Seniors and the “Sharing Economy”

Uber, Kickstarter, TaskRabbit, WyzAnt . . . The names of these online enterprises may cause you to think of younger people–“hipsters”–sitting in a coffee bar, closely engaged with their smartphones and tablets as they use the above apps–or one of the dozens of others that are now available–to peruse their latest chance to make some extra money in what is being called the “sharing economy”–or sometimes, the “gig economy.” The idea is that by using platforms like Uber, Airbnb, and others, you can turn excess or underutilized assets–a spare bedroom or your car–into a profit center. Apparently, the concept appears to be working; according to a 2016 report in Time, 53 million Americans did at least some freelance work in 2015–more than a third of the US workforce. By some estimates, the sharing economy will be worth more than $300 billion, worldwide, within the next few years.

Surprisingly, though, the fastest-growing segment of participants in the sharing economy may be seniors–especially Baby Boomers who are starting to hit their retirement years. These aging entrepreneurs are taking advantage of platforms like GoFundMe, Care.com, Chegg, and others to augment their retirement income.

In 2015, AARP announced a partnership between its Life Reimagined program and Uber, the leading peer-to-peer ride sharing program, to recruit older drivers. With a combination of exploding demand for Uber’s services and older Americans either forced into early retirement or otherwise sidelined by the Great Recession, the idea was to produce a win for Uber, which needed more drivers, and for seniors, who typically own reliable transportation and had enough flexible hours to provide transportation for paying customers. Adam Sohn, vice president of strategic initiatives at Life Reimagined, said, “The sharing economy is offering people an opportunity to . . . be empowered to make money and be their own bosses.”

Seniors report generating significant incomes with platforms like DogVacay.com, which matches those willing to dog-sit in their spare time with pet owners who prefer not to board their animals with vets or other standard operations. Retired teachers can sign up with WyzAnt or Chegg to offer homework help, tutoring, or help with other educational tasks. Retirees with good handyman skills can reportedly make as much as $6,000 per month by creating a profile on TaskRabbit.com and getting paid for odd jobs like painting, simple carpentry, or even assembling someone’s new Ikea furniture.

But there are some unresolved issues and cautions related to the boom in the sharing economy. For one thing, the regulatory environment is uncertain, especially as tensions foment between companies like Uber and Lyft and standard cab companies, many of which are unionized. Also, with the anticipated rapid increase in the value of this sector, some increased government oversight seems likely. Second, many seniors are concerned about allowing unknown persons to stay in their homes, as with Airbnb. Because seniors are prime targets for scammers and other undesirable actors, such caution seems warranted, though some peer-to-peer platforms do require background checks for both service providers and consumers. Finally, the cost of wear and tear on assets–vehicles, tools, homes–and the providers themselves should also be taken into account.

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Controlling Healthcare Costs in Retirement

In a recent study of persons nearing retirement age conducted by Bank of America affiliate Merrill Lynch, two of the top worries of respondents were health concerns and the cost of healthcare. Seventy-two percent of those polled indicated that serious health challenges were the main concern, with the closely related issue of having sufficient resources to maintain a comfortable lifestyle without becoming a burden on their families.

The fact that health matters rank near the top of the anxiety list for those nearing retirement should not come as a surprise. For decades, healthcare expenses, along with the cost of higher education, have inflated at a more rapid rate than the core rate of inflation in the United States. And with the Baby Boomer generation entering retirement and beginning to make up a majority of healthcare consumers, this trend is not likely to change.

The good news is that there are steps you can take to exert some measure of control over your healthcare costs in retirement. Some of these are simple, common-sense matters, and other, more complex decisions may call for the aid of a qualified and trusted advisor.

  1. Take care of yourself. This may seem obvious, but it is an all-important first step. Without question, we have no control over our genetics and other factors that play a part in determining our general health as we age, but each of us can exercise good stewardship over the health we have. Appropriate, regular exercise, controlling your diet, and following your doctor’s advice–including taking any medication as prescribed–will help you conserve your health and spend less time and money on healthcare.
  2. Learn about any retiree health benefits offered by your employer. This option is less common than it used to be, but some larger companies make available certain benefits to their retirees. Coverage, if it exists, can vary widely, so do your research well in advance of retirement in order to take maximum advantage.
  3. Do your homework on Medicare and Medicare supplements. Medicare is the number-one health benefit for most retirees, but the coverage structure is complicated. This is an area where a trusted advisor can be of tremendous help, since the ins and outs of Medicare coverage can create a number of confusing choices with regard to which Medicare supplement insurance plan is best for you.
  4. Investigate Health Savings Plans (HSAs). If you are eligible for an HSA, you can make pre-tax contributions. The funds in the plan can then be used to cover eligible medical costs, now or in the future. Funds can accumulate to offset future expenses, since these plans are not subject to the “use-it-or-lose-it” provision of Flexible Spending Accounts (FSAs).

One of the most important steps you can take, of course, is to simply be as well-informed as possible about your options for healthcare and related coverage. A recent study by Fidelity indicates that a couple retiring in 2014 could expect to spend $220,000 on healthcare during their retirement years. This makes advance planning, budgeting, and careful investment strategy all the more critical–now and later.

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A Tribute to My Mother

Grace

The Life and Legacy of Irene Bernhardt

January 6, 1936 – August 28, 2006

 

I.  A Flourish of Color and a Sweet Song

She was born like a flourish of color against the dismal grey milieu of the Great Depression, the grace of her presence like a divine promise that our country might soon emerge from its hard times with renewed life and vigor. Fair haired with deep blue eyes and a disposition as gentle and sweet as her countenance, the little girl came into the world just as she left it seventy years later—an angel. If love is patient and kind, and if love bears all things with grace and equanimity, then Irene Elizabeth Anne Wittig was love.

Margaret and Herman Wittig welcomed their daughter into the world on January 6, 1936, in Rushville, Nebraska. They brought her home from the hospital to their rural ranch-farm southeast of Hay Springs, a respectable town of around nine hundred folks. As war began to erupt in Europe and President Roosevelt struggled to revive the country, little Irene had already begun bettering the world in what small ways she could by bringing peace and comfort through her good-natured demeanor and nurturing presence. It was a practice that would thread through her life, constant as breathing and natural as sunlight.

