What Retirement Is Really Like: "Time is much more elastic now"

April 26, 2002

Complications after heart surgery convinced this doctor that life was passing him by. He's busy making up for lost time.

 

What Retirement Is Really Like

"Time is much more elastic now"

Jump to:Choose article section...A move out of state, and a lot more travel Spending mightily, yet keeping an eye on the bottom line

Complications after heart surgery convinced this doctor that life was passing him by. He's busy making up for lost time.

By Dennis Murray
Senior Editor

If not for a quadruple bypass, C. Robert Meloni might still be practicing internal medicine. But he wouldn't be enjoying life as much as he is today.

"After you go through something serious, like I did," he says, "you think more and more about how much time you have left and what you're going to do with it."

A year and a half after his operation, Meloni took six weeks off to travel the world with his wife, Tracey. The experience was so wonderful that he decided to close his solo practice. In a matter of months, he went from wearing a tie to work every day—even on weekends while making rounds—to spending leisurely mornings in a sweatshirt and blue jeans.

"I'm much more flexible now than I was when I was working," says Bob, who's a youthful 73. "I'm more open to trying new things. And if something doesn't work out as I'd planned, that's okay; I go on to something else."

Retirement also gives Bob plenty of time to see his kids from his first marriage: C. Robert Jr., an accountant specializing in international tax law; Michele, a social worker; and Christopher, an actor who's in NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Bob's also the proud grandfather of seven kids, ranging in age from 4 months to 7 years.

A move out of state, and a lot more travel

In 1997, one year after she married Bob, Tracey was diagnosed with breast cancer, which has since been treated successfully. Soon after she recovered, Bob went under the knife for his bypass. "Those two events," Tracey says, "combined with the increasing pressures of living and working in the Washington, DC, area, changed our perspective."

Not only did Bob close his practice, but Tracey, who's 56, retired from her job on Capitol Hill, where she'd served as a press secretary for 23 years. Drawn to the Susquehanna Valley by a magazine article, the couple picked up and moved three hours away, to Harrisburg, PA. At $395,000, their 4,200-square-foot Tuscan-style home is a bargain compared with the prices in Alexandria, VA, where they owned a townhouse.

One of the first things the Melonis did after moving to Harrisburg was replace their 9-year-old BMWs with a 2000 Lexus GS 300. "We figured we wouldn't need two cars in retirement," Bob explains. "If both of us need the car on a given day, we schedule our appointments at different times. Besides, not having insurance and maintenance expenses on a second car saves us thousands of dollars a year."

They've plowed those savings into vacations and trips to see family. They traveled for roughly three months in 2001—a special pleasure for Bob, who rarely left town during his years in practice. "I always had this sense of being tethered to the office by a rubber band," he recalls. "If I strayed too far, it would snap me back."

The Melonis have done some serious globetrotting in the past few years. Namibia, a country on the southwest coast of Africa, is among their most memorable destinations. "It's a land of incredible contrasts," Bob says. "Beautiful rare birds and animals coexist with people who are dying of AIDS or tuberculosis and struggling to get medical care and potable water. Yet despite their problems, the people are uncommonly pleasant, very soft-spoken."

Wherever possible, the couple prefers to travel by boat. "A good cruise ship has a four-star restaurant, so there's no worry about where to eat," Bob says. "And in most cities the ship docks two blocks from downtown, so you don't have to deal with the hassle of getting rental cars and directions."

On a recent cruise to Asia, Bob, who plays piano, organized a sing-along in the ship's nightclub. That same evening, he joined its entertainer in a piano duet. "We played jazz and big-band tunes," Meloni says. "It was my Carnegie Hall."

Tracey laughs when she recalls that evening: "We were in port in India during the day, so after the sing-along, the passengers dubbed him 'Bombay Bob.' Several months after the trip, while we were driving in DC, we saw one of our fellow passengers walking near the White House. We called out to him. He spotted us and shouted without hesitation, 'Hey, Bombay Bob!'"

Bob's love of cruising is one major reason he has kept his medical license active, even though he hasn't treated a patient in more than two years. He'd like to teach CME courses for a cruise line that's arranging to offer programs for Category 1 credit. The ship would be a floating, Internet-connected classroom of sorts.

