Two Years

IMG_2228Two years ago yesterday Brett, our three daughters and I arrived on Kaua’i to start a new chapter in our lives.

Two years ago our daughters did hold back and let us know again and again how angry and miserable they felt about our move. They left behind everything they knew, including life-long friends, boyfriends – everything – to come live on an isolated little island out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. They were profoundly unhappy with us, but Brett and I did our best to reassure them. “Give it time,” we said, “and then see how you feel.” We explained over and over that it had been time for us to make our move.

Last week, at dinner, as we were talking about some topic I don’t remember now, WenYu said, “I hope some day I can raise my children in a place like Kaua’i.” She went on to say how much she has grown to love our little island, its calmness, beauty, and friendly people. She said that moving here had been the best thing that happened to her. She still greatly missed her Portland friends, but coming here pushed her out of her shell and challenged her to take chances both academically and socially that she would not have taken back in Portland. She said she didn’t think she would be going to Wellesley College if we had stayed in Portland.

YaYu has blossomed here as well. She has made many friends, is doing very well academically, and is also taking chances that she doubts she would have taken back in Portland. Brett and I believe the move was harder in many ways for her than for her sisters, but YaYu now says she too is thankful for the calm and beauty of Kaua’i, and is glad we moved here. She has relied heavily on WenYu these past two years for company and support, but says she is ready to step out from her sister’s shadow and spread her own wings.

Meiling has built a solid independent life for herself back in Oregon, and is doing better than either Brett or I ever expected or hoped for. She did not want to stay on Kaua’i, and it was with great sadness and misgiving that we let her return to the mainland. She has told us though that she doubts she would have become as strong and independent if we were still in Portland, where she could have (and would have) called us to “come fix it” if things were not going well. We talk and text with her frequently every week, and offer advice when it’s asked for, but are so very proud of our daughter these days and the independent path she has chosen.

It has been a good move for all of us. Brett and I are more relaxed and far less stressed than we were back on the mainland. We worry less, hustle less, and let things happen as they will. We’ve made friends here, and are recognized more frequently as kamaaina, residents versus tourists. I absolutely love being called “Auntie.” With a couple of exceptions, we moved just the right amount of stuff along with us, and every day we appreciate our simple life more and more. We’ve figured out where and how to shop here, to find the best bargains, and we focus more on need versus want. We still get to travel. To know that the girls are now happy too about our move to Kaua’i is just the icing on the cake for us. While there is still lots for us to learn about our new home, we have a wonderful life here, and we are content. Our son has sometimes hinted that he wished we had moved to Oahu because of the medical facilities there, but both Brett and I are so glad we decided to settle on peaceful and less congested Kaua’i. It’s a great fit for us.

I’ve read that two years in Hawai’i marks a turning point (believe it or not, most new residents don’t last a year). If you can make it here for that long, then it’s said you’ve truly adjusted to the island way of life and will most likely stay forever, or at least for a very long time.

I know we’ve crossed that threshold. Kaua’i is home, and I can’t imagine being anywhere else.

Am I Retired Yet?

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My first Social Security deposit was supposed to arrive this week, but when I checked  our account yesterday morning there were no deposits pending. I guess I will have to wait until next month.

I filed for retirement online with Social Security back in October of last year, three months before my official retirement date of January 1, and all seemed to have gone well. But, in early November I received an official email from Social Security asking me to call a particular agent at one of the service centers to resolve a couple of issues (and yes, I did verify that the number was legitimate as was the person I would be calling).

So, I called but was sent to the agent’s voicemail. I don’t want to sound like an ageist, but this person sounded like she was 90 years old (seriously!) and her recorded message asked callers to leave so much information that by the time I got done giving it all there was barely any time left to leave a message.

When I didn’t hear anything back from her in two weeks I called again and this time she picked up the phone . . . and still sounded like she was 90 years old. I gave my name and Social Security number and the first thing she said was, “Oh yes, I’ve been trying to reach you but you haven’t gotten back to me.” LIE!! In those two weeks there had not been one voicemail, missed call, or email from this woman – nada. But, I kept my mouth shut because Rule #1 is not to tick off someone who can mess with your income.

The first issue she wanted to cover was trying to find out why the Oregon University System (OUS) had not withheld any FICA from my paychecks back in 1994. As this was more than 20 years ago, it took me a while to even remember what that job might have been. I had no memory of ever working for the Oregon University System, but it eventually came to me: It was a work-study job in the alumni office while I attended Portland State University.

