Confessions of a Federal Retiree

Like many people, this federal retiree left government service with high hopes and plans for the future. Some worked out well but the reality of health and financial issues brought home to this author how life can change after retirement. He offers advice on how to live and which decisions may be the most important ones after leaving government service.

There are a few phrases that are likely to send cold shivers up one’s spine, including "You’re fired!," "The Internal Revenue Service will be auditing your last three tax returns," or "You have a nine centimeter tumor in your left kidney."

I was presented with the latter scenario by my physician in February, after undergoing multiple tests to determine the source of internal bleeding.

I promptly went to the Mayo Clinic website to see what I could find out. The good news was that living with one kidney was virtually identical to living with two kidneys unless the tumor has spread to other organs, nodes, etc. Due to the potential for the kidney to burst, which we quickly learned would not be a good thing, my wife insisted on scheduling the operation as soon as possible, which happened to be Valentine’s Day. It wasn’t Cupid’s Arrow that pierced my chest but a scalpel wielded by a skilled surgeon.

I recently read that, in the case of kidney transplants, when the donor’s kidney is removed via laparoscopy, the procedure used in my case, the average time between surgery and return to work is 51 days, so I felt pretty good about the fact that I was able to go to work in an office less than six days after the surgery; I might have spent a few more days at home watching "Days of Our Lives" but I had a contract to fulfill and time was running out. I think being in good physical shape going into the operation was a major factor in how quickly I was able to bounce back.

I inflicted on readers in my last "retirement" article the details of my car accident on April Fools’ Day 2007. I had noted in a previous article that in the 10 years since I had taken early retirement from the Federal government I had not been sick for as much as a single day. The 10 years ended on March 31, 2007, and I must have lost my "karma" by bragging about my virtually perfect health during that period, because the very next morning a driver ran a red light and nailed my car at a high rate of speed as I was entering the intersection, leaving me with a concussion and assorted other injuries.

I had made significant progress in recovering from my injuries by the time I got the news about the kidney tumor, but the one-two punch served as an emphatic reminder that good health is not guaranteed to anyone. I had already watched in sorrow as family and friends had their lives changes by strokes, heart attacks, major illnesses and freak accidents, but I never really believed it could happen to me. Count that as another illusion shattered.

I can’t think of anything which would have more of a dampening effect on a happy retirement than being in poor health. Based on my experiences, I would reiterate my earlier advice to fellow retirees to get regular medical check-ups, to seek competent medical advice at the first sign of trouble (and to ask questions of your medical provider), to exercise regularly and to eat right (said the guy who consumes dark chocolate, and other junk food, at a Guinness Book of World Records pace).

As for health insurance, in addition to maintaining my Federal health insurance, I have taken advantage of the vision and dental insurance coverage which OPM finally started offering in 2007.

That brings me to the issue of finances, since running out of money would also rank high on my list of potential disasters associated with retirement. I mentioned in my earlier articles that I had closed my thrift savings plan (TSP) in late 1999 and invested the money in a wide variety of companies, few of which exist today except in memory and in class-action lawsuits. In doing so, I ignored the sage advice of the "Oracle of Omaha," Warren Buffet, to invest in what you know. Even today, I couldn’t tell you what Cisco does, for example, but I bought it, and kept on seizing "buying opportunities" as the stock price fell, not because I had done my own "due diligence" research but because so many financial analysts (i.e., on CNBC) were recommending it.

Based on my own mistakes, I strongly recommend that readers keep a close eye on their own financial situations. After I lost enough money in the stock market to keep me working for many more years, we turned over everything we had left to a certified financial planner/retirement expert. Given the underwhelming performance of the market over the last two years, we have continued to lose money hand over fist, only now a percentage of our retirement investments goes to the financial planners. If we win, they win, and if we lose, they win; I’ve got to find a job like that. We still have a nest egg, but now it looks like the egg was laid by a hummingbird.

