SPECIAL FROM Next Avenue
By Walecia Konrad
Born just after midnight on Jan. 1, 1946, Kathleen Casey-Kirschling will forever be known as America’s first baby boomer. So who better to turn to for personal reflections and lessons about retirement? Like many of her generation, Casey-Kirschling has seen her life take some surprising, unexpected, and often fulfilling twists.
Now 66, Casey-Kirschling was a corporate trainer and public school teacher in New Jersey during her working years. She and her second husband, Patrick Kirschling, a former college professor, currently split their time between a house on Maryland’s eastern shore and a villa in Vero Beach, Fla. True to the generation she spearheaded by an accident of birth, Casey-Kirschling has been rewriting many of the retirement rules.
Getting and Giving Back
“We as baby boomers have been so lucky,” she says. “We made our country different and we got so much in return. That’s why we’re still giving back.” And so, in their retirement, Casey-Kirschling and a few friends are planning a trip to Haiti within the next year or so, in conjunction with Catholic Charities, to help the destitute earthquake victims there. “Haiti is desperate for teachers, so we know there’s plenty of work to be done,” Casey-Kirschling says.
Volunteering has been her lifelong passion. In 1993, she took her youngest daughter, Jennifer LaRosa, then 23, to the banks of the Mississippi River in Illinois to join the Salvation Army’s effort helping flood victims. After Hurricane Katrina, Casey-Kirschling spent three weeks in Baton Rouge working with the Red Cross to assist victims and train volunteers running shelters.
Although Casey-Kirschling wants to save the world during her retirement, she also yearns for plenty of time to kick the soccer ball around with her four grandsons and two granddaughters. Casey-Kirschling promised her oldest daughter, Beth Ann Juel, 43, that no matter where retirement takes her, she’ll rent a small apartment near Beth Ann’s New Jersey home, so her daughter and her four grandsons can have a home base.
Cobbling a Self-Made Pension
A devoted grandmother and a dedicated volunteer ready to roam the world — there’s no doubt Casey-Kirschling has her retirement priorities straight. But does she have the savings to pull it off?
As it turns out, through a combination of discipline, serendipity and investment smarts, Casey-Kirschling has cobbled together a self-made pension that will likely see her through.
While working for Nutrisystem as a corporate trainer from 1985 to 1991, Casey-Kirschling religiously contributed to the company’s 401(k). She also “accrued a bit of money” in 1987 as a result of divorcing her first husband -- an orthopedic surgeon -- after 19 years of marriage.
After going back to school and earning her master's degree in health policy, Casey-Kirschling decided in 1992 to become a public school teacher. And for the next 15 years, she taught seventh graders minutes away from where she grew up. At age 62, in 2008, Casey-Kirschling decided to retire from teaching, sell the home in New Jersey, and start spending more time on her passions.
“It wasn’t a fat teacher’s pension that made the decision,” she says. “I retired because I was ready for the next stage of my life.”
The Financial Crisis Hits
As it turned out, this was also exactly when the nation’s staggering financial crisis hit and home prices began tumbling. That meant a readjustment in their retirement planning. Even though she and her husband would like to unload their Maryland house and buy a little condo in New Jersey close to the grandchildren, “I’m not going to sell that great spot for a bargain basement price,” Casey-Kirschling says.
The downturn also led Casey-Kirschling to start collecting Social Security in 2008, when she turned 62.
A Prescient Investment Move
But Casey-Kirschling’s keen investment sense deserves credit for keeping the couple’s nesteggs from cracking. Like many boomers, for years, she and her husband had stuffed a high percentage of their retirement savings in stocks, figuring the growth would help ensure they wouldn’t outlive their savings. But in July 2008, Casey-Kirschling was watching CNBC and didn’t like what she was hearing.
Rumblings about banking and real estate problems were already beginning to hit the headlines, so Casey-Kirschling turned to her husband and said, “Secure everything in our retirement savings as much as you can.” The couple moved most of their money into cash and bonds.
At the end of the year, when the couple met with their financial adviser, he told them that they had lost only 12 percent. Other clients, he said, saw more than half of their savings vanish.
“How did you do it?” the adviser asked.
“I listened to my stomach,” Casey-Kirschling replied.
“The truth is,” she confesses, “I’m a risk taker. I’m not afraid to lose money that is earmarked to lose. But retirement savings is something different.”
Casey-Kirschling is sanguine about how the economy’s recent rocky years have treated her. “I feel extremely lucky that financially we’re OK,” she says. “But I think I’m like a lot of people in my generation when I say that I do believe spiritually that the more you can do for others, the more things work out for you.”