This was how our conversation went:

  • Me:  That income was from work-study and part of my financial aid when I was an undergraduate at Portland State University. I don’t know why Social Security wasn’t withheld.
  • Her: But you also earned money from Portland Community College (PCC) and that was taxed.
  • M: Yes, I was an instructor at PCC. I began working there in 2000.
  • H: But they didn’t take any FICA deductions when you worked for the OUS.
  • M: I don’t know why they didn’t take any deductions, but that income was part of my financial aid award. I was a full-time student and I worked part-time in the alumni office.
  • H: But, they took deductions when you were at PCC.
  • M: Yes, I was employed there as an instructor. I had graduated from PSU.
  • H: But OUS . . .
  • M: Has nothing to do with PCC! They are two entirely different systems. They are not connected! I was a student and received work-study for financial aid when I attended PSU. After I received my graduate degree, I began work as an instructor at PCC. It was six years later! I have no idea why OUS didn’t take anything out for Social Security. (Note: I’ve learned FICA taxes are not deducted from work-study income if you are a full-time student and working less than part time (20 hours/week) – I worked in the alumni office around 10 hours/week.)

This entire conversation was repeated four more times!! It got to the point where we both had to sit quietly on the phone for a couple of minutes to calm ourselves down – she was angry at me because I assume she either thought I wasn’t listening to her or lying, and I was angry because she was not listening to me, refused to believe that OUS and PCC were not somehow connected, and kept asking me the same questions over and over.

Then, out of nowhere she suddenly said: “Oh, OK.”

What? Did we really go through all that and then it’s “Oh, OK?” I wanted to go bang my head against a wall!

We moved on to the next issue she had, which was the supplemental dependent payments for the girls. The agent wanted to link their accounts to my retirement instead of Brett’s, but I said no because we had been told when Brett retired that dependent accounts are linked to the highest earner, and Brett receives much more Social Security income than I will. Again, she said “OK.” And that was that, or so I thought.

A couple of weeks later though Brett got a message from the same agent asking about the dependent accounts and asking him to contact her. After two weeks of leaving messages with her voicemail and receiving no replies, he gave up.

Brett and I went down to the local Social Security office on January 2 to see if we could figure out what was going on. The first thing the agent there said to me was, “It says in your file that this other agent had trouble connecting with you.” Again I bit my tongue – Rule #1 again. The local agent was very helpful though, and told us that actually, Brett’s and my Social Security income would most likely be combined and possibly make the girls eligible for a larger dependent payment. My file did thankfully show that I had applied for retirement benefits. The agent arranged a phone interview for the following week to get everything straightened out and set up. That agent called at the appointed time, we talked for a while, then he talked with Brett for a while. When he had to go look up some more information he gave me the time he would call back, and again called on time. He said when we were done that everything would hopefully go through in time for me to get a payment in February, but that it might take 60 days, which it appears is what has happened.

Yes, I am going to officially complain, once everything is settled and my payment starts arriving regularly. We thankfully have enough monthly income that we won’t suffer without my SS income, but it would be nice to have it. I admit though to still being a bit nervous about the whole thing because I have yet to receive any official confirmation that I have applied for retirement benefits. I have my fingers crossed that there will be money in the bank in March, but if not it’s back to the office I go.

Navy Life/Navy Wife

Brett's last reinlistment, at the Southernmost Point in Key West, FL. Shortly after this we headed back to Japan for a second tour.
Brett’s last re-enlistment, at the Southernmost Point in Key West, FL. Shortly after this we headed back to Japan for the second time, and our final tour in the navy.

One of the best retirement decisions Brett and I ever made, although we didn’t know it at the time, was for him to stay in the navy long enough to collect retirement benefits. It was not an easy decision by any means, and we got through our navy years enlistment by enlistment (Brett retired as an E-8, a Senior Chief Petty Officer). It wasn’t until the last two that we decided to stay for the full twenty, and Brett actually retired with 22 years of service.

I am somewhat awed these days by how different and nicer things are for those currently serving and their families. The housing is much nicer, the benefits nicer, and the pay is definitely better these days. And to that I say . . . it’s about time! All those nice things available now? Service members and their families deserve them and they earn them. There’s a reason not everyone joins the military or stays in for longer than one or two enlistments or tours: It’s challenging, stressful and sometimes dangerous work for the service member, and it’s a challenging, stressful and often difficult life for families.

Brett up on deck, returning home after being deployed for six months in support of Operation Desert Storm in 1991 (the other sailors are in work uniforms; they will be staying aboard ship).
Brett up on the flight deck of the USS Midway, returning home after being deployed for six months in support of Operation Desert Storm in 1991 (the other sailors are in work uniforms; they will be staying aboard ship).

