know, she made it through that day and the next and the next.
And by the end of the first week, the first week of her retirement, she thought she had made a big mistake. She had not done the planning that Nancy suggests we need to do. She had not considered what kind of a retiree she might be. She didn't have much of a plan and she wasn't comfortable being without any of those things. I think some people are they don't need to instantly reinvent themselves or race to the airport and get on the plane to circle the world. This is somebody who just hadn't thought it through and on Friday called her boss and asked if she could have her job back. And he said yes. And so, she was retired for one week, went back to work, worked another four years. And this time she thought it through and she got it right. Everybody, of course, is going to experience this differently but there are some people in the book who I interviewed who've been through this or thought about it, who had really great advice. Nancy was one of those people.
Another one is Rabbi Naomi Levy, who said to me, she's a Los Angeles rabbi. What she said was and this is really, I think, critical for people to consider who might be contemplating retirement. She told me the story of a guy in her congregation who came to her because he was struggling. He was just feeling a little bit lost, particularly on weekends. And she said, “Well, what do you mean?” “You know, well, I'm busy during the week. I'm working Monday through Friday. Saturday, I get up and I don't have any specific plans. What am I going to do? It's almost like I can't wait for the weekend to end.” And she said that that was an example for her of somebody who needs structure. Structure had been a part of his life. He didn't do well without structure. And she wondered, Naomi Levi did, that maybe I was one of those people who might need some structure. And guess what? On a weekend when I have nothing to do, it's kind of rare that I have nothing to do, but when it happens then I'm going to run into trouble with my wife because I'll be hovering, what are we going to do next and what are we going to do for dinner? And she just, “Would you go and be alone? Would you go and do something? Quit pacing. Find something to do. Call a friend.”
I'm kind of lost. I get a little bit nervous when I don't have anything to do, and I kind of need structure and ritual. And that was good advice from Rabbi Naomi Levy to think that through. Are you a person who needs structure? Can you build a life without structure? What might it be? Or is there a way to have a different kind of structure? You're not doing your job, but you're doing something else. And she also told me if you think as a retiree, “Oh, I know what I'm going to do. I'm going to buy a sailboat and take up sailing, or I'm going to learn how to fly a plane or I'm going to learn a language or an instrument,” her advice is, "Take the time while you're still working to sample the dream. Give it a try with an extended vacation. Go on sabbatical, whatever you need to do to make sure that this thing you've idealized in your head for the last 20 or 30 years is really something that's going to be fulfilling.” And so, I think that's really good advice because there are cases, of course, of people who retired to do some specific thing and then get bored or find that that's just not for them and that's okay, then move on to the next thing. But I like Naomi's idea of sample the dream if you're thinking of retirement to do a specific thing.
Casey Weade: Yeah. And we've heard that many times on the podcast from different guests. Dean Niewolny always comes to my mind from the Halftime Institute with his low-cost probes. Just love that concept. And as you talk about this, I think a lot of individuals had this opportunity during COVID and they had the experience of, “Oh, wow, what am I going to do with all of my time?” We think that we don't want to meet deadlines, but many of us not only want the deadlines, we actually need the deadlines. You gave in your book three big reasons that you're considering retirement. One of those was no more deadlines. So, that changed your thought on that?
Steve Lopez: Well, not to give away the ending but let me give away the ending. One of the people I interviewed, I wanted to interview two L.A. people who are still working in their nineties. I will say, by the way, let me quickly squeeze in while we still have Naomi Levy fresh in our mind that I sampled the dream. And you just said, Casey, during the pandemic, people may have been working from home. They got a chance to maybe sample the dream because you didn't have your commute time anymore. You had more time just sitting around the house or whatever. I had always wanted to play music, and I always thought that when I retired, that's what I would be doing a lot of. And so, I took that to heart, her advice to sample the dream. I got my guitar out of the garage, which I hadn't played in years. I never really knew how to play. And I now play not much better than you just heard, but I'm improving and it's now a daily part of my life. And I did sample the dream but I now know that because I love to play an hour or two a day, it's something I'm probably always going to love to do. I've been doing it for over a year playing the guitar. So, that's one of my new pursuits and one of my new reasons, you know, part of my identity. I've got behind me against the wall and on the bed are five guitars. So, I've really gotten kind of obsessed. Getting back to you asked me. What did you ask me about?
