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Economic reality dulls golden years

At a certain age, folks like digging numbers like these out of the paper: Colgate Value 2-Pack, $3.49. Cheerios, 4 for $11. Buy One Haagen-Dazs Cone, Get One Free.

But on the front pages all last week, they found a number they've rarely seen apart from galactic distances. It was the number 7, followed by 00,000,000,000.

The impossible 7 and 11 zeroes cast long shadows over their retirement nest eggs.

Financial planners talked a few away from the cliff. But for the most part, says Ray Ferrara, CEO of ProVise Management Group in Clearwater, planners heard more common sense and far less panic from people with their dreams at stake than they did from big shots on Wall Street and Capitol Hill.

We spent Thursday with three people of that certain age — a day in which congressional leaders threw tantrums at the White House and the Treasury secretary dropped to one knee to beg for a rescue for the teetering economy. The day closed with no solutions.

Far away, on the first cool morning of the fall in the Tampa Bay area, the retired, nearly retired and formerly retired worked to find their own answers.

John Barry, Times Staff Writer

Time to relearn the patience to parent

VALRICO — On Thursday morning at 6:30, Oscar Osborn eats his cold cereal. The day's headline lies beside his bowl. Bush: Bailout Needed ASAP. Oscar Osborn's starched white shirt is still untucked. He is thinking about where he was supposed to be this morning.

He's 63. He was supposed to be retired. He was supposed to be in a pair of swim trunks, two bucks in his pocket. He was supposed to be looking out on a beach horizon painted indigo ink, in the dark, just before sunrise. He was supposed to be hearing the crash of breakers, the cries of the gulls.

Osborn looks up from his bowl. How he loves the sounds of the sea in the dark.

"The sound of peace."

But he is at home at 6:30 because his grandchildren need him. Remy, 12, and Alexis, 16, moved in almost three years ago. Osborn and his wife, Carolyn, put their retirement on a five-year hold. He kept on as a financial adviser in Brandon.

He finishes his cereal, tucks in his dress shirt, swallows his "old man pills" and sets off to school with Alexis. He has hardly glanced at the headline.

There are more important things than money.

"The worst you can come out is broke."

His clients with retirement accounts are scared. A client calls, tells him, "Let's sell something!"

"What do you want to sell?"

"You tell me."

Osborn is not about to quote them the Bible, but he is a Baptist deacon who favors the 27th Psalm: For in the time of trouble, the Lord shall hide me in his sanctuary.

He has memorized most of the values of his clients' accounts. Each day he checks them against swings. He has done some shrewd bottom feeding. He bought bailed-out, be-damned AIG at $2.18. It shot to $4.60.

He thinks a bailout is the right thing to do, but is skeptical that Washington understands why it's right. He wishes the two presidential candidates would debate economists, rather than each other.

The sanctuary of the 27th Psalm means many things to him: financial harbors for aspiring retirees; the shelter he offers his two grandchildren.

The boy Remy plays Beethoven on the piano in the living room. Alexis can text-message in her sleep. Their favorite phrase is "Granddaddy, let's …" As in let's go play, let's go swim, let's go shop.

He has returned to the gym three times a week to stay strong enough to keep up.

He is relearning the patience of parenting. "What used to drive me up a wall now drives me to a chair."

He understands the patience required to ride out a Wall Street disaster, the patience to wait for a deferred retirement, for that sound on a beach in the dark, that sound of peace.

John Barry, Times Staff Writer

Fewer times to take the boat out

CLEARWATER — Last week they chose Thursday.

They met on the dock behind their condos just before 10 a.m., wearing long-sleeved shirts and Hemingway hats. Roy Slade started the engine while his wife, Agnes, settled in on the front seat. Their neighbor, Skip Hogan, untied the lines.

"We'll be going into the wind," Roy said. "That won't help with the gas."

Last year, Roy and Agnes escaped on Blue, their 17-foot boat, almost every day. They would head to Caladesi Island, run the rim of Honeymoon Island, traverse the Intracoastal Waterway.

This was what they had worked for all those years: the slap of the waves beneath their bow, the world left behind in their choppy wake.

