It’s not an easy time to be a retiree. Many of them spent years saving for travel and social plans, only to have the COVID-19 pandemic erase both. Now surging inflation and the market meltdown are eroding retirees’ portfolios and spending power.
But it’s not all bad news. Many seniors are making the most of their freedom from work and taking advantage of the long summer days to travel again and pursue passions they never had time for in their working years.
Globe Investor spoke to five retirees across Canada about how they’re spending the summer and making the most of their golden years – economic threats be damned.
Judy Wilson, 63, Edmonton
Judy Wilson wasn’t planning to retire for another two years, but when people close to her became ill and there was a changing of the guard at work, she decided to call it quits.
“I realized I don’t have to wait until 65; I can go at 63,” says the former government worker who retired three months ago. “Terror was the first emotion, but then it got super exciting,”
The first two months of retirement were “exhausting,” she says, because she didn’t know how to handle all the free time.
“I would get up and think, ‘Everything that I used to have to do on the weekends or in the evenings, I can do now.’ And I would get started and go until it was dark,” she says. “Then I realized, ‘I’m supposed to have more free time than this.’”
She’s now pacing herself through various activities, including gardening, refinishing furniture, taking on the presidency of her Rotary Club, hiking daily with her three rescue dogs and spending more time with her 23-year-old daughter, who is living with her while attending university.
Rising inflation has been a concern, causing Ms. Wilson to cut back a bit on groceries and driving, but she says it hasn’t changed her lifestyle much. “I’m vegetarian, so I can just eat more beans and rice.”
Her utility bills have also risen recently, forcing her to revisit her budget, but she still doesn’t regret retiring early. “Not at all. I am not working to pay the utility company. I’d get rid of my lights and shower in cold water before I’d go back to work.”
And while gardening has kept her very busy so far in her retirement, Ms. Wilson isn’t concerned she won’t have enough to keep her busy during the winter. Instead, she plans to read more, remain an active Rotarian, take Spanish lessons and go on winter hikes with the dogs.
“I am giddy with the excitement of retirement and busier than I have ever been,” she says. “It’s worth working full-time your whole life to experience this stage of life: It’s like winning the lottery.”
David Wende, 67, Parksville, B.C.
David Wende knew by age 35 that he wanted to retire at age 60 – and had a pretty good idea of the best way to go about it. He watched his father retire “cold turkey” and become miserable for a year until figuring out how best to spend the free time.
Mr. Wende semi-retired in 2014 and fully retired in 2018 – a purposeful, staggered exit from his career as a litigation lawyer in Vancouver while he and his wife planned how and where they would spend their golden years.
“Living in North Vancouver for 30-plus years, I knew I had to get out of the rainforest,” says the married father of two thirtysomething children. He also wanted to find a way to pursue his long-time passion for building things with wood.
The couple decided to buy a small “fixer-upper” log cabin on Shuswap Lake in the B.C. Interior in 2012 – a property he could slowly rebuild and expand, spend time in with his family and eventually leave to his kids.
In 2016, the couple sold their house in North Vancouver and used the proceeds to build a home on a piece of land Mr. Wende inherited from his father in Parksville, B.C. on Vancouver Island, as well as to recover their retirement savings used to purchase the cabin.
Rising inflation has made Mr. Wende think twice about the types of wood he uses – building cabinetry out of wood veneer instead of natural maple – but he isn’t too worried about rising prices cramping his retirement lifestyle. “If everything is paid for, you can live a pretty modest life,” he says. The couple also live on a budget and take advantage of income splitting and other tax-efficient strategies.
As for his stock market portfolio, which accounts for about half of his wealth, Mr. Wende has been through a few market downturns over the years and benefitted from having a balanced portfolio and staying invested long-term.
Mr. Wende is more focused on enjoying his retirement, including his building projects, playing golf and travelling again now that pandemic lockdowns have been lifted. He and his wife recently returned from a three-week trip in France with friends and plan to spend much of the rest of summer at their cabin with family and friends.
Carole Lulham, 66, Saint John, N.B.
Carole Lulham was born and raised in Quebec, worked and raised her kids in Alberta, and has chosen to retire in New Brunswick, where she has reinvented herself as a mixed-media artist specializing in mosaic art.
And while it may sound like a part of a master plan for her golden years, Ms. Lulham’s retirement journey is more a combination of unforeseen circumstances, including a job loss and cancer diagnosis.
After a nearly 40-year career in the agriculture industry, Ms. Lulham was laid off from her last job at age 60 as a recession hit Calgary in 2016.
“I was thinking about retirement anyway, so it wasn’t a bad way to exit,” with a good severance package, she says. Coincidentally, Ms. Lulham sold her house the night before being laid off, so she was already preparing for some big lifestyle changes.