On the Wittig farm, the family raised cattle, hogs, and chickens. The corn, wheat, oats, and hay grown in the fields were supplemented by a rich vegetable garden where young Irene would help her mother pick beans, carrots, parsnips, peas, kohlrabi, potatoes, beets, and turnips. The Wittigs never thought of themselves as wealthy, but their humble lifestyle was garnished with all the riches of their harvest, their stomachs filled and palettes satisfied by Margaret’s adroit cooking skills and Irene’s contributions as her tiny apprentice.

Indeed, life’s hardships had hardened Mrs. Wittig into a stern woman, but the sweeter side of her personality shone through in her cooking. Irene often helped her mother bake cinnamon rolls, cakes, and pies, picking up Margaret’s dexterity in the kitchen. In other walks of life, she mirrored the peaceful inclinations and quiet footsteps of her father, who saw to it that his wife and children were always cared for and happy. Sugar was rationed during World War II, and in watching her father buy 60-pound cans of honey from a Wyoming beekeeper so his wife could continue to bake, Irene learned the value of resourcefulness and self-sacrifice.

Just as the Wittigs cultivated a healthful bounty to nourish the body, they also cultivated strong characters in their children that centered upon faith, morality, and good will. They were patient and kind, teaching Irene and her brothers, Phil and Ed, to memorize Bible verses. If the Wittig children knew the words of the Bible by heart, they could rest assured that following their hearts would always lead them down the right path. Irene’s faith in God became so fundamental to her soul, in fact, that when she would suffer a stroke decades later, she was able to recite Scripture again long before she was able to produce common speech.

Though quiet and soft-spoken, young Irene was playful and full of wonder. She would coo with delight when her grandmother brought her a little straw hat or a charm bracelet after trips to San Francisco. She would giggle at her two grandfathers when one would tell her she should brush her teeth every day, while the other would tell her that brushing one’s teeth was dangerous. Both had spectacular teeth, and amidst the good humor, the little girl was quick to understand that there can be two sides to a story.

Along with her soft laughter, Irene filled the Wittig house with piano music. As she graced the air with gentle melodies, one couldn’t help but listen to the notes and realize that she was, above all else, a giver. She did not seek the spotlight, but instead projected it, radiating a pure and nurturing energy that encouraged others to be the best versions of themselves, and to enjoy life to its fullest.

A mind for music is often built for math as well, and even her older brother Phil had to work hard to keep up with her in class. The Wittig farm was three miles from the nearby two-room country schoolhouse, and the plains of Nebraska were often transformed into harsh, windswept terrain in the winter months. The thermometer would drop below zero, often to negative twenty degrees with forty mile-per-hour winds that chilled to the bone. Still, Irene and her two brothers would make the trek. Slipping jeans on underneath her dress to keep warm, she rode to school on her small black-and-white Shetland pony, Trixie, with a tenacious commitment to her studies that would eventually earn her the rank of salutatorian of her high school class. Before long, she had grown too big for Trixie and began to ride Beauty, the larger horse that Phil used to ride.

Irene’s childhood would not have been what it was without Immanuel Lutheran Church, where she had begun Sunday School at the age of four. Her cousin, Marilyn, was only six months younger, and the little girls loved to play games in the back of the church at recess during summer vacation Bible school. Nothing excited them more than having sleepovers at the Wittig farm, and at age nine, Irene moved only two miles away from her beloved cousin. The two would ride to church together on Saturday mornings and would perform up-tempo duets together on the piano—Marilyn on harmony, and Irene coursing out the sprightly melodies.

Party telephone lines and wall-mounted crank-up phones were common in rural areas at that time, and as Irene and Marilyn matured into young ladies, they were thrilled when their families decided to construct a “private” telephone line for their exclusive use. The best friends had their own number—a short ring, a long ring, and another short ring. They would chat about their days and about the 4-H Club, as both girls were members.

There was certainly a lot to discuss when it came to 4-H Club. Those days were long and grueling—after finishing their morning farm chores, Irene and her brothers would go into town, wash calves, and ready them to be shown at local fairs. Irene would also sew clothing, cook, and participate in speaking contests that tapped into the subtle competitive streak that sometimes shone in the deep blue of her eyes. She so excelled in the 4-H scene that she was named Sheridan County’s first 4-H Queen during her freshman year of high school. Phil was also crowned the county’s first 4-H King on that same day—November 26, 1949.

4-H consumed much of Irene’s attention and energies, but she was also an avid participant in her church group, Luther League. From an early age, the Luther League was fundamental in shaping her character, and she and Marilyn even traveled to Hastings, Nebraska as local teenage representatives for a week of leadership training.

II.  Goodnight Irene, the 4-H Queen

Some folks, they like their sugar

Some folks, they like their wine

Some folks love their music

And they sing it all the time

Irene, goodnight

Irene, goodnight

Goodnight, Irene

Goodnight, Irene

I’ll see you in my dreams

The jovial and spirited singing of Irene’s boy cousins came wafting through the window of the girls’ cabin as they strolled by one night for a serenade, and she and Marilyn giggled with delight. It was a Luther League camping weekend in Chadron State Park, and Irene was leaving the days of her childhood behind as she bloomed into a lovely young woman. With her days full of laughter, music, learning, friends, family, and community activities, time began to pass faster and faster.

Busy and popular as she was, however, Irene would still steal moments to herself in the evenings to read in the soft glow of the kerosene lamp. When electricity came to the farm, she would listen to the radio too. Her favorite pastime activity, however, was playing board games with the family. The Wittigs would spend hours dueling over Monopoly or Chinese Checkers, and Irene was a cunning pinochle and pitch player as well.