With regard to financial advice that is specifically aimed at current and former Federal employees, I strongly recommend reading the columns written by regular contributor Tammy Flanagan. She is the senior benefits director for the National Institute of Transition Planning Inc., which conducts federal retirement planning workshops and seminars. The author’s blurb says that Ms. Flanagan has spent 25 years helping Federal employees take charge of their retirement by understanding their benefits, and I think that experience, and her expertise, is obvious in all of her articles.

In my previous retirement articles, I also extolled the virtues of travel, and of doing it sooner rather than later, although I certainly recognize that there are differences in what people can afford to spend on vacations and a variety of other factors. Given my health setbacks in the last year and a half, I feel even more strongly about doing it now.

I have actually followed my own advice with regard to travel. For example, in the fall of 2007, we and two other couples from Denver spent three weeks visiting Rome, Venice and the Greek Isles.

Rome was breathtaking! We were only there long enough to scratch the surface, but our itinerary included the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, and the Colosseum. We spent more than half a day on a guided tour of the Vatican by a former Boston College professor who had quit her tenured position to move to the Eternal City, and knew absolutely everything about St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, etc. The only problem: She was so tiny that if we lost sight of her for a minute we had trouble finding her again, even when she was waving her sign as far as possible above her head.

Greece was another marvel, from the lovely, bone-dry islands of Mykonos and Santorini, with their rolling hills and distinctive white-washed buildings with blue trim, to the remarkable ruins of the Parthenon in Athens, and the island of Katakalon, site of the original Olympics, which barely escaped the wildfires that were scorching much of the country at that time. Yes, I did have to sprint a few yards for the photographic record. Then we got to tour the magnificent Olympia Archaeological Museum.

Perhaps most remarkable of all was the city of Venice. We were told that no ship larger than the Emerald Princess had ever sailed into Venice, and Venetians lined the bridges and walkways to greet us, smiling and waving. It is truly like no other place in the world, with its romantic gondolas navigating the canals, along with water taxis and water buses; the Bridge of Sighs and the Rialto Bridge; and the city’s hub, Saint Mark’s Square, featuring the Doge’s Palace, the stunningly beautiful Saint Mark’s Basilica, and virtually every pigeon not living in New York City. All of that and gelato, too!

While the Euro was not our friend this time around, the trip, which combined history lesson after history lesson with magnificent scenery, was certainly worthwhile.

I had also mentioned in previous articles how important I think it is for retirees to be engaged in activities about which they are enthusiastic. It may involve paid or unpaid work (i.e., there are always charitable organizations looking for volunteers), hobbies, or some combination thereof.

I had spent virtually my whole Federal career in human resources (HR) management, and enjoyed most aspects of that career field, from seemingly being in the middle of everything to having the chance to help managers, supervisors and employees. But during my Congressional Fellowship, and for the next nine years after that, I was heavily involved in the National Park Service’s natural resources program. It was such a perfect fit for me that I could not wait to get up each morning and start working with my colleagues and with park managers and staff on issues related to identifying and preserving natural sounds. At the end of each day I felt that I had made a positive contribution to the national parks, and I felt very good about that.

I was fortunate enough to continue doing that work until roughly the end of 2003, when the program was reorganized, some key people retired or moved to other offices, and a conscious, and perfectly logical, decision was made to spend the program’s very limited funds on force account employees rather than contractors. I have been working primarily as an HR consultant and trainer since then, with occasional opportunities to do natural resources assignments. I will continue to do the HR work, but now it appears I’ll get the chance to do volunteer work with the park service’s natural resources program, and I have resumed active involvement with the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees; the mission of the Coalition is to support the National Park System and the employees who carry it out.

Since I have been contacted by so many readers in recent weeks about my retirement articles that I’ve decided to write additional updates as developments warrant or as ideas that seem worth sharing occur to me.

About the Author

Steve Oppermann completed his Federal career on March 31, 1997, after more than 26 years of service, virtually all in human resources management. He served as Regional Director of Personnel for GSA and advised and represented management in six agencies during his federal career. Steve passed away after a battle with cancer on December 22, 2013.