Casey Weade: Well, specifically, I’m talking a little bit about Naomi. We were talking about Naomi. Naomi thrown off. It was talking about COVID being unstructured. You had said one of the reasons that you were considering retirement was no more deadlines.
Steve Lopez: Oh, yeah.
Casey Weade: Yeah. I mean, even in relation to the guitar thing, I feel like, well, did you put some deadlines around that or some parameters or structure that you say, "Every day I'm going to play this much or this time during the day I'm going to play?” I mean, what are your thoughts around that that came out of that discussion with Naomi?
Steve Lopez: Well, I knew that I wanted to do it and I wanted to find out if I could do it because I had convinced myself in earlier attempts that I did not have a brain that was set up to do music or language. And so, two things I wanted to do were to finally get fluent in Spanish. My name is Lopez because my dad's family is from Spain. On the other side, my mom's family is from Italy. And so, one of my retirement dreams was to become fluent in Spanish. I can get by but I'm not fluent enough to conduct an interview for a column that I'm writing, and then learn Italian.
So, language and music and food were three things at the top of my list. I love to cook, but I’ve never had any formal training. And I wanted to get that. The thread comes back to me, Casey. I had mentioned that I wanted to talk to 290-plus people in L.A. and interview them for my book. And the reason I wanted to do that is because the two are Mel Brooks and Norman Lear.
And Norman Lear is the creator of All in the Family and The Jeffersons and dozens and dozens of other huge, huge hits. And Mel Brooks, of course, a number of movies that he’s acted in, singing, dancing, producing, directing. And I wanted to talk to them because they are in their 90s. And it seems from a distance, I didn’t know either of them that they’re working like 30 and 40-year-olds and with no end in sight. It’s like, I checked my paper one day, and now, Mel Brooks was writing a book and then he was doing a one-man show traveling the country.
And so, I wanted to hear from them what their advice was on the meaning of work and why they had not retired. I mean, there are people in Hollywood who just fade away, their own choice, or maybe things don’t work out in the end, but these are two guys who kept doing it. And I also specifically wonder in their case, when you do creative work and that’s a part of your identity and maybe it’s a part of your DNA, are those creative energies, are those juices flowing through you, your oxygen? And if you walk away, do you suffocate?
And I want you to know that because I’m not a creative artist, but when I write a column, I begin with a blank page, and it’s all up to me to create something to fill the empty space. And I thought, okay, what happens when I don’t do that anymore? Do I just suffocate? Do I wither away? Do I really lose my sense of purpose and meaning? And so, I wanted to talk to each of them. And they both had great advice. And not just for me, but I think for anybody considering retirement.
I found, Casey, working on the book that I was writing as much about work and the meaning of work and how we relate to it as I was about retirement. And what Norman Lear said was, that he thought of life as a series of figuring out what’s over and what’s next. And he said he didn’t have any interest in looking back at his awards, the shows he created, the characters he created. It was all in the past. He did it. That’s done. It was enjoyable. It can’t give him any new enjoyment.
So, for him, he thinks of his life as he’s swinging in a hammock between what’s over and what’s next, and whatever pulls him out of the hammock is what he is happy to embrace each day. And as he swings in the hammock each morning, he’s got six ideas in his head. So, he gets up and he goes to his office and he collaborates with other creative people. And I like that idea that he had that life is in the moment, maybe a little bit, unlike Nancy Schlossberg, you don’t have to necessarily figure out what kind of retiree you are. You don’t have to figure it all out if you leave one identity or are you going to create another?
Just think of this. What gets you go? What gets you out of bed? What gets you out of the hammock? And if there’s something there, just embrace it and feel privileged to have it. And if there isn’t something there, you better go and find something because what you did yesterday is over and you’ve got to figure out what’s next. So, that’s a little philosophy from Norman Lear, who, by the way, is now over 100 and still working.