Christmas was among the most special times for the Wittig household. Christmas Eve church services were followed by a feast of Margaret Wittig’s oyster stew, which in turn was followed by the elegant Christmas fruit-and-nut bread that Irene helped bake. Each Christmas, Margaret would make Springerle, a special German sugar cookie. Before electric mixers, the eggs and sugar for the cookies had to be hand-beaten for an hour—a tiresome task that Margaret would delegate to her husband and sons. Baking Springerle thus became a tradition that brought the entire family together in the kitchen. After the men were done, Margaret and Irene would add the flour and other ingredients before rolling out the dough with a special rolling pin that would imprint lovely patterns and designs into the flattened dough. Margaret would cut the designs apart, separate them, and leave them to dry overnight before baking them the next day.

Irene and her brothers were growing up, however, and the close-knit days of the Wittigs were coming to a close as it came time for her to begin making her own way in the world. When she would daydream about what she might be when she grew up, Irene had had her heart set on being a teacher, but after a brief stint serving as a teacher’s aide, she found her naturally gentle demeanor averse to disciplining the children of others. Graduation day finally came, and after receiving her high school diploma along with her 42 fellow classmates, she instead enrolled in a two-year pre-nursing program at Dana College in Blair, Nebraska, with aspirations to become an administrative nurse. Those aspirations, however, were soon to meet their match.

III.  A Better Offer

?gniddew ym ta ronoh fo diam eht eb uoy lliW

Marilyn held the letter from Irene—a full page and a half—quizzically, before realizing her mischievous cousin had written the entire thing backward. She held it up to the mirror and read:

Will you be the maid of honor at my wedding?

While the letter itself was a joke—a trademark example of the silly and sweet little things Irene would do to make others smile—Marilyn suspected that its message was no joke at all. Tall, slim, and shapely with a million-dollar smile that struck the boys weak in the knees, Irene had more than her graceful and good-natured personality to attract the attention of potential suitors. Marilyn, however, had never taken these passing romantic interests very seriously… that is, until Bobby Jean Bernhardt moved to town and joined Luther League. He was a dynamic, hardworking, 24-year-old farmer who felt that meeting the 17-year-old beauty was God-ordained, and she fell in love.

Their courtship was simple and pure. Bobby had enlisted in the Army and was stationed in Kansas but would get away whenever he could to visit Irene at nursing college in Nebraska. He would drive up to take her to dinner at their favorite Omaha restaurant. As the two grew more serious, Marilyn began to fear that their giggly schoolgirl days of constant togetherness were coming to an end, but the cousins managed to find opportunities to go on double-dates from time to time. Once, they even drove to Black Hills’ state park to see Mount Rushmore, with Marilyn and her date roaming around the Hills to explore while Irene and Bobby stayed behind in the car.

Later, the Wittig siblings were together in Phil’s car when Bobby met them on a country road and flagged them down. Delighted, Irene hopped out of one vehicle and got in the other, and Bobby drove them to Walgren Lake as he went on and on about some “new bait” he had gotten that was sure to help him with his next great catch. When they arrived at the lake, Irene leapt from the car and turned to him expectantly. Instead of pulling out his fishing rod, however, he sank to his knee before her, holding out a diamond ring.

The wedding took place on June 1, 1956, when Irene was twenty years old. She had spent weeks sewing the wedding gown herself—a lovely, long, formal white dress with full veil and train that rendered the purity of her spirit to all who attended. The summer air was made sweeter as the young lovers pronounced their vows in the small rural church, and as they proceeded down the aisle after the ceremony, tears of happiness filled Bobby’s eyes.

That “new bait” Bobby had offered forth that day at Walgren Lake landed him the best catch of his life, and thereafter, Irene gave up all plans of becoming a nurse. He had vowed she would never have to work outside the home as long as their children were young, and Irene knew she wanted to focus all of her energy on perfecting the art of motherhood and homemaking. People laughed at her readiness to abandon the nursing path and urged her to see it through as it might prove fruitful later on, but Irene didn’t bat an eyelash. “I got a better offer,” she said with a smile.

IV.  The Foundation of a Family

The newlyweds quickly settled into their life together, farming wheat and raising livestock near Hay Springs, and within two years, their daughter Donell was born. Donell was followed by Gordon in 1960, Devonne in 1961, Gloria in 1963, and Barbara in 1969, thus completing the small Bernhardt family. Both hardworking, God-fearing, and good people, Bobby and Irene formed a perfect union—he as a leader and protector, and she as a nurturer and supporter. She adored her role as a mother and cared for her children with a grace and innate adeptness at the role so pronounced it was as if she had been born to do it. She would sew and cook long into the night—stretches of precious stillness and peace that were only punctuated by the welcome interludes of one of her children getting up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Just as Irene had sewn her own wedding gown, she would also make a new dress for each of her girls every Easter. The loving practice called for many late night sewing marathons, but the loveliness of her daughters in their new dresses at church on Easter Sunday was worth it for Irene.

This act of dedication exemplified the kind of hard work and care that was so fundamental to the lifestyle of Bernhardt farm. Whether it was chores out in the field or around the house, the young family always put in a good day’s work. Irene herself would tend the animals and tend to her impressive garden, which measured twenty by a hundred yards and boasted many of the vegetables she had helped her mother grow when she was a child. The sweet corn, tomatoes, and kohlrabi were enlivened by a colorful cornucopia of flowers that lent a whimsical quality to the farm. Hollyhocks bloomed near the garage, and gladiolas and daffodils—two of Irene’s favorites—brightened up the farm as well. When Bobby and Gordon would return from the fields after a long day of hard work, they were often greeted by Irene as she pulled the weeds out from amongst the vegetables and flowers.

During and after those long days, meals were especially important occasions for the Bernhardts—a special time when the family came together to enjoy Irene’s exceptional cooking. She would put together her own ad-libbed recipes, and fried chicken and leg of lamb stood out as particularly mouthwatering highlights. Creamy soups, casseroles, cornbread—all were eagerly anticipated by Bobby and the children.