Spending mightily, yet keeping an eye on the bottom line

Between their equities, Social Security, Tracey's annuity, and the money she earns from freelancing for several online travel and health publications, the Melonis enjoy a six-figure pre-tax income. But they spend almost all of it.

The largest chunks go to income and property taxes ($30,660), mortgage debt and other expenses for their Harrisburg home and a cottage in Rehoboth Beach, DE ($22,000), and travel ($22,000). Food and household expenses total $18,500, and Bob's supplemental Medicare plan eats up $3,000. As a former employee of the federal government, Tracey receives health insurance at no cost to her. Bob pays his dental expenses—none in 2001—out of pocket.

The mortgage costs, high for someone Bob's age, don't trouble him. "We'll retire that debt when it makes sense to," he says. "In the meantime, we get a tax writeoff."

He's more concerned about the stock market's movements, which, perhaps more than anything else, will determine how lavishly he and Tracey will continue to spend. Last year, the couple earned about 5 percent on their investments and savings, of which they used $42,000 as income.

"We never want to spend more than we bring in," Bob insists. "If necessary, we'd cut back our discretionary spending." As long as their seven-figure nest egg earns 5 percent a year, the Melonis believe they can spend as much as they have been without touching the principal.

Their retirement portfolio of bonds and preferred stocks (which pay strong dividends) is conservative enough to protect them if Wall Street continues to struggle. "We won't do as well as the market in good times," Bob admits, "but we'll take a lesser hit in bad times." For instance, although the Standard & Poor's 500 Stock Index lost more than 14 percent in the third quarter of 2001, the Melonis' portfolio dropped just 2.5 percent.

Bob got a late start in investing— he didn't begin until age 40—but in each of the 25 years that followed, he contributed the maximum to his defined-benefit plan. "When I turned 65, my broker gradually shifted assets from aggressive-growth vehicles to safer, income-producing investments."

Most of the aggressive bets paid off handsomely, but some were clunkers. And, like many physicians, Meloni lost money on a poorly run limited partnership. When it ran into trouble years later, the IRS asked for $30,000 in disallowed write-offs and penalties.

A smaller loss, $7,000, came from an Alexandria, VA, pasta company that went belly up. Bob laughs about that one now. "The owner was a nice guy but a terrible businessman," he recalls. "He ran out of money after buying a warehouse and delivery trucks, but before he could buy the equipment he needed to make the pasta."

In the 1990s, Bob got swept up by the dot. com craze. He invested a few thousand dollars in Internet companies and later sold his shares for pennies. "Literally pennies," he says. "Not pennies on the dollar." Evaluating dot.coms wasn't his broker's strongest suit. "He made us money at first, but didn't know enough about the businesses to recognize when to sell."

Despite his active lifestyle, Meloni occasionally misses patient care. "Not the long hours, and certainly not the insurance hassles," he says. "But I liked helping my patients. Seeing them improve and recover made it all worthwhile."

To his surprise—and Tracey's—Bob is comfortable with retirement. "After years of hard work, I thought I'd be upset, anxious, disappointed," he says. "I feel just the opposite.

"I'm relaxed knowing that I have the time to do whatever I want to. Time is much more elastic now: I can do something immediately, later, or next week. When I feel guilty about sleeping past 7 o'clock, Tracey asks, 'Why? Where do you have to be?'"

 

No brakes on spending—
at least not yet

Income from investments and savings$42,000
Tracey’s annuity36,000
Social Security22,000
Freelance writing assignments9,500
Total income$109,500
Income taxes$23,820
Property taxes (2 homes)6,840
Total adjustments30,660
Total spendable income$78,840
Housing (including mortgage payments, utilities, insurance and maintenance)$22,000
Vacations22,000
Household expenses (cleaning and lawn services)12,500
Food and dining out6,000
Autos (gas, repairs, and insurance)3,240
Hobbies and entertainment3,000
Medical and dental expenses3,000
Clothing2,500
Charitable contributions and gifts2,500
Education1,600
Liquor500
Total expenditures$78,840

 

Dennis Murray. What Retirement Is Really Like: "Time is much more elastic now". Medical Economics 2002;8:57.