Unfortunately, months later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “That kind of cramped my style for a bit,” says Ms. Lulham, who spent two years getting treatment while renting a condo in Calgary.
Surviving cancer and being retired gave Ms. Lulham a new perspective on life and the freedom to do and go wherever she wanted. In 2018, she decided to move to Saint John, N.B., to be close to her two adult kids and one grandchild and start a new chapter.
“I made a conscious decision when I moved to New Brunswick to finally allow myself to aspire to call myself an artist.”
She says the province, in particular the Bay of Fundy, is replete with rock and minerals used in her work, which is shown at local galleries and occasionally sold. “It still stuns me when someone buys my work,” Ms. Lulham says.
Surviving cancer has also led her to worry less about money, slow down and appreciate life more.
“Since I had that brush with death, I don’t have the same concept of time, so when people say, ‘Yeah, it’s the long weekend,’ I think, ‘Every weekend is the long weekend.’ I love that.”
Ann Bigelow, 63, London, Ont.
Ann Bigelow is spending the summer trying out retirement – for the third time.
Her first attempt was in 2019, after being offered an appealing early retirement package from her teaching job at Western University. Ms. Bigelow, a chartered professional accountant, saw it as an opportunity to test out retirement and teach a few courses on the side. Then the pandemic hit, and her courses moved online, which she didn’t enjoy. “I was very unhappy, so I stopped teaching,” she says.
It didn’t take long for Ms. Bigelow to realize she wasn’t ready to stop working, so she took a part-time gig with a public accounting firm. She quit in April, after a year, determined to try retirement again.
After three months off work, Ms. Bigelow hasn’t found meaningful ways to fill chunks of her time.
“I need more contact with other people than I’m getting,” she says. And while her partner has been retired for about a decade, “I can’t rely on her to fill all of my time.”
The rising cost of living and sinking stock markets are adding to her concerns about not working, even though Ms. Bigelow says she lives fairly frugally and has a good retirement portfolio.
“I’m a worrier when it comes to money,” she says, “and so the inflationary environment and turbulent markets are keeping me awake.”
In particular, she struggles with being in the decumulation stage of life, including the tax hit, after decades of saving and investing. “You get a lot of rewards for saving: With RRSPs and TFSAs, you reduce your tax liability,” she says. “I just can’t get a grip on spending like I could with saving.”
To conserve some of her cash flow, Ms. Bigelow has recently cut back on a few perks such as weekly personal training sessions, online grocery delivery and meal-kit services.
But she’s also enjoying life and splurging a bit, including on a recent road trip to Halifax to visit one of her two adult sons.
Ms. Bigelow also gets some satisfaction from thinking about what job she might do next if she quits retirement again.
“I could go back to accounting, but maybe I’m done with that,” she says. Being a school bus driver was ruled out, but Ms. Bigelow’s latest idea is maybe becoming a real estate agent. “And then I wouldn’t be as panicked about taking money out because I’d have a regular income source that I could draw on.”
Peter Hambly, 74, Hanover, Ont.
Two weeks after he retired at age 65 from a 40-plus year career in banking, Peter Hambly got a call from his old boss asking if he wanted to come back part-time for a few months. It was a gift, in hindsight, since Mr. Hambly realized he wasn’t quite ready to stop working.
“I was financially ready for retirement, but not psychologically,” he says.
Mr. Hambly also served five terms on the town council in his community of Hanover, Ont., about 200 kilometres northwest of Toronto, until 2018.
“That was something that really helped me transition to retirement, too,” Mr. Hambly says. He was active in the local chamber of commerce for many years as well.
His main hobby is playing tournament bridge, something he started at university in the 1960s. And while the pandemic paused his out-of-town bridge tournaments for more than two years, Mr. Hambly believes COVID-19 restrictions have been much harder on other people, such as parents homeschooling kids. “It’s easy for me to be cautious; I’m retired,” he says.
He’s slowly returning to in-person bridge games this year and is looking forward to travelling to tournaments again in the weeks ahead, despite the rising cost of getting there.
Mr. Hambly says higher inflation and the recent market turbulence don’t keep him up at night, partly because he and his wife saved a lot of money staying home the past couple of years.
For him, the challenge with retirement is keeping busy.
“Some days are long,” he says. Once he has breakfast and reads the newspaper, it’s mid-morning, “and there can be literally nothing on your schedule. You can only clean the house so many times.”
Mr. Hambly believes many people should continue working in their 50s and 60s – or longer – if they can, especially given the current labour shortage.
“Work as long as you can,” he says. “You get to stay connected to people; you get a bit more money – and the country needs you.”
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