July 01, 2019 Feature

How I’ve Survived 20 Years of Retirement

Douglas Connah

I retired as a lawyer at midnight Dec. 31, 1998, and the 20 years since have been the happiest of my life. I left the practice as if fired from a cannon, and I haven’t looked back, not for an instant.

To retire happily, you’ll need both planning and luck.

To retire happily, you’ll need both planning and luck.

As my wife puts it, “I’ve never once heard you say, ‘I miss going to the office.’”

That’s true. I haven’t missed it at all, even though I loved practicing law and think I was pretty good at it. So why don’t I miss the office and the courtroom and the various ABA and state bar functions in which I happily engaged? I think the answer is twofold.

First, I never set out to be a lawyer and came late to the practice. I wanted to be a writer. Before I’d ever set foot in a law office or law school, I’d developed a range of outside interests and connections that have stayed with me.

Second, during nearly 30 years of practice, I was able to put aside enough money to “not go broke before I croak,” as I once defined my number-one investment objective to a financial planner. And although “man...knoweth not his time,” as Ecclesiastes tells us, so far, so good with that.

How can I sound so casual about my situation 20 years after that cannon shot projected me into the unknown?

In a word: Luck.

More than anything else, profoundly good luck has enabled me in retirement to maintain my comfortable but far from extravagant standard of living. Whatever else you do to plan for retirement—and plan for it you must, the earlier the better—it’s great good luck you also need.

Two Kinds of Luck

As lawyers, we’re trained to define our terms. The question here is: What is luck? Google’s pop-up definition is: “Success or failure brought about by chance.” There’s some truth in this, what I call dumb luck.

But another kind of luck is at least as important, the kind famously attributed to the baseball executive Branch Rickey: “Luck is the residue of design.” For me, both kinds have been crucial.

The best piece of dumb luck in my working life was getting drafted into the Army, although I hardly thought so at the time. My draft notice arrived in June 1956, just days after I’d graduated from college.

The Cold War was on, and I was shipped out to Germany, where I spent most of my two years of active duty in a combat engineer battalion on the Rhine River waiting for the Russians to come storming at us through the Fulda Gap. Luckily, they never did.

My commitment to Uncle Sam thus ended long before the Vietnam War ensnared so many of our country’s youth. But the luckiest part for me came even later. The original G.I. Bill of Rights, covering World War II and Korean War veterans, had ended in early 1956, so I was ineligible for its benefits. But in 1965, after the Tonkin Gulf incident had intensified hostilities for us, Congress enacted a Vietnam-era G.I. bill. We Cold War vets luckily were grandfathered into it.

Suddenly I was eligible for money to pay for more education. Without ever having fired a shot in peril and 10 years out of college, I entered law school with six semesters’ worth of free tuition. Think about that. The dumb luck of having been drafted at 21 had transformed me at 35 from a low-wage newspaper hack into a practicing media lawyer with sky’s-the-limit possibilities.

Food for the Belly

A successful retirement requires money. In my case, both Branch Rickey luck and dumb luck enabled me to save enough to pack it in at 64 and, importantly, to maintain my pre-retirement lifestyle even through two financial meltdowns so far.

This kind of saving, of course, required planning. In my first six-and-a-half years as a big-firm litigation associate in Baltimore—from mid-1969 through 1975—I didn’t give a thought to retirement and didn’t save a dime. But I was 40 in 1975 and had to start thinking about the future.

The year 1975 was also when tax-deferred individual retirement accounts first became available, signaling the historic shift to the do-it-yourself defined contribution plans—traditional and Roth IRAs, 401(k) plans, and such— that have mostly replaced employer-provided defined-benefit pension plans.

I opened my first IRA in 1976 with a $1,500 contribution. I’d become a partner that year and was now eligible to participate in the firm’s Keogh Plan (remember those?). My 1976 tax return shows a $2,324 Keogh contribution. In the years that followed, I dutifully contributed to the firm’s various retirement plans, which underwent changes as their governing laws evolved. Over the years, my persistence became the design of which the residue was a steadily growing nest egg.

