The Dream of Life in the South

I originally wrote this a few months ago and filed it away thinking that I had scheduled it to publish when I had only saved it as a draft.  Coming upon it today I decided that the content is still worth sharing even if we have already finished the events which gave rise to penning the post in the first place. I hope you find some value in it. 

When we were in our 40’s we knew several older couples who, upon retirement sold up everything and moved South:  to Florida, to Texas, to Arizona.  A few years later almost all of them had returned to the chilly climes of Wisconsin having found that their “drean” of what life would be like in the South proved to be an illusion, an apparition, and a bust.

Our course of action was a bit different, going RV’ing wasn’t quite the same  but in many ways our net-result will be the same.  We will have had a blast chasing around the country exploring but bottom line is that we’ll end up pretty close to where we were in the first place.

I for one don’t take that as a failure — which I’ll explain in a moment — but I do think that it typifies one only-too-common reality of retirement in the 21st Century.

When we bought our 6500 Sq Ft school we bought it to serve a dual purpose:  residential space and studio space for my photography business.  It served both those purposes well and we were happy there. But don’t be confused — being “happy there” did not mean that we ever planned on that being our long term residence.  We knew before we put an offer down on the property that this would not be our retirement home:

  • It was way too large for us — with 21 rooms a person could get lost, and certainly a person could have a fall and not be discovered for hours.
  • Maintenance and upkeep would be far too expensive for our retirement income
  • Snow removal in particular was way too much to expect someone in advancing years to manage
  • And finally, the building was zoned in such a way that converting to to alternative uses would be problematic at best, so no mother-in-law apartment or multi-family use.

We entered into our residence there knowing that at or around retirement we were going to want to make some change.  At the time we had not considered RV’ing — that plan came along shortly before retirement — but we knew it wasn’t going to be our Utopia.

RV’ing gave us the opportunity to experiment with different parts of the country.  We restricted our travels to areas we might consider for longer term habitation.  As a result we didn’t visit some of the U.S.; and we never even took our RV into Canada or Mexico — those were never on the list of possibles.

The decision to give a try to S. Texas came as a logical follow-on from what had gone before.  I have never done well in extreme heat — we knew this before we decided to give Texas a try as Winter Texan home owners.  But the only way we would know for sure whether this sort of set-up for the rest of our retirement was better than where we left was to give it a try. Which we did.  Long story short — we found it didn’t work for us — so we turned over a new chapter and we laid out the fleece to see what would come next.

The real topic this morning is that there is no Utopia; no perfect place; no flawless solution.  There are always compromises. Life is compromise.  And it’s ridiculous to think that we will always pick the best possible solution to every situation.

A high school classmate of mine is married to a person who goes through life trying to make that “perfect” decision  every time they make a decision. Never once is there a decision seen as being an interim decision; it is always assumed that the decision is once and for all times.  And every single time a decision is reach — after long and arduous consideration — there is always that little niggling thing that points-a-finger at the flaw in their reason and says, “This wasn’t quite the perfect decision.”  I have met this person; have sat at their table and broken bread with them; I have slept in their guest room; and never have I ever met a person as profoundly disappointed with life and disillusioned with everyone as this partner.  I almost cry every time I have left that house, feeling bad that anyone should have to live such a miserable existence, and astonished that anyone would choose to live with such a sad-sack.  Ahhh…. but we all have a right to our own choices and those two made theirs a long time ago.

I think there is a strong tendency for retirees to want to think of their retirement plans as necessarily being “once-and-for-all.”   Retirement income is seen as fixed — although I take exception with that from the standpoint that everyone I know lives with a fixed income all their life:  no one I know has an unlimited trust fund.  We all have to live on the amount we make weekly.  We can budget however we want and we can hope for merit increases, or promotions, but the fact of the matter is that until we receive that merit increase or promotion our income is fixed at the level it is.  Still, us retirees like to play the fixed-income card and most of us are pretty good at it.

People don’t normally buy and sell houses on a whim.  We didn’t go out and buy an RV on a whim.  We did so because we thought there was a good reason for change.