I’ve mentioned before the saying “the toughest job in the navy is Navy Spouse.” There’s a one-word answer for why it’s the toughest job: deployment. When your spouse is in the navy, it’s a given that they are going to go away, usually on a ship, and usually for a long time. During our first tour in Japan, Brett was away 30 out of the 35 months we lived there. Thankfully we never had a tour as difficult as that again, although some were close. I used to joke that whenever Brett checked in to a new duty station, whether sea or shore duty, the first thing he was required to turn over was a list of all family birthdays and anniversaries so the command could make sure he was away on those days. During the 15 years we spent together on active duty he was home for all of two of our wedding anniversaries. Our son and I rarely saw him for Thanksgiving, and I’m hard-pressed to remember when he was home for a birthday although I’m sure he made a few. Amazingly, he only missed one Christmas at home. When Brett deployed I, like every other navy spouse, took over responsibility for everything, from the budget to car repairs to child-rearing so that he could do his job without worrying about what was going on back home. Did I mention too that there were no phones on ships like today, no email, no Skype, no texting and so forth back then? All we had was snail mail, and you could go weeks without hearing from your spouse, whether you were the one at home or the one at sea. Two letters written one day after the other could show up two weeks apart, while two letters written two weeks apart might show up in your mailbox on the same day. If a problem or crisis arose back at home, I had to deal with it on my own; there were no opportunities or means to communicate with Brett to figure out what to do or how to handle it.

Navy life meant we moved, on average, every two and a half years. The longest we were ever in one place were our two tours in Japan, where we were required to commit to a minimum three-year stay, but for a couple of tours we were in place less than 18 months. Although the navy claimed to cover the cost of the moves, it was never enough and we usually had to take out a month or two of advance pay to cover the difference, and then spend our first year at the new duty station paying it back. Moving always meant saying farewell to all that had become familiar. For all of us it was saying good-bye to friends and starting over. For our son it meant changing schools and having to make new friends and finding his place, over and over (he started the ninth grade in his ninth school). For me it usually meant quitting a job and looking for a new one after we arrived and settled in. For Brett, every move meant fitting in and figuring out a new work environment with new coworkers and a new boss. A PCS (Permanent Change of Station) move was the equivalent of having your household goods survive a small fire – something (and usually more than one thing) was always broken or torn or lost. We did six PCS moves during our time together in the navy.

We always chose government housing if it was available. We liked the camaraderie of being with other navy families, and it cost less than living out in town. Sometimes housing was available right away, but other times we had to wait several months before a unit became available, and had to rent out in town. During our second tour in Japan we lived “out on the economy” for the first 20 months of our tour. Although it wasn’t easy, it was still the experience of a lifetime and I’m grateful we got the opportunity. Whenever we moved out of base housing, we personally had to stand and pass a cleaning inspection; there were no contractors that came in and did it for us. That “white glove” was not a myth either. We once failed a cleaning inspection for a spot of old wax on the floor that was as small as a dime! Out of the five navy houses we lived in over 15 years, only one had a dishwasher, only one had air-conditioning, and only one had a carport (we never had a garage). Every single one of the houses we lived in was remodeled or upgraded after we moved out . . . and we still had to clean it to perfection. The curtains that fit in one house never fit in the next or any of the others – we had to purchase new window coverings for every place we lived. Only one of the five houses is still being used – the rest aged out and have been torn down. They were already older than dirt though when we lived in them.

But, you know what? I would do it again in a heartbeat. I loved being a navy wife. I am so proud of Brett – he served his country with honor and distinction. He had a job he loved (aviation maintenance/avionics) and excelled at it. Although our life with the navy wasn’t always easy, it was still a good life. No one joins the service to get rich, but we never had to worry about Brett being laid off, or not being paid. I never, ever got used to Brett’s being gone though – every deployment, whether it was for one week or six months was hard, and it never got easier. I remember saying good-bye to him, memorizing every feature of his face, wondering if I would see him again – Brett worked in one of the most dangerous environments in the world, an aircraft carrier flight deck. I had to frequently reassure our son that his dad didn’t leave again because of something he did, and that daddy was just doing his job and would be coming home soon, even if ‘soon’ was four months in the future. We made lifetime friends during our time in the navy, and we still share a special bond with those friends. Our family got to visit cities and sites all over the United States as we moved around, and different places in Asia as well. Our son grew up and used the skills he learned from making all those moves – he can confidently walk into any room or situation now and make conversation and quickly fit himself in. The navy took care of us, and was there for us if we needed anything. The best part of all though was that my time as a navy wife taught me that I was a strong, competent person who could handle just about anything on my own.