When the family would gather around the table for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, each meal would begin and end with a prayer—an outward display of the deep faith that coursed through their family heritage. Not even the littlest child was permitted to leave the table before the closing prayer was said, demonstrating that theirs was a family united in faith and love. Above all else, and with her whole mind, body, and soul, Irene believed in God. It was from this immovable faith that her grace was derived, and that grace radiated through her voice and touch whenever her family members were sad or in distress. When Irene said, “It’ll be alright,” her children knew it was true, regardless of whether the problems they faced were big or small. Irene truly believed that, no matter what the trouble was, God would prevail and make things right.

This strong Christian faith was undergirded by an encyclopedic knowledge of and intimate familiarity with the Bible that Irene could share with her children whenever they needed advice. When they began leaving the farm to go out into the world and start their own lives, they would often write home to her with questions about things they were encountering. Irene would respond with a dialogue all her own—an interpretation of Bible verses and proverbs that never failed to inspire her children to be the best people they could be.

To Irene, being a good person rested on a foundation of compassion, and she never permitted her children to speak negatively about others. She abhorred gossip and always espoused the motto, “If you can’t say anything nice about a person, don’t say anything at all.” As well, Irene believed in joy just as deeply as she believed in respect and kindness. She was quick to laugh and had a delightful sense of humor—the same kind that compelled her to scrawl that backwards letter to Marilyn all those years before. She would look for jokes and stories in Reader’s Digest or on the Johnny Carson show to share with the family at mealtime, when she’d often begin laughing so hard she could barely speak. This would make Bobby laugh, and the children were quick to follow suit.

Nothing made Irene laugh more, however, than her children’s own antics. When she’d chop off the heads of chickens to prepare them for cleaning, for instance, the kids would cradle them in their arms pretending they were babies. They would then grab them by their wings and walk them around, laughing and playing. Irene and her children had a special relationship, and when Bobby would go out of town for meetings, she would throw all caution to the wind and take them downtown for the special treats like frozen pizza, which he normally forbade.

It wasn’t only Irene’s own children who were drawn to her. Recognizing in her the childlike innocence and lightness that they themselves possessed, kids were attracted to her innate glow. When they would look at her in church, she’d wink back, and once in the grocery store, a little girl even left her grandmother’s side and snuck her hand into Irene’s. Animals, as well, could sense the nurturing and gentle aura of her presence. When Irene would stroll through the barnyard, a loyal following of cats would follow along behind, and she would often stop so one or two special ones could hop onto her shoulder.

Just as she filled her childhood home with music growing up, Irene continued to fill the Bernhardt house with upbeat and fun piano medleys. She would always play the songs in a specific order, cultivating her own mini concerts that featured “Shrimp Boats (Is A-Comin’),” “Aba-Daba Honeymoon,” and Guy Mitchell’s “My Heart Cries for You.” She would weave in songs from earlier generations too—classics like “Red River Valley” and “Mairzy Doats”—and was especially overjoyed when the children would stand up and sing the lyrics. Never liking to be the center of attention, Irene left the singing to the kids when they had company, but when it was just the immediate family, she would join in enthusiastically as Bobby, never one to sing himself, enjoyed the melodic voices of his wife and children.

These voices sang especially sweet on Christmas—always a big celebration for the family, and one of the most treasured times of the year, just as it was for Irene growing up. Among her favorite songs of the season was “The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot” on Nat King Cole’s Christmas album. The site of the festivities would rotate between Irene, Phil, and Ed’s households, and every year they had a beautifully-decorated tree. Irene would keep the children’s presents hidden so well in the weeks proceeding the holiday that they sometimes wondered if they’d receive any gifts at all. Then, when she’d magically produce them on Christmas Eve, the children would laugh with delight.

Even on Christmas, the Bernhardts remained frugal and cost-conscious. As a lower-middle class family with five children to support, they had to keep a vigilant eye on their finances. Still, Irene made it a rule to always give ten percent of the family’s earnings to the church. Even on those particularly tight years when hail would destroy a considerable portion of their crops, Irene maintained a positive attitude that was firm in its conviction that things would work out, no matter how bad they might get. This commitment to optimism and generosity even in inclement conditions seeped into the consciousness of her children, and several still maintain the practice of giving religious tithers by donating ten percent of their income to the church today.

The ten percent rule spoke much to the values of the Bernhardt clan. They were sensible, down-to-earth, and had their priorities in order. Irene was never one to be bewitched by Hollywood or to idolize actors and actresses, but she did enjoy a good story. In the fifties, she and Bobby liked to cozy up and watch Gunsmoke and Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights. Later, they enjoyed Columbo, Perry Mason, and even the soap opera General Hospital. She liked James Stewart and Julie Andrews movies like The Sound of Music, but much more than being any sort of movie buff, Irene was an avid sports fan. Bobby had been a first-rate softball pitcher in his youth and won a number of championships while serving in the Army, but his wife’s enthusiasm for athletics seemed to surpass even his own. She loved listening to football games on the little kitchen radio, rooting tirelessly for her very favorite teams, the Nebraska Cornhuskers and the Denver Broncos. She loved baseball as well, always rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers, who later became the Los Angeles Dodgers. Her daughters didn’t care to listen to the games in their younger years, but Irene would get so excited that she didn’t mind listening alone.

Irene’s favorite sports player of all, however, was always Bobby. After they married, he pitched in local softball games, and Irene would go to each and every one, always rating his performance. She loved watching Donell, too, who was naturally athletic and picked up football in high school while also learning how to play the guitar Bobby had bought before joining the Army. The Bernhardts were very supportive of each other, and Irene was always her husband and children’s biggest fan.

V.  Right, Wrong, and Resilience

Like Bobby, Irene was always politically conservative and could be very impassioned and articulate if engaged in a political discussion, drawing on the skills she cultivated in her 4-H speaking contests as a young lady. Still, politics never played a big part in the discussions of the Bernhardt household. Instead, conversation and practices were more geared around an ethical, moral compass that granted the family an instinctive and inner conviction in knowing right from wrong. For instance, the Watergate Scandal, among the first political discussions the Bernhardt children can recall having, was put simply: what Nixon did was wrong.