But let’s think about that good reason for a change, for just a moment.  When we move we do more than move houses.  We change our circle of friends.  We change our tax status.  We change our voting status.  We need to go in search of replacement doctors, lawyers, plumbers, locksmiths.  We need to find new grocery stores and restaurant.  We need to become accustomed to a potentially different climate, or seasons, or culture.

The change we seek can — and often does — turn out to be extremely complex, far reaching, and it takes more time than any of us anticipate.  I sometimes find myself amused by full time RV’ers who make a big deal talking about  selecting a domicile state — and as you may know there are limited choices if you want to be “domiciled” in state that is tax favorable to retirees, where you can get health insurance if you aren’t yet Medicare age, and auto licensed.  There aren’t a lot of retiree “desirable” states and even among those there are cases where the state you used to live in comes after you saying that you aren’t really a resident there and you owe them taxes — Wisconsin is one of those, it looks unkindly on Wisconsin residents who attempt to evade taxes by “relocating” on paper to South Dakota in particular.

The thing is, living in a place is not the same as visiting.  We can get a good idea about a new location by spending time there but until one has been boots-on-the-ground for an extended time all of our “takes” on life there are are just points-in-time. They are not reflective of what it really means to “live” there.

One of the reasons we chose to purchase a mobile home in an RV park  — aside from the fact that we liked the park and we liked that mobile home — was that this was a “move” we could make with relatively little risk. It’s not the same as spending 5x-10x as much on a full fledged sticks & bricks home.   We were willing to say “we don’t need a fancy house,”  we can “risk” this much money on a mobile home that we may be perfectly happy with, or which might prove to be a big mistake.

There is a couple here who are living in the park year round in a 5th wheel travel trailer.  I admire them for having the gumption to try that.  But I know we would not have been happy giving South Texas a “try” or a “test” if we were living in our Class A Motorhome.  Sure, it was a lovely motorhome but it would not have a fair assessment of either South Texas, or RV park mobile home living had we attempted to do so.  So, we put the RV up for sale, knowing that our days of wanting to travel whimsically around the U.S. were over; but also wanting to give this a legitimate try.

I don’t know how many ways there are to “test drive” a state, or a locale.  Some might try renting a condo for an extended time.  I can see that might work for some; but I don’t think it would be a good realistic test of what it’s like to really live there.  Why?

I can only answer that based on my own multiple experiences of moving.  First impressions last a long time. Every single time we have moved — and there have been numerous ones — I have gotten to a point some months after the move when my body sort of acknowledged that fact that this was home.  It never happened on the day we moved in; nor while we were still decorating/painting/remodeling.  Always it happened after the hubbub of settling was over, and the routes to the grocery had become habitual,  and we had already visited the doctor several times.  That feeling of being “home” — whatever that meant to me — came after life had gotten just a little bit boring, beyond the point where we were thinking about it all the time.

In past experience our friends too significantly longer to get to the same point.  In part — I suspect — because they had invested far more in making their move than we.  When they moved they bought property (house & land)  thinking they were going to be there the rest of their lives. In some cases they bought bigger and nicer properties than they had been living in up North.  Thus, when they got to a point that their decision to move was called into question the risks involved with changing direction (selling up down South and moving all the way back to Wisconsin or some other location) were monumental to people who had over time come to think of themselves as living on a “fixed income.”

These are all common occurrences. Every day retirees decide to move South.  And every day new Southerners decide to move back North.  If that is you rest assured you are in good company. But I suspect that a number of folks going through this look at their situation as being some kind of failure; when it’s nothing more than another life choice.  No one can anticipate every variable; and the idea that any decision we take must be the one and only correct decision is absurd. I don’t know any geniuses, and even geniuses make mistakes.  Perfect decisions are nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed of.  Bad decisions might be costly in dollars — but then most bad decisions are costly — it’s just that many of them don’t have publicly seen consequences and we can hide them from prying eyes.  We can save face.  We can avoid embarrassment for what?  For being human and making a mistake.

I think it’s a good thing to talk about the choices we make.  And the mistakes we make.  Having a more or less public diary is one way to do so, but when you’re having a glass of wine or a bottle of beer with friends it might do everyone good to say, “Oh, let me tell you about the mistake I made.”   You might be surprised at the results.




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