Written by Donna Sapolin for Next Avenue
I've never been one to activate fresh resolutions and life plans at the beginning of the year. Choosing that time to launch a new direction has always seemed rather arbitrary to me. Instead, I keep a running list of worthy goals, break them down into smaller steps and attack them in incremental fashion, step-by-step, all through the year.
That said, I can't deny the fact that my energy and drive always seem to rev up once we turn the clocks forward and temperatures begin to climb. That extra vigor kicked in this past weekend and I decided to put it to use by tackling some recent additions to my "life agenda," things both big and small.
A few of the actions I took during my "weekend of firsts" will require follow-up, refinements and, of course, stick-to-itiveness. But for me (and, I suspect, many others), the first step is often the hardest one to take, so I'm feeling very encouraged by what I managed to get started.
Here's what I did:
1) I signed up for a gym that really suits my needs. I need to get more fit and prioritize movement — I sit way too much at my computer and I tell myself that it's OK because living in Manhattan forces me to walk a lot. I pad my primary excuse with a host of equally lame and unoriginal ones: I'm too busy, the gym is too far away, the club is such a Gen X scene, there are too many small kids running around, I won't use most of what the gym offers, the facility costs too much given my infrequent visits, and my knees hurt.
Well, I finally accepted that I could dispel most of these excuses by engaging in a bit of research — after all, I live in a place with no shortage of options. So I did just that and discovered a small, congenial, super-clean, no-frills health club that's a 7-minute walk away and offers no more or less than what I want: a few new machines, a small lap pool with adults-only hours in the early morning, three classes per day (that I actually want to take) and very few guests during the midday hours. I can get a 6-month contract and the sensible monthly fee fits my budget.
2) I gave someone a large tip. I've been working on being more generous — with my knowledge, friendship and money. On the latter score, I make donations throughout the year — money to well-run nonprofits whose causes I believe in, and old clothing and other things I don't use to charity thrift shops. But the one thing I have never done is give someone an exceptionally large tip; I mostly follow classic tipping conventions.
But, as one of my good friends, a tour guide, recently reminded me, many people derive the bulk of their income from tips. So, this past Sunday, after a very solicitous and delightful waitress served me and some friends a lovely dinner, I decided to add a 30 percent tip to the bill — it didn't break the bank for me and it sure gave the server's spirits and her day's earnings a nice lift. That got me thinking about other ways in which I'm penny-wise and pound foolish — overall, I'm pretty good on this score but my plan is to redirect any misspent pennies I do uncover to others.
3) I met with my financial adviser to rebalance my investments. As Chris Farrell recently wrote, regularly rebalancing your portfolio is a wise thing to do. I was long overdue so I scheduled an appointment with my adviser and together we analyzed my long-term financial objectives, including retirement.
My key takeaways:
I will have to work for as long as possible.
I need to save more,
which really means figuring out how to cut my expense structure sooner rather than later.
Though I am divorced, I am entitled to a spousal Social Security benefit. And because my ex-husband will reach full retirement age three years before I do, I plan on taking these benefits when he does and will do my utmost to postpone taking my own until age 70, when they'll be as high as they can be.
I need to invest more aggressively (which means that I must grapple with my own psychological and emotional resistance to risk).
There's still a lot for me to think about and plenty of follow-up actions I need to take once I reach some conclusions. But I now have a far clearer picture of what I should focus on and a better sense of the direction in which I should proceed.
I'm in the process of evaluating the wisdom of purchasing long-term care insurance and a variable annuity. Given the vagaries of employment in older age and a volatile market that can neither ensure protection of one's investments nor sustained growth, an annuity might be well advised — I'm weighing the peace of mind that guaranteed lifelong income provides against the expense of obtaining that. I already know that I would want an annuity with low costs and good investment options.
During the visit with my adviser, I also learned that I should consider a long-term care insurance policy only if it is part of a state partnership program because it would then have the added benefit of long-term care services in the Medicaid Extended Coverage program, which are obtained without a spend-down of all or part of one's assets (depending on the policy choice).
4) I switched out an old smartphone for a much newer model. I was addicted to the device I'd had for three years and was shying away from the learning curve involved in mastering a new one. But I finally took the leap and discovered that most of my concerns were unfounded. I've owned the new gadget for all of a day and a half but I can't believe how comfortable I already am with it and how much better the overall experience is. The apps alone have made the purchase and learning time worthwhile. And my thumb joints are feeling less sore, too.
5) I created a buddy system for shedding pounds. A good friend of mine recently joined an online weight loss site with a sizable membership and told me how much positive reinforcement she's derived from her participation. She shed seven pounds in under a month and is walking proof of the power of accountability and community when it comes to meeting weight loss and other health goals.
While I'm not turning to a weight-loss site for motivation, I did ask my pal to serve as my official "encouragement buddy" and I offered to play the same role for her. So far, so good — I'm doing a far better job of managing my portions and avoiding unhealthy foods. As always, personal will and commitment are vital, but it sure helps to have the daily support of a like-minded friend — in our case, that support takes the form of a couple of quick texts.
6) I found a local volunteer organization that watches over the elderly. A few weeks ago, I received a mailing about a local group that is dedicated to the care of older people in my neighborhood. I was thrilled to learn there are many different ways of getting involved — from becoming a Community Sentinel and watching over elderly neighbors as "eyes and ears" to becoming an agency volunteer whose responsibilities are tailored to personal availability and skills. This means that no matter how busy I am, I should be able to contribute in a meaningful way.
So, all it took was six leaps to 'spring forward' and none of them were particularly difficult. While it's only been a few days, I'm already feeling healthier and totally fired up to see my initial actions through. I can't wait to see what happens next!