How much money does one need to retire and live on for life? It’s a tricky question that depends on numerous variables, such as life expectancy, standard of living, and spending habits. A recent article in The New York Times described what it called “the 10X spending rule.” It reported that Fidelity Investments suggests having 10 times your income saved by the time you turn 67 to generally maintain your same standard of living.

As 1991 ended, I was 57, but despite having made regular contributions to available savings plans, I still hadn’t clearly formulated a long-term financial strategy and had a long way to go. My nest egg was only 2.5 times my income.

That was when I started to do some serious financial planning: Taking professional advice, investing in plain-vanilla low-cost index mutual funds, attending both to asset-allocation principles and to periodic rebalancing of asset classes, according to my risk tolerance and advancing age.

The year 1991 also saw the beginning of a 10-year economic expansion, the longest then on record. Inflation was low, and the bull market that had started in 1982 accelerated mightily, bringing spectacular gains, especially from 1996–2000.

When I retired at the end of 1998, I had a retirement fund that had quadrupled to about 10.85 times my then-income (which itself was not much different from that of 1991). A year later, the balance was a bit higher. To me, this illustrates Branch Rickey luck—the slow and steady result of having designed a plan, paid attention to it, and invested accordingly.

But the timing of the payoff—simply being at an age to retire at not quite the top of an 18-year bull market in stocks—illustrates, to me, the essence of dumb luck. Since then, we’ve been bouncing around on a financial roller coaster that shows no sign of abating. More than anything else, I’ve been cushioned, I believe, to survive the ride.

In this 20-year ride, my nest egg has been down and up and down and up again. It dropped by more than 20 percent in both the 2001–2002 dot-com crash and the 2008 Great Recession but recovered from both to produce balances somewhat greater than at retirement, even as it paid for two decades of spending.

As I write, and as we perch on the volatile cusp of perhaps another serious decline, my nest egg is still close enough to its 1998 balance to keep me calm. If I’d had the bad luck to have been an age to retire in 2002 or 2008, I don’t think I’d feel as unruffled as I still do about my future.

Food for the Soul

The poet Wallace Stevens, whose lifelong day job was insurance lawyering, once advised his daughter, Holly, “Making your living is a waste of time. None of the great things in life have anything to do with making your living.”

I wouldn’t go quite that far, but I do agree that an abundance of “the great things in life” exist besides chasing the dollar.

For a few years after I retired, workaholic former colleagues would ask, “What do you do with yourself, anyway?” What I’ve done mostly is practice creative loafing. Music, travel, literature, theater, museums, longtime friendships, and a wife with compatible tastes have kept boredom away from my door.

I’m a guitar player, so practicing and performing music has kept me most busy. It’s a subject I wrote about in these pages in the Summer 2000 issue. Even before retiring, I was regularly playing in bands and attending summer music camps. For the past 12 years, I’ve played in the Baltimore County Senior Swing Band, a unit of the county’s Department of Aging. We play at senior centers and retirement communities, and we bandmates are all on Medicare ourselves.

Next, travel prevails. My wife, Miriam, and I try to take at least one big trip a year. We’ve cruised the Danube, the Rhine, and the Seine; we’ve toured Spain and Portugal and South America and Cuba.

Closer to home, New York is two-and-a-half hours away by Amtrak. A sampling of the Big Apple’s endless delights: The Metropolitan Museum. The Frick Collection. MoMA. The Ear Inn. Birdland. Bette Midler in “Hello Dolly!”

It’s a great, big world out there, waiting to accommodate whatever your thing is. Just take a deep breath, close your eyes, and go for it.

I’ll close with a word about health. Good health requires both kinds of luck. Check out the American Bar Endowment-sponsored excess major medical coverage. You’ll be glad you did.

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Douglas Connah

Douglas Connah is a retired lawyer in Baltimore, a former member of the Experience and ABA Journal editorial boards, and a former editor-in-chief of Litigation, the journal of the ABA Section of Litigation.