Walecia Konrad is a freelance journalist who writes about personal finance and business.
"I have over ten thousand names in my [genealogical] file and am hooked on not just the facts, but the story-writing. I reconnect with cousins I haven't seen since I was a teen. I meet new relatives online and in person, even fifth cousins, who I never know I had... There's nothing like knowing that you had an ancestor in the Battle of Saratoga..." -<em>Jean Benning</em>, 75
Cultural Immersion Travel
"I traveled with the Hershey (Pennsylvania) Community Chorus to sing in Wales. When you visit the valleys in the east it's like going back in time; people aren't attached to their computers and mobile phones. I started renting an apartment in the city of Pontypool for six months a year. Now I have a lot of friends there and even volunteer at a shop where the proceeds support cancer research." -<em>Judith Emmers</em>, 69
"I'm lucky enough to live across the street from a gym. I go over there two mornings a week and work out for an hour at 5:30 a.m., and then see a trainer for another hour. I also do water aerobics three times a week. I do it so I can keep doing the things I love, not because I love the exercise. I didn't start exercising until I was sixty-six." -<em>Corinne Lyon</em>, 74
"I spent my seventieth birthday in a hot tub six thousand feet up Mount Hood. I didn't want my kids to think they had to do something special." -<em>Carolyn Rundorff</em>, 71
"A group of us organized a trip along the Natchez Trace from Nashville, Tennessee, to Natchez, Mississippi. We researched stops and places to stay, and every day one of us was the designated driver to haul the gear. You want to know the people fairly well before you set out on something like this. We covered 444 miles in less than a week." -<em>Bill Dunn</em>, 65
"We started the Canetti Literary Society in December 1981. [Elias] Canetti...had just won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I have a Masters in Literature and had never heard of Canetti. So I thought it was a good time to read his work, and the best way would be to have a book club with other women who might be interested in reading good literature. We are still in existence." -<em>Anne Richtel</em>, 95
Volunteering As A Docent
"I'm training to be a museum docent at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. The training to be certified is rigorous -- six hours a week for six weeks, then shadowing a certified docent, then delivering your spiel to two different staff members in two different areas of the museum." -<em>Therese Wilkin</em>, 63
"I began morris dancing in 1984 and long sword dancing in 1989. These forms are English and date back several centuries. I get exercise; a very close bond with a group of people of both genders and a variety of ages; the challenge of learning and performing a wide variety of rather complex and demanding dances; and the satisfaction of helping keep ancient traditions alive and growing." -<em>Robert Orser</em>, 79
"It is lovely to come to this physical and spiritual, scientific and creative body of knowledge at this point in my life. When I talk over the back fence with my gardening neighbors or give someone a bouquet of flowers from my garden, I know just how my grandmother and mother felt when they did the same thing." -<em>Ally McKay</em>, 68
Singing In A Choir
"We had one piece that we were doing at a festival, which we had only a short time to learn, and we rehearsed on the bus to Abilene. We were the last to perform, and our director was very nervous. We rehearsed one last time before going on, and everyone in the choir got every note right. It's a pleasure you can't understand if you haven't done it. It really keeps you going." -<em>Mary Roberson</em>, 70
"The best part of community theater is that no one cares about your politics, your religion, or your money. Everyone's on the same bus. I've gotten so much out of it. My closest friends come from there. The ones I depend on, the ones who have my back, come from the theater." -<em>Ellen Kazin</em>, 71
"When I retired I took several Road Scholar watercolor trips and subsequently read everything I could find on Winslow Homer... My wife suggested that I had uncovered so much material on Homer that I should write a book... The rewards are beyond my fondest dreams...I believe that has brought me as close to the Master as one can get." -<em>Robert Demarest</em>, 83
Learning A Foreign Language
"I started [studying Italian] when my husband and I were planning our first of four Road Scholar trips to Italy. I have found other people -- over two hundred of them, to be exact -- in an organization called Il Circolo Italiano on the Philadelphia Main Line, who come together to speak and promote the Italian Language and culture... They are the warmest people you would every want to meet." -<em>Jean Benning</em>, 75
Volunteering With Habitat For Humanity
"I wanted to do something in retirement that would give back to the community and to people in need, and this seemed to be an excellent candidate... The major reward is seeing families that are living in great need...partner with us in building first other people's and then their own homes, and then move into what in most cases is the first home they have ever owned." -<em>Robert Bond</em>, 75