And Mel Brooks, on the other hand, who is coming up on mid to late 90s, I think is still working. And what he told me was, he listened to my story and he said, “So, what I’m hearing, Steve, is that you really like work. You love writing a column for the L.A. Times.” And I said, “Yeah, I do.” And he said, “And I’m hearing that there are all these other things that you thought you might want to do. You thought you might want to live in Barcelona and get up and go to guitar class and then go to Spanish language class and then go to a cooking class and then wander the Ramblas and go down by the water and just experience Spain and maybe look for where your grandparents are from.” And I said, “Yes, yes.” And he says, “Well, why can’t you do both? Why can’t you have the best of both worlds? Why don’t you go to your editors and say, I love this job? Thank you very much. I just want to do a little bit less of it. Why don’t you take the hybrid plan?”
And so, that’s what I did. I went to my editor and I said, “I’m not quite ready to retire. I love this work, but I’d like to do some other things with my time. How do you feel about me going to, half-time, three-quarter time, whatever?” And they were okay with it. So, I switched. It’s now a year and a half ago. There’s some lag time on the publication of the book, but I’ve been now for a year and a half working three-quarters time. And what that means is that I work nine months of the year and I’m off three months.
So, the three months can come in a block or they can come, hey, I think I want to go to, I don’t know, to– I think I want to go skiing next week. I’m taking next week off, and I’m going to take a week off each of the next six months. So, it’s take a week here, two weeks there, a block, a big block, and I’m really enjoying it because I’m getting to do things, like go to see my daughter play college tennis with her team in Ohio, and I’m getting to play the guitar, yeah, go, Big Red. Thank you very much, Casey. They don’t have a mascot. They just say, go, Big Red, go, Big Red, Denison University women’s tennis.
So, I’m doing these things that I wanted to do. I wanted to make sure to see my daughter, who’s only going to be in college for four years. I get to go and watch her play because I’m on the Mel Brooks’ hybrid plan. Mel Brooks is my life coach. And I get to take a week off and just learn how to play a song on my guitar that I heard on the radio and I really loved. And in my past life, I wouldn’t have had the time to do it. Now, I do. So, I like the way things are going.
Casey Weade: I feel like we’re just slowly checking off each one of these big reasons to consider retirement for yourself and the reasons that you did not necessarily think you should be considering retirement. And that one is one you just laid out there, which was just a common misconception that I think a lot of individuals have. And I think it gets a lot of individuals in trouble as they step into retirement, being that big reason you had was, would I still be young enough to do the things and have the experiences I want to have? And really, you found that you can do both. How do your parents’ health issues tie into that if they do?
Steve Lopez: They certainly do. They certainly do tie into it because I’m unfortunately on my parents’ health malady calendar, it seems. They each developed heart issues in their 50s and 60s, and then I did. My dad had really bad knee joints. And I do. And so, I’ve had advancing, relatively minor, but cause for concern, heart issues for 10 or 15 years. And I thought, okay, am I going to be one of those people who you retire and then you’re in such poor health that you can’t go and do all of those things you’ve been dreaming of? You can’t do the next that Norman Lear talks about.
So, I was very conscious of trying to keep in mind how my health was and make sure that I get some time toward the end of my career to where I’m still healthy enough to do some things with my wife and with my family and things that I wanted to do. But those are hard things to figure out, like the two really big things, I think, are health and money. And I know a little bit about health issues. I know next to nothing about money.
And in fact, I thought, there’ve been a lot of books about how to know whether you’re ready to retire financially. It’s not something that I can help people with. And for me, it’s like, well, how do you even make financial considerations when do I have enough money? I wrestled with that. When do you take Social Security, like so many people do? And I had a friend who took it the earliest possible. And he said, “If you wait until 70, it means you’re going to have to live past 83 in order to catch up because you’re leaving money on the table.” And you got to think through those numbers about your lifespan. And I said, “How? I don’t know if when I retire, I’m going to live another 10 minutes, 10 years, 20 years. How the hell am I supposed to know how much money I’m going to need or when to start taking Social Security?”
For me, the health thing was maybe a little bit more clear that I know I’m going to have heart issues going forward. And I know that because when I had my first knee replacement, I went into cardiac arrest and had to be resuscitated. I flatlined. So, I’m walking around with now two fake knees and a pacemaker, which those were health issues that give me a little more incentive to try to figure out this work retirement thing. It’s like, I don’t know how much time I’ve got left and I still don’t know as I’m about to turn 70 and cash that first Social Security check, which, by the way, this may not be good advice for it may not be what you want to hear or what you want me to tell listeners to a show that considers, among other things, financial considerations.
