Words of Wisdom

Some advice and insight from my aunt and uncle, who have been retired from federal service for more than three decades.

Do you ever wonder what retirement will be like? Last weekend I had the pleasure of spending time with my father's brother, Steve Kukic (who is a young 85), and his (even younger) wife, Helena. They retired as civilian federal employees from Edwards Air Force Base in the mid-1970s. Uncle Steve spent much of his federal career as a supervisory electronics technician and also was an air traffic controller. Aunt Helena worked as a management analyst in the accounting division.

When Uncle Steve and Aunt Helena went to Edwards in 1952, they were pioneers of a sort, looking for a better life for their family. Very few people were willing to work for Uncle Sam in the harsh conditions of the Mojave Desert, where the base is located. I've always admired their spirit and noticed the way the federal government provided a life that appeared very comfortable and rewarding as their careers progressed. Their lives even seemed a little glamorous, compared to mine in a small steel town near Pittsburgh as the daughter of a hard-working truck driver and a beautician. My uncle and aunt were an inspiration to me and provided a major impact on the decisions I made in my life.

I thought it might be interesting to find out what they did to prepare for their retirement 30 years ago and also to get a snapshot of a retirement phase that now has lasted longer than many federal careers.

Living Within Their Means

When I asked them what they did to get ready for retirement, though, I was met with puzzled stares. It turns out there wasn't much planning involved. There was no such thing as a pre-retirement seminar at that time.

A chronic back problem caused Aunt Helena to retire in 1976 with 23 years' service under disability provisions of the Civil Service Retirement System. Two years later, Uncle Steve retired at 55 with 30 years' service, including three years in the Army as a veteran of World War II. They lived within their means during their careers, so they made the adjustment to retirement without financial struggles, even though their youngest son, David, was only 12 years old. They had paid off their $16,000 mortgage, and still live in the same house today. (Their property taxes were frozen years ago under California's Proposition 13). They're able to save some of their retirement benefit each month in case of a home repair or other emergency.

Aunt Helena and Uncle Steve both had worked outside government prior to their federal careers, so they had earned some Social Security quarters of coverage. Aunt Helena went to work part-time at a Western clothing store after her retirement to secure the credits she was missing to qualify for Social Security benefits. Uncle Steve moonlighted at a furniture store at the beginning of his federal career, so he also had earned enough credits to qualify for a small Social Security benefit. They use some of their combined benefits to cover the cost of Medicare Part B insurance.

My aunt and uncle are grateful that cost of living increases under CSRS have enabled them to meet their day-to-day expenses without having to dip into savings. Their benefits have more than doubled from when they first retired because of COLA adjustments.

Making Adjustments

Living close by their youngest son and his family has provided Uncle Steve and Aunt Helena not only with the joy of helping with the grandchildren, but with a few day-to-day benefits as well. David is available to help with some of the maintenance for their single-family home. My uncle and aunt live in a one-story ranch style house that has no steps, and they've installed grab bars in the showers and replaced appliances. So, for the time being at least, two 80-somethings can live independently in the home.

They take advantage of transportation vouchers provided by their local agency on aging. Aunt Helena has been a volunteer at the local hospital for more than 30 years, and knows the doctors and staff well. When she and Uncle Steve need medical services, there is a sense of familiarity and trust.

Uncle Steve says it took awhile to adjust to retirement, because he enjoyed his work so much. To this day, his face lights up when he reminisces about his days on the base. But he's almost made a second career of golf, and still plays several times a week. Aunt Helena had an easier adjustment, since she stayed busy raising David. Having worked full-time when raising their older son, Steven, it was a joy to be able to be a full-time homemaker and mom.

Today, Aunt Helena and Uncle Steve still are active in their local Greek Orthodox church. They're also members of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association. And Aunt Helena stays busy with a local women's group that focuses on community service.

I hope hearing a little more about the lives of these two dedicated civil servants inspires you, too. With a little preparation and realistic expectations about what life after government is like, retirement can be a time of joy and fulfillment.

Tammy Flanagan is the senior benefits director for the National Institute of Transition Planning Inc., which conducts federal retirement planning workshops and seminars. She has spent 25 years helping federal employees take charge of their retirement by understanding their benefits.

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