On this morning, Washington is in chaos. The economy is tilting at the edge of the abyss. For the Slades, there is not much to do but watch and see. Diesel is near $4 a gallon. Their retirement income doesn't stretch nearly as far. But the choices are not yet dire. Go out for burgers? Or take out the boat?

They know they're lucky. They are not poor. Just careful.

They've cut back to one trip a week. They cruise more slowly, worry about headwinds, turn back after an hour. They started getting their books and movies from the library. And they almost always eat at home.

"You know," Agnes said, sounding wistful, "we haven't been to Caladesi since June."

Roy, 75, is an artist and lecturer — the former director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Agnes, 69, was a financial developer for artistic institutions. They raised three children and worked together for more than a decade.

In 1994, Roy retired at 62. He and Agnes traded their 5,800-square-foot house for a 40-foot live-aboard power boat.

Agnes put most of their savings in an annuity. They had no mortgage or credit card debt, so they left a little in stocks, and watched it multiply.

Dividends kept the boat afloat. Diesel, back then, cost $1 a gallon.

For six years, they cruised: to Canada, then south to Florida. In 2001, their dividends dwindled while gas and marina fees spiked. So they anchored off Clearwater and traded their big boat for a one-bedroom condo and the little boat, Blue. It's too small to take out all four grandkids.

At the marina, a fleet of fishing boats tugged against their moorings.

"Why aren't the charter boats out?" Agnes asked.

Roy shook his head. "No one can afford to book them."

The sun was high when Roy turned the boat around. Agnes peered over his shoulder, tasting the salt spray. Soon, the wind was at their backs, shoving them toward reality.

Lane DeGregory, Times Staff Writer. Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Time to go back for a paycheck

ST. PETERSBURG — A widow lies awake in the house she cannot sell. She sells houses, but not her own, not in this market, not for the past eight months.

She worries.

The house is beautiful. Three bedrooms, two baths, frangipani tree blooming over the front walkway, backyard a manicured jungle surrounding an in-ground pool. Hammock strung from two coconut palms. Usually empty.

George used to lie in that hammock, back when they were retired. They had traveled the world together. He flew the planes and she served the drinks. Taipei, Vienna, Paris. Mussels and champagne in Seattle. They finished their work and sailed around for a while and came ashore on the edge of the gulf.

They relaxed for a few years and then got into real estate near the height of the market. George Arkebauer said he could stay in the house for the rest of his life. He did.

Smoking can kill you, even if you don't smoke. George Arkebauer didn't. People on the airplanes did. The lung cancer struck quickly. In 2006 he was gone.

The widow is Suzi Arkebauer, 60 years old, and when she lies awake, she worries about money. She hopes it will last as long as she does.

George had a life insurance policy, but it vanished when USAirways went bankrupt. He had an IRA, and they lived off the interest. He managed all the money. When he died she learned a few things. She was too young to pull out money without a tax penalty, or to keep drawing his Social Security. She learned that money can melt away overnight because of something someone does halfway around the world.

She hid the savings in a money market account, shielded from the tremors of Wall Street, not really shrinking, not really growing. She knew it would need a supplement.

Suzi Arkebauer came out of retirement to sell real estate. On Thursday afternoon, under clouds like powdered sugar, she hit the accelerator on her white Nissan Murano and chugged down the Pinellas Bayway.

"It's amazing what opportunities are out there," she said, even though she sometimes goes months without a sale, the market being what it is these days.

She pulled up to a one-story house in Tierra Verde for a walk-through. She joined her colleague Tom Young in the living room.

"Maybe you could get 500 on it and go down from there," she said.

"I think she'll take 450," Young said.

Arkebauer drove around the corner to her own house, with the For Sale sign. She has had one offer.

"It was so low it was unbelievable."

She walked out to the pool.

"I mean, we really liked relaxing," she said. "We really knew how to be retired."

She walked inside, to the study, where George's pilot hat sat on a high shelf. She pulled down a picture of him and her holding each other in the white shallows of the Bahamas.

She stared for a moment, and put it back on the shelf.

Thomas Lake, Times Staff Writer

Economic reality dulls golden years 09/26/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 1, 2008 3:02pm]
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