I’m going to blow every cent of my first Social Security check and I don’t care if I’m buying or doing stupid stuff. The whole point for me is to spend every nickel and dime of it, and I might do that with the first two or three, I’m not sure, but I’m blowing it. I’m going to do unhealthy things and enjoy the hell out of it. So, I really don’t know. I mean, for me, yes.
Casey Weade: Don’t move on yet, Steve. That’s a good one because a lot of people, we get a lot of questions about this, is getting over this hump of spending money and actually spending the money that you worked so hard to save, which you saved so that you could actually spend it and enjoy it. That sounds like you have that issue. How did you get over the hump if there ever was one?
Steve Lopez: Oh, wait a minute. Wait a minute now, Casey, you’re assuming a little too much. I am going to blow the first two or three Social Security checks, but I’m already in a panic with my nest egg. How am I going to feel when I reach in there to take something out without replacing it? Because for me, that’s like, I don’t know, I think of it as sort of that’s the death clock. That’s okay, am I supposed to time it so that the nest egg is finally empty when I’m on my deathbed? I mean, I really know nothing about money, very little about money. I have no idea whether I’ve got enough money to retire.
What I know is that with a tiny pension and some Social Security, I’ll be able to adapt. I’m not going to enjoy the same lifestyle, but it’s entirely possible I’ll run out of that nest egg, especially with market volatility. And it’s up and it’s down in the last five years. The market has just been so crazy. I look at that money that I carefully put away and I look at my daily paper loss and I’m pacing the floor. Oh, my God. And I know it’s only on paper and it’s going to come back tomorrow, especially with such a volatile market. But I don’t like that. I love the days.
Well, you can figure 4% as you’re contemplating what your retirement income might be. Come on, I’d love to get a guaranteed 4%. Give it to me right now, I would sign up because I don’t sit well with uncertainty about having enough money. And I’m not rich, I mean I’m not rich. And if I live into my– I’ve been writing, I should say this. I’ve been writing about people, Casey, in their 80s, 90s, and 100s and beyond who are running out of money because people are living longer than they have. And we, by the way, are racing toward the point in the very near future the next several years where the world will have more people in it over 65 than under 18.
And it’s almost like the climate change tsunami. We’re not quite ready for it. And the big questions for millions and millions of people, we’ve got 75 million boomers just in the United States right now, the big question is, how many of those 75 million people have enough money to live comfortably until they’re 85, 90, 100? Probably a small fraction of them. And so, the big questions are, do I have enough money to pay my bills if I live till 80, 90, 100? And who is going to take care of me? Because the eldercare industry is experiencing shocking shortages. Even now, the state of California has a projected eldercare worker shortage of 3.2 million jobs between now and eight years from now.
So, I’ve been writing about people. I wrote about a guy who turned 109. I just wrote about a 102-year-old World War II veteran who took a fall in his one-bedroom apartment a year and a half ago and needed in-home round-the-clock care which burned through his nest egg. Understandable, because the guy, he’s looked 102. And so, he was getting by on his combination of Social Security, some VA benefits, and a railroad company pension. And the majority of it was going to the round-the-clock health care.
And then he got his gas bill. You may have heard that in California, we’ve been hit with these gas bills that are $500, $600 a month, over $1,000. So, Paul is his name, the World War II veteran. I went to visit him. His nest egg was cleared out, and he’s now paying the gas bill on the generosity of readers. Readers read the column and they’ve been sending him money, it’s in the thousands of dollars now. So, he’s going to be okay.
But those things worry me, Casey. I’m not rich. The money I have will not last forever. My wife is several years younger than I am, so she presumably will be around after I’m gone. These things all scared me as I contemplated retirement, although I didn’t want to write a book about the financial aspects of retirement. I’m being dishonest if I don’t tell you that one reason I’m still working at least part-time is I don’t think I’m financially set and I don’t want financial insecurity to hit my wife and daughter when I’m gone. I mean, my daughter’s still in college.
So, those are all issues swirling in my head as I wrote this book and contemplated when do I retire and what’s the meaning of my retirement and what’s the meaning of work and how much do I love it. And can I really walk away and do it? And can I even afford? Can I afford? I think for many millions of Americans right now and people beyond, it’s can I even afford to get old when you’re living till 80, 90, 100? I mean, who’s got that kind of money put away? Some people do. I think a lot of people don’t. A lot of people can’t even afford to consider retirement.
