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Starting Our Journey to Retirement

Financial Journey (featured column)
by Karen Kuebler

One thing I can say for certain about our financial journey, our lives of employment never lasted very long without some form of disruption. My husband had lost his job in 1989 and spent three months in a job search before he found a new position. The company I was working for as Human Resources Manager was also going through a series of layoffs during that year. We didn’t want to call it downsizing though, so the new jargon of the day was rightsizing.

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I was fatigued from the countless nights spent at the office planning and carrying this out over a series of months. We offered outplacement services to employees which was helpful in placing many people, but it was still a depressing and fatiguing situation. My job was "secure" and I felt very fortunate. I was really looking forward to our Christmas shutdown that year. We would have two weeks off to recoup and come back to a fresh start at the beginning of the year.

We thought we were finished with the layoffs and it was quite a relief. About a week before our vacation began, my company received word of a hostile bid offer. The company stock had dropped very low and our biggest competitor had made a bid to buy us out. This doesn’t make for a great vacation, let me tell you. A whole new world of company mergers and acquisitions was about to open up to me.

We all returned to work refreshed, and most of us were in a state of disbelief that anything could really happen to destroy our company. We were like a family who had been through the good and the bad together and, in our state of shock, we really thought this hostile offer was going to go away. At least that was how I was feeling. But the next few months proved that companies, as well as jobs, come and go with the economy. We searched for a "White Knight" to buy the company, but we were unsuccessful.

I learned so much during those months about mergers and acquisitions. The skills I developed couldn’t be taken away from me. The handwriting was on the wall. With the ensuing merger, the people I had grown very close to over the four years I had been there were going to be let go. As much as I didn’t want to leave, my future there would not be the same. I started looking for another job and was offered a position with another company in April, 1990. I accepted the offer, not knowing that the week after I left there would be a major layoff and about 300 people would be given their notice. I expected something was going to happen, but I didn’t know it would be so soon and so severe.

At the same time the company was going through the tremendous stress of the takeover, I had returned to school at night to get my MBA. I must be a glutton for punishment! Sometimes I have this frame of mind, if I’m going to be stressed anyway why not just go for it and get it all over with at once. I’m not claiming that it is smart to think like that. In fact, I have experienced different periods of burnout from this kind of thinking. I’ve learned much more about working toward balance in my life over the last ten years.

My husband and I started looking for property and were considering building a home. We had a lot of equity built up during the booming years of the housing market in San Diego during the previous five years. Our plan, if we could pull if off, was to use the equity we had built to buy land and build a home, leaving us mortgage free. We still had not saved enough for retirement, but we did not want to carry a mortgage once we did retire.

We couldn’t find anything that appealed to us in the San Diego area that was cost effective. We started to expand our thinking, and wondered if there was another place we could build that would offer the surroundings and environment we wanted.

We began some intense research. We got several books on small towns and cities throughout the U.S. We read several retirement almanacs and places rated books. We researched articles on microfilm at the library. As we narrowed down the prospects, we called various Chamber of Commerce offices in different towns. They were only too happy to send us boxes of literature. One place in particular stood out among the rest as far as meeting our criteria. We planned a trip for Labor Day weekend, 1990.

My husband and I are not impulsive people. We tend to be conservative in our day-to-day decisions and lifestyle. We arranged an appointment with a realtor and arrived in town on Saturday. On Sunday, my husband and I were signing a contract to buy a beautiful piece of wooded property that backed up against the National Forest! We really felt good about this decision.

If we changed our mind in the future, we could always sell it. We had done enough research of the town to know it fit what we were looking for and as soon as we saw it, we fell in love with the place. We knew if we waited until we were ready to retire, property would be more expensive and limited. The piece of land we purchased had fallen out of escrow the day before we arrived in town. Coincidence? We didn’t think so. We knew property next to the forest would be extremely limited in a few short years.

At the time we bought the property, we had a dream of retiring in five years. We were both working and we were into major frugality at this point. We were using my income to pay down our mortgage at an accelerated rate and building our savings. I was maxed out saving in both my 401K plan at work and a company matched stock plan.

Being the kind of open person I am, I was honest with people at work. I would probably coach others not to talk about plans for retirement with a boss or colleagues. I might even say it is a "shoot yourself in both feet" kind of thing to do! But, oh well. I told everybody. I was too excited to keep it to myself. All in all, I’m glad I was open about it. My career path actually followed a direction in which I was very fulfilled. Those who are interested in climbing a career ladder might avoid discussing these plans at work however.

Now that we owned property and could see the principal balance of our mortgage decreasing at a steady rate, we started feeling closer to our retirement plans. Our savings were continuing to compound at a steady rate. However, our lives were about to change again. I am happy we can’t see into the future! I think I’d never sign up to face the challenges that are thrown our way if I knew what they were ahead of time.

My husband lost his job yet again! The small company he worked for began to have financial difficulties and the owner decided to move the operations to Texas. It was now February, 1992. Since this company was so small, he didn’t have any retirement savings from this firm when he left. We were now back to being a one-income household.

See what I mean about not being able to see into the future? I would not have signed up for all of this. But it was a very necessary part of our journey. We’re an average family facing the same challenges as other families. We also have been given many opportunities and have been blessed in many ways! We have had our share of crises with family, health, and employment. However, we’ve been able to pull through the difficult times and have had many wonderful experiences to share as well. I am thankful everyday for the many remarkable opportunities we’ve been given. The challenges and difficulties fade into the background, but they have served their purpose in making us stronger and more thankful for what we have.

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Copyright © 2001 by Karen Kuebler. All rights reserved.

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