Equipped with these strong internal senses of morality, the children did not often misbehave, but when they got out of hand, Bobby tended to be the family disciplinarian. Barb was too young to get too wrapped up in the sibling antics, and Gordon was always incredibly cognizant of rules and proper behavior, but the three other girls could sometimes get rowdy. Irene could certainly dole out punishment when necessary, but the children certainly had an acute awareness of which parent was more stern. While she never yelled or spanked, however, they acknowledged that simply knowing their mother was disappointed in one of them would have a tremendous impact in itself.

Perhaps Irene’s aversion to punishing and disciplining her children was because she loved them so deeply she would often take their successes or failures on as her own. Her most devout commitment in life, aside from her devotion to God, was the protection of her children from the hardships of life, and when one would encounter a serious obstacle, she would take personal responsibility by asking herself what she could have done differently as a mother to have avoided the outcome.

Among the greatest of these obstacles came when Donell was confronted with a teenage pregnancy and was counseled by a minister of the Lutheran Church to terminate the pregnancy. Irene and Bobby heeded the minister’s guidance but immediately regretted the decision to abort the fetus. Donell and her parents weathered the storm and emerged on the other side, deciding to transition over to the Church of Christ and finally settling on the Baptist Church as a better fit for their faith.

It is easy for a family to stay strong and united in good times, but it is the bad times that truly test the integrity of the glue, and when the Bernhardts came face to face with the accident that would define them, it became clear that Irene was that glue.

This accident came in November of 1976, a few months before Donell was to be married on February 12, 1977. Irene had just spent a week at a health seminar in Georgia, and Donell and her fiancé, Maurice Turnbull, picked her up from the airport that night. The three were driving home when, just over a hill on a country road, they were involved in a car accident. When the cars crashed into one another, Irene suffered a minor concussion and lacerated hand, and Maurice suffered serious injuries and spent months in rehabilitation in the hospital. Donell, tragically, was not so lucky. Her neck was broken in the accident, and she died immediately.

The tragic death of her eldest child was the most profound sorrow of her life, but Irene didn’t skip a beat in showing her love and affection to her other children. There were moments of incredible despair, especially the stormy night of Donell’s burial when Irene awoke and wept periodically throughout the night, feeling as though her lost daughter was cold and needed a coat. Drawing on the unshakable religious faith that had guided her through her whole life, however, she persevered and thereafter kept her sadness private, remaining a pillar of strength and unity that kept the family together even in the wake of that unprecedented hardship. The remaining four Bernhardt children knew their mother would think about Donell and cry, but they were never made to feel that they had to live in the shadow of a deceased sibling.

Loss and sadness work their way out of us in mysterious ways, and Irene’s experience in the matter was more tangible than most. Every time she would rub her forehead where she had hit it on the windshield glass, tiny shards would work their way through the surface of her skin and out into the air. This, like her pain, went on for years, yet her resilient spirit and firm belief that her child was with the God she had always known and loved allowed her to carry forward and smile for what she still had—a loving husband, four wonderful children, and a world that, while complicated and mysterious, was still full of wonder.

VI.  A New Peace

As Gordon, Devonne, Gloria, and Barb grew up and ventured out on their own, Irene found the immediate obligations of motherhood making way for more time to cultivate new skills and interests. One day, she came across a newspaper advertisement for census takers and asked Bobby if he thought she could do it. He replied that he thought she could but that he didn’t want her to go too far away alone, so she answered the ad and worked outside of the home for the first time in her life. Later, she expanded her repertoire further and began to sell cookware at Pampered Chef parties, where Bobby would accompany her. She would show the cookware in peoples’ homes, and even bought a good set for themselves since she received a discount for her services.

As the years continued to pass, dusting Irene’s short hair a light salt-and-pepper color, she bloomed from a wonderful mother to a doting grandmother and great-grandmother. Dressed in culottes and tennis shoes, she routinely drove the thousand miles to Texas, where Barb, Gloria, and Devonne lived. She was present at many of her grandchildren’s births, visited at least a few times each year, and never failed to send birthday gifts and Christmas boxes of baked treats. Just as she had always related to children on a level of shared innocence and wonder, she lived for her grandchildren and was most in her element when she was near them.

When she wasn’t around her grandchildren, she filled her days with Blue Bonnet Club gardening activities, sewing, and reading. She not only read books, but also began surfing utilizing the internet to read online articles about health and to email her grandchildren. Though Irene enjoyed her technological ventures, however, she still enjoyed playing cards far more than surfing the web. She knew eight distinct games of solitaire and would sit at the table playing one after the other, in succession. When her mother, Margaret, moved into a nursing home, Irene would visit her several times a week to play cards. Music still brought her an unrivaled sense of peace as well, and she had begun to collect small hand bells.

VII.  Decline, Only to Rise

In her late sixties, something fundamental changed for Irene—she seemed to lose her ability to play the piano. This came in the wake of deepening health problems that included headaches and a possible mild stroke. Still, she eagerly anticipated her and Bobby’s Golden Wedding Anniversary party celebrating their fifty years of marriage, to be held the following June. The party was to be followed by a cruise to Alaska in July which the Bernhardt children had planned for Irene and Bobby. In anticipation for the exciting festivities, Irene was whisked off to Rapid City to shop for new clothes after spending time with her children and grandchildren in Fort Robinson, Nebraska, for a family reunion.

Irene’s cheeks were rosy and her eyes bright at the Golden Anniversary party in the Hay Springs Community Center, which a number of out-of-state relatives came into town for. Two days later, however, she had a stroke and was rushed to the hospital, where a blood clot was removed from her brain. She then underwent physical and occupational therapy and, with a good prognosis, was released from the hospital in July. At home, Bobby took her for walks, and they progressed to quarter-mile strolls. Irene’s spirit, however, was nearing the end of its stay here, and on August 28, 2006, she passed away. Bobby always described his wife as an angel, and from that day forward, she surely was one.