Casey Weade: Steve, thank you for that. I think, there are so many that are in that boat that feel the same way. And yes, you’ve always been an open book. So, I truly appreciate the transparency, authenticity. Yeah, thank you for that. You mentioned your wife several times now, and I wanted to talk a little bit about Alison because we actually had a question from one of our Weekend Reading subscribers about marriage and retirement. And I know you two have clearly talked about this quite a bit and can offer some insight here.
In the book, you mentioned that you and your wife discussed the possibility of your retirement, and she admitted, as you kind of alluded to earlier, that she needs her alone time and that you’re going to drive her nuts if you’re pacing back and forth in the living room. And we had one of our Weekend Reading subscribers that have the opportunity to submit questions prior to our guests coming on, Stacy, submit a question about this topic. I think this will be a great lead into this topic. Stacy said, “During COVID, I had the opportunity to work a week in the office and then have a week off from work. After a short time, my wife told me that I needed something to keep me busy on those weeks off because she wasn’t used to me being home and I was annoying her. How can a couple transition from seeing each other a few hours a day to being with each other all day without causing relationship issues?” I know it’s a broad question, but I think you have some good advice here.
Steve Lopez: Okay. What I need to know, Casey, is where does Stacy live? Because if it’s not too far from where I am, he and I need to get together. We need to find a bar halfway between us and meet there to talk this over. Do you know where Stacy lives?
Casey Weade: We’re not sure where Stacy lives, no.
Steve Lopez: I’m going to call Stacy. So, Stacy is the husband here, right?
Casey Weade: Yes, yes.
Steve Lopez: I need to talk to Stacy because here’s– so, during the pandemic, my office was shut down. I generally, through most of my career as a newspaper person, have worked in an office. I’m out on the street a lot, knocking on doors and pounding pavement. That’s the kind of column that I write. But you start your day usually in an office. And the office was closed. So, my home became the office. And there are a couple of problems with that. Number one, Alison, the lovely and talented Alison Shore, my wife.
Casey Weade: Steve, I just got a word that Stacey’s in Virginia, so a little far, out of the way.
Steve Lopez: Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll see him in Denver or something. So, Alison is a writer and editor who works at home. And we live in L.A. We are not in a 12-room Malibu beach compound. We are in a two-bedroom house in Pasadena. So, here we have the two of us working out of this house, which is, I don’t know, what was it, 1,600 square feet. This is not a great deal of room for two people to be working in with phones ringing and printers going and all of that.
And I made the mistake of saying one day to the lovely and talented Alison Shore, “Hey, I’m home a lot. This is my office. We’re seeing a lot more of each other. The pandemic is a preview of my retirement.” To which Alison Shore said, “If this is a preview, I do not want to see the movie.” And she said, “Look, I’ve got my job. I don’t need you coming in every 10 minutes to ask what’s going on and who is that phone call from.” And she said, “And I’ve got my life outside of the house and I’ve got friends to see and things to do. And I’ve got tennis coming up in 20 minutes. So, can you please leave the room?” And she said, “Look, if you’re thinking retirement, you better make more friends and get yourself some more buddies to go out on dates with because I’m not going to be your steady date every day to talk to you every morning, every time you need another cup of coffee. I do not want to have a conversation about what we’re having for dinner. Go back, find a hole somewhere in the yard, in the house, and leave me alone.”
And so, yes, that was– I mean, she’s joking a little bit. We have a very good, strong relationship. But you do have to adapt. I mean, come on. That’s one of the things that Nancy Schlossberg was talking about. Every relationship will change. You got to figure out what your– oh, and the other thing was, Casey, this hit me at the same time that our daughter Caroline left for college. So, she’s leaving for college. I’m working from home. So, I’ve got the empty nest syndrome and empty office syndrome. And there I am managing and adjusting to a new relationship with Alison, where we’ve got to– and it can be tricky. I empathize completely with Stacy, who’s having trouble managing that.
You know how we ended up working it out? I had to just let her be in charge and sulk out of the room and just let her dictate that she was going to have her alone time. And I’m going to try to be okay with more of my own alone time than I have. That’s where the guitar came in handy. I can just retreat into my daughter’s bedroom where I am right now and grab a guitar and try to learn a new song.