Brett's final rank was E-8, Senior Chief Petty Officer.
Brett’s final rank was E-8, Senior Chief Petty Officer.

And those benefits Brett earned? Since 1992 we have received a monthly payment based on Brett’s rank and the number of years he served (someone retiring today however with the same rank and time would start off receiving 25% more than Brett does – there is no parity for those who served earlier at lower pay). That payment has always been enough to take care of our housing expenses. Although Brett was promised free family healthcare for life for serving 20 years, we knew long ago that was unsustainable. Instead, we have extremely affordable lifetime healthcare insurance through Tricare, with no monthly premiums, and which includes a prescription drug plan and provides free Medicare supplemental insurance. Out-of-pocket health expenses are capped at a very low level, and we are covered anywhere we travel in the world. We are also eligible for excellent, low-cost family dental insurance, and can shop in any exchange or PX around the world, or any commissary, and use all military recreation facilities world-wide.

Navy life/navy wife – it was all worth it, every moment, toughest job or not.

 

 

Living the Good Life

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In last week’s comments to my post about college vs retirement, one commenter couldn’t seem to decide whether we were rich, hiding our wealth in retirement funds so we would appear “poor” in order to qualify for federal financial aid for our daughters, or whether we were actually poor, living “on the dole” and struggling through each month, doomed to a life of poverty.

We definitely are not wealthy, and there is no fortune hidden away or waiting in the wings. We don’t own property. We’ve never received an inheritance other than the few thousand dollars I received over 20 years ago from my dad’s life insurance policy, which we used to pay the closing costs on our first home. The small amount of money that’s sitting in our IRAs now is only there because both Brett and I had small 401(k)s that we rolled over when we retired. And, when I say small I mean small. We spent our earlier savings bringing our girls home, and never earned enough after we adopted them, even when we were both working, to put much of anything aside but the minimum.

So, maybe we are poor.

I sure don’t feel poor though. We have a more-than-sufficient monthly income from Brett’s military retirement, Social Security, and the pensions we each receive. Put together, and with no FICA or other employment taxes coming out; no health insurance premiums thanks to Tricare eligibility; and no Hawai’i state tax liability, our monthly income is enough that we have a nice amount every month for groceries, and we can easily cover our rent, as well as gasoline, cable, phones, insurance, and other monthly expenses including my never-ending student loan payment, our only debt. We are able to put a little aside every month for travel and to pay for the seemingly non-stop expenses of two girls in high school (I just finished ordering graduation robes and regalia, and coming right behind is the cross country banquet for two, two new custom swimsuits and swim caps for the swim team, and grad night fees). We will be able to pay the fees for WenYu’s college applications (at $60 each). We bought plane tickets for Meiling to come home at Christmas, and Brett’s ticket to the mainland on our credit card for the cash back rewards, and then paid it off immediately. I can occasionally splurge on things like a spa day with a friend, and we go out to eat now and again. We maintain an emergency fund. There’s money in the checking account at the end of each month.

Even though it’s more than adequate for our needs these days, our adjusted gross income is still low enough that our family qualifies for federal financial aid including Pell Grants, work study and subsidized Stafford loans, the kind of aid that’s there to help poor or low-income families afford a college education. We’ve perennially been that family earning just enough to disqualify us from assistance for something, but not enough to afford it otherwise, but when it comes to financial aid we qualify and gladly accept it. Like millions of other lower-income families, we need financial aid to send our daughters to college; there is no way we can afford what a college education costs these days without help. Giving up a few things out of our monthly budget, or stripping our retirement accounts, wouldn’t change anything.

Although we may be considered low income on paper, I still feel very rich. Brett and I have a long, loving and happy marriage; we have three wonderful daughters, a successful, generous son and beautiful daughter-in-law, and an adorable grandson. We’re all in excellent health. Our income and benefits are lifetime, and are solid. Other than my student loan, we have no debt. We are able to live in an incredibly beautiful place, and can afford to rent a nice house and pay our bills without a struggle. With planning and careful saving we can occasionally travel. None of us feels like we need more or that we don’t have enough or that we’re missing out on anything. We eat well, and get to do what we enjoy. We are careful and thrifty with our money and know how to get the most out of it.

Poor? Rich? Those are labels. All I know is that we are living a very good life . . . on not very much.