At the funeral of their beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, Irene’s family played old hymns that Irene would have loved, as well as the song “One More Day” to express their deep love for the woman that had shaped them so fundamentally. I would hold you every second and say a million I love you’s / That’s what I’d do with one more day with you, they sang. Reflecting back on Irene’s life, each and every one of them was at once inspired, grateful, and at a loss for how so much good will, grace, and Godliness could be embodied in one person. She was always patient, kind, compassionate, and hardworking. The name Irene means peace, and rightfully so, for through the beautiful peace she kept tranquil and constant within her own soul, she was able to inspire the same in others.

Losing Irene was unlike anything the Bernhardt family had experienced before, but having watched her cope with loss and grief with her characteristic grace, it was almost as though she were still there supporting her loved ones in their time of mourning. The fundamental elements of her life—grace, love, compassion—continue to resonate in the world, in both tangible and intangible ways. The Steinway Model L piano that enlivens the music ministry of Alexandria Presbyterian Churh in Alexandria, Virginia, for instance, is but one example of the breadth and intransience of her memory, as it was donated in her honor by her son Gordon several years after her death. Even as Irene is with God in Heaven now, her legacy continues to allow others to express their faith and love on Earth, just as she did each day of her life.

© 2012 Gordon J. Bernhardt. All Rights Reserved.

Acknowledgement:  Thank you to my father–Bob Bernhardt, my three sisters–Barbara Wood, Gloria Bernhardt, and Devonne West, my uncle–Phil Wittig, and my first cousin once removed–Marilyn Wright for contributing their thoughts and memories to this tribute.  And thank you to Emily Burns for taking those thoughts, organizing them, and crafting this tribute.

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Saving for College? Don’t Overlook 529 Plans

As tuition costs continue to rise at double the rate of inflation, parents are thinking more and more about how to help children afford college. But surprisingly, surveys continue to reveal that many Americans have never heard of one of the best tools for education saving, the 529 plan.

This tax-favored account has been available for more than 20 years; it was established by Congress and is authorized by Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Code. According to SEC.gov,

“A 529 plan is a tax-advantaged savings plan designed to encourage saving for future college costs. 529 plans, legally known as “qualified tuition plans,” are sponsored by states, state agencies, or educational institutions . . . There are two types of 529 plans: pre-paid tuition plans and college savings plans. All fifty states and the District of Columbia sponsor at least one type of 529 plan. In addition, a group of private colleges and universities sponsor a pre-paid tuition plan.”

Funds deposited in a 529 plan accumulate tax-free. Withdrawals are also not taxed, as long as the money withdrawn from the plan is used for “qualified educational expenses.”

Over the years, the plans have been tweaked by Congress; in 2015, for example, the law was changed to classify computer purchases as eligible expenses for which 529 funds could be used, as long as the computer is being bought for educational use.

Recently, legislation has been proposed in Congress that would further liberalize the uses to which funds from 529 plans may be put, including the repayment of student loans. The provision permitting plan assets to repay student debt would be especially welcome in the current environment, when college graduates are facing mounting student loan balances. The bill, H.R. 529, would also incentivize employers to offer payroll-deducted contributions for employees. Additionally, the new legislation would enhance plan owners’ ability to direct the investments within their plans. Currently, 529 plans can be rebalanced or reallocated only twice per calendar year. But H.R. 529, proposed in January by Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.) and Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), would allow plan owners to manage the assets in their plans much like owners of 401K plans do currently. Plan funds may be invested in mutual funds, money market instruments, and other types of investments.

Information on 529 plans is available through the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Additionally, the College Savings Plan Network maintains a clearinghouse for state-sponsored plans and also works to promote legislation that makes 529 plans more widely available and user-friendly.

If you have questions regarding your 529 plan or 529 plans in general, contact us or your financial advisor.

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The Pros and Cons of Refinancing Your Mortgage

The announcement by the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (“Freddie Mac”) on April 13, 2017, that 30-year fixed-rate mortgages have fallen to their lowest level of the year, averaging 4.08 percent, has many homeowners wondering if now is the time to refinance. After all, with the general interest rate outlook calling for an upward trend–influenced by the likelihood of two or three Federal Reserve rate hikes–wouldn’t it make sense to lock in a lower rate now, before the cost of borrowing goes up?

The most important factor is, of course, the currently available interest rate in comparison with the rate on your present loan. Most of us have heard the longstanding rule of thumb that if you can’t save at least two full percentage points below your present rate, refinancing isn’t worth it. While many question the validity of the “two percent rule,” it is true that saving money on interest is the number-one reason most people refinance.

Another factor is time. If you plan to stay in your home for a long time, even a smaller rate reduction can add up to thousands of dollars in interest saved during the life of the loan.

Of course, there are other costs to consider besides the interest rate. Closing costs can add thousands of dollars to the expense of a refinancing. You should also look at the total amount you will pay over the likely length of time you will be in the loan. Even though your monthly payment might drop as the result of a refinancing, greatly extending the term of the loan could still result in many thousands of extra dollars paid in interest.

Some homeowners use a simple break-even formula: Total closing costs divided by monthly savings equals breakeven point.

So, for example, if the total closing costs for the refinance are $3,000 and the new payment will save you $100 per month, the breakeven point is 30 months. Do you plan to be in the home significantly longer than 30 months? If so, refinancing might make sense. If not, then it’s probably best to stay in your current loan.

Homeowners can take advantage of numerous free online mortgage calculators to help with the number-crunching. Quickenloans.com, LendingTree.com, and BankRate.com are just three of the dozens of financial websites that offer free tools you can use to do your research.

Finally, a word of warning: Be cautious about your motives for refinancing. Sometimes, converting your equity to cash can allow you to invest in a business, pay for a home remodel that adds value, or pay for education. But refinancing to pay off credit card debt has a downside. While it’s great to get rid of that high-interest debt, the disadvantage is that what was unsecured debt is now secured–by your home. Missing credit card payments tarnishes your credit rating and can result in nasty collector calls. But missing your mortgage payment can forfeit your home to foreclosure.

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What Is the Value of a Financial Advisor?