Casey Weade: Wise advice from a happily married man.
Steve Lopez: Who knew we’d be doing marriage counseling here today?
Casey Weade: Yeah, who knew? Well, strangely enough, it ends up being a big part of what we do as financial planners. Hey, as we bring things to a close, couple of wrap-up questions, one being, if there’s only one takeaway that the listener or the reader gets from either reading the book or listening this conversation, what do you hope that that is?
Steve Lopez: I think that, I’ll tell you what the one takeaway is. One of the people I went to talk to about retirement was a gentleman in Los Angeles. His name is Father Greg Boyle. And Father Greg is exactly my age, pretty close to it. I made a point of talking to people who are my age exactly because I don’t know, it’s a little easier to identify with these timeline issues about health and how long have you been working and how much time might you have left.
So, Father Greg, let me tell you quickly, he is a Jesuit priest. He has been committed to his cause for the same amount of time that I’ve been committed to mine. And I’ve written about him many times because he has actually a world-famous nonprofit that he started with the help of some colleagues in Los Angeles. It’s called Homeboy Industries. And he takes longtime gang members in Los Angeles who have grown up in high-crime areas, often absent parents, often losing loved ones to violent crime, Los Angeles still has some pretty violent streets, and end up sometimes without a family and the gang becomes the family. And they go to prison.
And many times, Father Greg noticed that they come out of prison and their only real family is the crime family, and they get right back into the same old habits. So, he created a pathway out of that life and out of that world. And he has a two-year training program. And it’s job training. It’s life skills training. It’s gang tattoo removal.
And so, Father Greg has written many great books about his– the first big one was Tattoos on the Heart. And Father Greg is quite the mensch. He is quite the philosopher. He is quite the inspirational, I mean, just everybody admires him. Everybody who meets him admires his sense of purpose and his passion for what he does and for the people whose lives he is trying to redirect.
So, I went to see Father Greg and told him that, “Look, you and I are the same age. I’m thinking about retirement. Do you ever think about it?” He said, “Oh, no.” And I said, “Well, we’re coming up on 70.” And I said, “I’ve been doing this for 50 years. You, the same. Are there other things that you think you might want to do you haven’t had time to get to?” And Father Greg said, “You have to go where life is.” And I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “You have to do what replenishes you.” And he was suggesting that the work that he does replenishes you. And what more can you achieve than to give up your soul for the betterment of somebody, to give somebody a chance to improve their own lives?
And he was also, in saying that to me, suggesting that sometimes that’s the kind of work that I do, is to highlight somebody who’s working through a struggle or somebody who needs a voice to rattle some cages and take on the powers that be. And doesn’t that replenish me? And I think that whether you are thinking of continuing to work or thinking of retiring to do something else, Father Greg’s advice is good. It’s go where life is. Figure that out. Who are you? Go where life is, find meaning in it, and do what replenishes you. So, I think that that’s what the book really says. And I’ve got to thank Father Greg for that.
Casey Weade: Wow. Well, my last question was going to have you define retire with purpose, but it’s been done right there. Go where life is. It’s beautiful. I love that. Let’s close on that note, Steve. And I’d love to give away your book to our fans today. So, if you’d like to get a free copy of Independence Day: What I Learned About Retirement from Some Who’ve Done It and Some Who Never Will, you have to get this book. I mean, we’re going to give it to you away for free here today. Why wouldn’t you take advantage of getting this? I must say, it is the most page-turning retirement book that I have ever had the opportunity to open. It’s one of the easiest reading retirement books on the non-financial side of retirement that I’ve had the opportunity to read.
So, get it today just by texting us the word Book, B-O-O-K to 866-482-9559 and we’ll send you a link. And all you have to do is give us your iTunes username as well as the review that you wrote for the podcast. So, get on iTunes, write a review for the podcast, rate it, then you can give us an information. We’ll follow up with you. We’ll send you out Independence Day for free.
Steve, thank you so much for the interview. Thank you for being here with us. Thank you for the gifts that you’ve given so many in this world.
Steve Lopez: Thank you so much for having me. And if I write another book, I’m going to call you and see if we can do this again.
Casey Weade: That sounds great. I’m up for it.
Steve Lopez: All right. Thanks.