Reflections on Retirement: Advice from UF retirees about how they prepared

Over the next few months, UF at Work will be featuring a four-part series about retirement. For the first part below, we spoke with UF retirees to learn how they knew it was time to retire, how they prepared and if there was anything they wish they had known or done differently. Read on to learn what they shared.

For John Foltz, an emeritus professor in the Department of Entomology and Nematology, a major part of retirement planning was learning about Medicare options and doing the right thing at the right time.

Twelve years ago, Foltz, whose research specialty was forest insects, was wrapping up a major grant and had no new grants on the horizon. He felt like it was a good time to transition.

“What I was interested in when I started wasn’t what funding agencies were interested in putting money into anymore,” he said. “I had the opportunity to leave and still live comfortably. I enjoyed my profession and now I’m enjoying my retirement.”

Foltz along with Fred Gregory, an emeritus professor in the Department of History, have been helping UF faculty and staff learn more about retirement and Medicare through their volunteer work with the Florida Department of Elder Affairs’ SHINE program. They teach “Medicare 101” to residents across the county and also hold the class specifically for UF faculty and staff who are interested in getting an overview of Medicare and pertinent deadlines. Participants are encouraged to make follow-up appointments with Foltz or Gregory to discuss their particular situations and questions one-on-one.

“There are so many different situations that people are in,” said Foltz. “Helping them figure out the best thing for them is really rewarding.”

Some of the advice he shares with class attendees includes the importance of enrolling in Medicare Part A (hospital insurance) at 65 as a back-up plan even if you plan on staying at UF for a couple more years, learning about Medicare Part B to avoid penalties and talking to the Social Security Administration at least three months ahead of time if you plan to retire early to avoid penalties.

Linda Orfield, former associate controller for University Payroll and Tax Services, retired earlier this year after what she calls her second career at UF. She said she had a retirement year in mind all along; she planned to retire when she was 66 years old, the age in which she would be eligible for full social security benefits.

After working in Finance and Accounting in the 1980s, Orfield spent a decade in the private sector and eight years in public accounting. When she came back to UF in 2002, she began contributing to a 403(b) retirement plan right away.

“At first when I came back, I put away a little each pay period,” she said. “Then toward the end, I was maxing out my contributions. I had a Roth outside of UF and I was focused on putting away a lot of money. I was a late bloomer career-wise, so I was making up for lost time.”

Orfield touts the importance of diversification — for her, this meant a 403(b), Florida’s pension plan and a Roth — as well as getting out of debt before you retire.

“At the time I was making these decisions, I sat down and did a budget of expected expenses in retirement,” she said. “I would not be making retirement contributions anymore — we were saving a fairly large percentage of our income — so I knew that once we weren’t doing that anymore, we would be fine.”

She also knew she wouldn’t be paying social security taxes on retirement income, which she factored into her calculations along with costs that would increase in retirement, such as health insurance.

“Having a budget makes you feel better,” she said. “I also have a notebook divided into sections such as Medicare, the Florida Retirement System and things to do in retirement. It was fun. You feel like you’re in control.”

She advises people to take advantage of what UF has to offer, including SHINE and Financial Literacy and Retirement Education (FLARE) courses, at any age and career stage.

“UF is wonderful in terms of opportunities for people to educate themselves,” she said.

No amount too small

Orfield, Foltz and Gregory recommend that employees who have several years or decades to go before retirement start saving some amount, even if it’s small.

“Whatever you think is too small is not too small in order to start saving for retirement,” Orfield said. “Make it part of your habit and spending pattern to start saving.”

Lisa Hodges, who retired this month after serving for many years as UFHR’s assistant director for Benefits, agreed, advising to “start somewhere and start small.” In her case, following this advice was the key to her ability to retire before the age of 55.

“A lot of people think they don’t have the money to invest, but even a little bit helps,” said Hodges. “Early on in my career, a colleague advised me that even if you save just $25 biweekly in one of the tax-sheltered plans, it can help, and over time you can continue to increase that amount as you are able.”

For Hodges, retiring early also meant shifting some of her resources into a 457 plan, which would allow her to access funds prior to age 55 without a penalty.

“A couple of years ago, I learned the differences among the plans and started taking the investments I was making in my 403(b) plans and investing more heavily in a 457,” she said. “Now that I retired early, I can access that money sooner.”

Hodges also urged UF employees to take advantage of the free advice offered by retirement counselors from the companies that contract with UF.

To prepare for retirement over the course of his career, Foltz started saving money in supplemental retirement plans, such as IRAs and 401(k)s, in addition to joining the state pension plan when he began at UF in 1997.

“We used some of our savings for raising kids, but we tried to put a reasonable amount of money into optional retirement plans,” said Foltz. “With the pension plan and optional plans, I have about the same income now as when I was working. I always encourage people to save more. If you’re living frugally when you’re working and putting money away, in retirement you’ll probably still live frugally and you won’t go bankrupt.”

Gregory, who retired in 2010, echoes his fellow SHINE instructor’s sentiments. He and his wife have worked hard to be fiscally conservative and save steadily and slowly over the years, and it has made a huge difference, he said.

“Make sure you’re disciplined about saving something,” he said. “This will give you more flexibility in retirement. Establish some kind of savings routine — the earlier, the better. It really does compound over many years.”

Other things to consider

Gregory said that before he stopped working, it was helpful for him to anticipate what kinds of things he wanted to do in retirement. He knew he wanted to keep his hand in research in some way — by authoring papers or articles, for example — find meaningful volunteer activity and spend time traveling to see his daughters.

“You have to realize that your life’s going to be different,” he said. “Things that were important to you will become less important, and that’s okay. You get perspective when you retire and you also begin to better understand people who are older than you. Things that were not important before are higher on my priority list, which is an interesting thing.”

Orfield suggests scheduling social outings like lunch with former coworkers and get-togethers with friends to maintain a network of support once you’re no longer going to work each day.

“I told the staff before I retired that I won’t be bored but I may be lonely, so you better say yes when I ask you to come to lunch,” said Orfield, laughing.

In addition to volunteering, Foltz enjoys being part of the Retired Faculty Organization social group (known as RFUF), where he meets other retirees at the Harn Museum every week and hears from experts in a variety of topics.

Above all, Gregory said, make sure to have patience with yourself once you do retire.

“Take a little while to make the adjustment,” he said. “Some people end up hating retirement and go back to work, and that’s good, too. Whatever is going to make you happy.”

UFHR will host two SHINE classes this fall, as well as additional financial classes.