What is value? The answer seems simple in one sense: Value is what something is worth. We apply this principle every day when we make purchases. If the value we attach to a certain object or service is equal to or greater than its offer price, we hand over our payment.

But viewed another way, value is harder to define. For example, suppose you have two new cars sitting side by side: one a Lamborghini Huracán Spyder and the other a Chevrolet Cruze. The first is priced at $210,000, and the second at $17,000. Which one has more value? Before you answer, consider: If all you require is basic transportation, and especially if you make less than several million dollars a year, the Cruze is probably the better value, even though its price is much less. Why? Because the value or benefit you receive by purchasing the Lamborghini is less than the cost. You need basic, dependable transportation; you don’t need 0–60 in 3.2 seconds, not to mention what you’d have to pay for insurance!

The same considerations apply when putting a value on a financial advisor. For each investor, the situation is different, because different investors have different needs. For some who feel overwhelmed by all the choices, risks, and other factors, a financial advisor’s value may lie mostly in his or her ability to help make appropriate choices and to relieve the client of the need to keep up with market movements, portfolio rebalancing, and other “confusing” processes. For more informed and involved investors, an advisor’s value may lie more in the ability to provide authoritative research and educated judgments as a counterpoint or even a check to the client’s own ideas and initiatives.

Recently, The Vanguard Group published a white paper that attempts to put value parameters around the client’s relationship with a financial advisor. Interestingly, the Vanguard study came up with seven activities or services usually provided by financial advisors that can be more or less quantified in terms of their addition of value:

1. Assisting with asset allocation,
2. Cost-effective implementation of investments,
3. Disciplined rebalancing,
4. Behavioral coaching,
5. Asset location (taxable vs. tax-deferred or tax-exempt),
6. Spending strategy (maximizing effective withdrawal order), and
7. Assisting with total-return vs. income strategies.

The Vanguard study puts the total value of these activities at between 2.3 and 3.8 percent of portfolio value, annually. The study goes on to stipulate, however, that, similar to the automotive example above, much of an investment advisor’s value remains “in the eye of the beholder:” governed as much by a particular investor’s inclinations, talents, and interests as by the quantifiable categories in the Vanguard list. Further, aspects of portfolio management such as charitable giving preferences, inheritance considerations, and other factors must also be considered as a part of the value equation.

Especially with the financial industry becoming more fee-driven and less commission-oriented, it is entirely appropriate for investors to carefully assess the value they are receiving in return for the services they are paying for. Likewise, financial advisors must keep in mind that value–whether quantitatively or qualitatively assessed–is ultimately in the eye of the client.

Posted in Behavioral Finance, Financial Advisor, Rebalance | No Comments

Keeping Your Finances Safe Online

With more and more financial data being stored in and accessed by computers (and even mobile phones), and with untold millions of transactions taking place on the websites of retailers, banks, and others, it has never been more important to practice “safe computing.” The sobering fact is that computer hackers are ever-present online, searching for the vulnerabilities that will allow them to commit the next scam, identity theft, or outright burglary of assets stored in one of your digital “safes.”

It is even more surprising to learn that the vast majority of cybercrimes are enabled by users who employ weak or insecure passwords. Recently, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange claimed that the email account of John Podesta, head of the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, was hacked because his password was “password.” While Assange’s claim has not been verified, it still points up the fact that far too many users are far too naïve when it comes to protecting their online data and identities.

For example, Forbes tech columnist Yael Grauer posts an annual column of the “Year’s Worst Passwords.” For 2016, the winner was “123456,” long regarded as the worst, least-secure password on the Internet. Why? Because this is almost always one of the first guesses by anyone trying to gain access to someone else’s account. Nevertheless, “123456,” along with “password,” routinely tops the Forbes list–year after year. Apparently, some users are very slow learners.

Furthermore, it’s not enough to alter or add one or two letters to numbers in order to increase password security: hackers are long accustomed to trying “passw0rd,” “p@ssword,” and even “password1.” Patterns generated by your keyboard should also be avoided. “Qwerty,” the first six keys from left to right on the top alpha row of a standard keyboard, is on the “Hacker’s Greatest Hits” list, as is “zaq1zaq1” (what you get when you key the far left column of characters). And don’t even think about using words like “login,” “admin,” or “welcome.” Similarly, your name and the names of your family members–or alphanumeric variants on them–are password no-nos.

Many users have begun employing random password generators, like the one that comes with the Safari web browser that is standard on Macintosh computers. In many cases, these randomly generated passwords can be synchronized across your various devices. Others favor programs that allow them to keep their different passwords in an encrypted–password-protected–“virtual vault,” usually on a handheld device, for easy reference when accessing various secure websites (this also helps to alleviate frustrating memory lapses and the frequent need to reset login information). The important thing to remember, cyber-security experts say, is that a password need not necessarily be random in order to be secure; it just needs to be sufficiently complex (with enough digits, letters, or special characters), and it needs to be hard for anyone but the user to guess. Also, for maximum security online, you should avoid re-using passwords or using the same password for different accounts.

Practice “safe computing.”

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Protecting the Finances of Aging Parents

These days, we are becoming more and more familiar with the term, “Sandwich Generation:” those who are faced with the dual prospect of providing ongoing financial support for struggling adult children and simultaneously watching over aging parents who are becoming dependent. For younger Baby Boomers and older Gen Xers, the need to safeguard aging parents’ finances is becoming particularly acute. There are several useful steps that can be taken to help shield older persons from both their own failing cognitive abilities and from financial abuse by others.

One of the most important steps is also one of the most basic: Stay in touch. Elders who are in frequent communication with their children or other younger caregivers are much less likely to be victimized, financially or otherwise. Consistent contact by family members, and the ongoing awareness of elders’ situation, resources, and concerns that results, will do almost as much as any other single step to assure that aging parents continue to live securely and with dignity.

Powers of attorney that cover both healthcare and financial decisions can also insure that retirees have a trusted person who is able to speak for them, should they become incapacitated. Often, it is advisable to have a separate document for healthcare and finances, since the person who can be most trusted to make potentially life-or-death medical decisions may not also possess the acumen to manage important financial decisions.

Another helpful move to consider is consolidation of elders’ checking accounts at a single bank and any investment or brokerage accounts at a single firm. Many older people are in the habit of maintaining different accounts for different uses, but in later years, memories often become cloudy, leading to forgotten accounts and other hazards. Making sure that everything is centralized will greatly simplify the task of those who are assisting aging parents with their finances. This can also be a good time to cut up all but one or two credit cards: Use one for automatic bill payments and another for day-to-day purchases. Keeping it simple is the key.

The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) maintains an active fraud prevention network; information is available at AARP.org. Similarly, the federal government’s program, accessible at StopFraud.gov, has a separate link for “Elder Fraud.” Finally, the IRS (IRS.gov) maintains a list of the “Dirty Dozen” currently active tax-related scams, many of which target vulnerable older taxpayers.

Returning to the step that opened our discussion, for all of the above ideas, the principal key is good communication. Staying in close touch with aging parents or other elderly persons permits talking about possible scams, warnings, and other helpful information. This is also pivotal for helping older investors, the majority of whom value their independence very deeply, to accept the difficult fact that it is time to relinquish some or all of the day-to-day decisions about their finances. According to most experts, older Americans are unlikely to recognize the degradation in their capabilities, and caring, consistent communication from a trusted person provides the best opening for the conversations that can help them allow others to provide the oversight that they need.

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Millennials, Savings, and Investments

Human Relations 101 teaches us that when we want to offer effective advice or suggestions, we should start by affirming the other person. So, I’ll start with a word or two of praise for the financial habits of Millennials–persons born in the period between about 1980 and 2000. Here’s the big thing Millennials are doing correctly with their finances: they are saving their money. As a matter of fact, according to the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, a strong majority of this generation–almost 75 percent–are actively saving for retirement at an earlier age than past generational groups. About half of Millennials are socking away 6 percent or more of their income, and those who participate in workplace retirement plans are saving closer to 7 percent. In that respect, their parents–mostly Baby Boomers–could learn a thing or two from these kids; their savings statistics are the highest of any cohort of savers since the Great Depression–and that is despite the fact that Millennials are carrying record levels of student debt.

Unfortunately, though, Millennials’ good savings habits do not carry over into their investment practices. The fact is that most of them are simply too scared of or confused about the financial markets to entrust their hard-earned savings there. This means that they tend to keep high levels of cash in bank accounts that, despite recent rises in rates by the Federal Reserve, are still earning very close to nothing. In the same Transamerica survey mentioned above, 25 percent said they were uncertain how their retirement savings were invested, and those few who were prompted to find out more reported much higher allocations to bonds, money market funds, and other low-return investments than their Boomer or Generation X counterparts.

Why are Millennials so shy of the financial markets? Part of the reason is what they have witnessed in their lifetimes, including the dot-com bust of the early 2000s and the Great Recession of 2007–09. Many of them watched their parents and older siblings suffer steep losses in investment and retirement portfolios, not to mention facing unemployment amid a job market that appeared at times to be in free fall. No wonder they associate the markets with risk and danger, rather than opportunity and long-term financial success.

How can Millennials’ perceptions of the financial markets be changed? The answer lies in two areas: education and opportunity. Principles of investing are not taught in many of today’s classrooms, but those few Millennials who do have such educational openings often report more positive attitudes toward market investments and appropriate levels of risk. This trend will need to continue over the long term for Millennials to enter the markets in significant numbers.

Second, Millennials who work for companies that offer payroll-deducted retirement plans have a great opportunity to gain the benefit of the diversification and market expertise afforded by professional managers and advisers. Because of the number of Millennials participating in the “gig economy,” outside traditional employer-employee relationships, this opportunity may take longer to develop. But because of the youth of this demographic, time is still on their side.

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What to Do when the Markets are Up, Down or Sideways?

Our country recently experienced one of the most raucous and divisive presidential elections in recent memory. And, since January, we have been bombarded with news related to the new president’s actions and policies. Depending on your preferred news source, the Trump presidency is either the saving of the American democracy or a sign of the coming apocalypse. Either way, such all-or-none viewpoints tend to make us nervous, no matter which side our beliefs fall on.

In times like these, financial planners often get calls from clients who are, not surprisingly, anxious about their investments. “The market is at an historic high; should I be worried?” “The Fed is raising interest rates; should I be worried?” “The European Union is having problems should I be worried?” “Employment is up, but not by very much; should I be worried?” And the list goes on.

Actually, it is very understandable to be concerned by headlines. Back when President Obama was elected–with the economy reeling from a financial crisis that threatened many of our largest institutions–many conservatively minded investors were convinced that the election of a liberal Democrat was going to be the death of the stock market. Most financial advisors did their best to calm such fears–and a good thing, too, since, for example, the DJIA went from a low of 6,443 in the depths of the Great Recession to a high, in mid-March, of nearly 21,000. On the other side of the coin, investors of a more liberal mindset might have felt panic at the election of Donald Trump. But thus far, such fears have proved unfounded: the DJIA was at 19,827 on the day he was sworn in, and as I write this, it stands at 20,596–a 3.9% gain in the last two-and-a-half months.

Of course, what these investors are really asking is, “What’s going to happen?” And the only truthful answer for any advisor to give is “We don’t know.”

What we do know, however, is that no matter which direction the markets take, investors will still need to save for retirement, education, and other important life-phase-driven events. We also know that diversification tends to protect assets from major changes in value in any single market sector. We know that those approaching retirement can often benefit from prudent, planned movement into more conservative holdings, and that those whose horizon is longer will almost always see good results by holding to a well-conceived strategy, trusting that over time, the markets will generally reward those who are patient and disciplined enough to stay the course during the inevitable downturns.

There is no question about it: we live in an uncertain world. But taking the long-range view can help iron out the discomfort that comes with day-to-day fluctuations. Keep your eye on the goal, trust in your strategy, and maintain appropriate diversification. This advice may not be as exciting as the latest news headline, but it has stood the test of time and the markets–both good and bad.

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