Fun and practical ways to enhance your retirement years without breaking the bank.
This blog is usually about serious financial topics — saving, investing, retiring, real estate, health care, insurance. So it’s time for me to lighten up! Given the season, I thought I’d review some favorite “toys” from my early retirement years. Many of these also make great retirement gifts….
We have spent some money in retirement. You’ve got to consume to live. But I’m incapable of opening my wallet without thinking about why I’m spending, and whether I’ll get good value for my dollars. I’ve learned that the size of an expense is often inversely related to the satisfaction received. I seem to get as much enjoyment from a new book or outdoor gear as some people do from an expensive vehicle or home.
If there is a theme to purchases for myself or others it would probably be education and experience versus entertainment or “stuff.” Research continues to show that experiences make us happier than things.
And there is more to retirement than just planning, budgeting, and investing. Those activities are a sideshow to the main event, which is to be happy, have fun, and try something new with this portion of our lives. Sometimes you have to spend a little to get there….
What better symbol of retirement freedom than a bicycle? In our urban retirement location we bought my wife Caroline a dedicated “townie” bike, as one of her retirement gifts, so she wouldn’t need to use her high-end mountain bike for short trips around town. The townie is easy to get on/off, lets you sit comfortably upright, and has amenities like saddlebags and lights. She loves it for short runs to the community garden or grocery store. She chose a Jamis Explorer 2 — red of course, but there are many other candidates. Jamis, with a long history in producing cruiser and townie bikes, has been a favorite of ours for their practical designs, and good value for the money.
What if you’re a couple committed to a frugal one-vehicle lifestyle but you occasionally need a 2nd vehicle for longer trips across town? Trips involving hills or distances or time constraints where pure pedal-power isn’t enough? Uber or Zipcar are options, but may not work as well in small towns or rural locations. You could buy a motorcycle or scooter — time-tested options for economical urban transportation. But what if you want a lightweight, inexpensive solution that doesn’t require licensing and insurance? In that case, how about an electric bike?
Electric bikes have come a very long way. They are poised to overtake low-end motorbikes and scooters with a cleaner, simpler, cheaper option. My top-of-the line kit from E-BikeKit features a burley 500W geared motor and 48V Lithium battery. It can go 25 mph on the flat for 20 miles, and recharges in a few hours. How does it work? The company sends you a replacement wheel, with the motor incorporated into the hub, plus the battery, and necessary wiring and connectors. If you’re familiar with bikes and all goes smoothly, you can do the conversion in an afternoon. In my case, there were some custom fit and electrical issues, so it took me longer. But my ultimate e-bike runs great, and I love it!
Luggage and Packs
Most people plan to travel more in retirement, and we’re no exception. The majority of our trips involve camping, but we do more traditional excursions as well. For those I replaced my tired old luggage with the Travelpro Maxlite Expandable Rollaboard. And the same model in a different color became another one of Caroline’s retirement gifts. It’s a good value, well-designed, and rugged. And it’s just the right size to serve all of our conventional travel needs — from a weekend getaway in the car, to a weeklong plane trip back east.
But my preferred mode of travel is by foot or bike. For those trips, a backpack is essential. I’ve used dozens over the years. My current favorite for around town and short day trips is the amazing Tom Bihn Synapse 19. When I first saw this pack recommended, I was skeptical. Tom Bihn is a small company. They don’t have a familiar “outdoor” pedigree. And, you can’t even buy their products on Amazon! But hold one of these packs in your hands, and the quality speaks for itself. Impeccable design and construction. Streamlined and weatherproof, yet easy to use, and spacious. The pocket arrangement is brilliant, creating space out of thin air, letting me efficiently organize all my traveling essentials.
For longer outdoor trips I choose one of my two lightweight Osprey packs: the Exos 58 or the Talon 33, depending on length and logistics. I’m a fan of light and ultralight backpacking. Paring back on weight makes each step a joy and lets you think less about your “stuff” and more about the experience of moving through the backcountry. Of the major outdoor gear companies, Osprey seems the most seriously committed to manufacturing very light packs. My Exos is less than 2-1/2 pounds, the Talon just 2. Both are loaded with features and carry lots of gear, well, for several pounds less than the packs of yesteryear!
I wouldn’t dare advise anybody on fashion. Clothing could be among the riskier retirement gifts! Still, I’ve discovered a few functional items in the wardrobe department that I can’t help but mention:
It’s no simple matter to find a presentable hat that can truly stand up to the elements and abuse that outdoor travel can dish out. The best marriage of protection, longevity, and style that I’ve found to date is my trusty Tilley Endurables Airflo Hat. This marvel of modern materials and old-world craftsmanship is hand-made in Canada. If the style and size work for you, you won’t find a higher-quality, more durable 3-season headpiece anywhere.
When the weather is cold and warmth-to-weight is your main consideration, a down sweater or parka is the best answer. I especially like to carry one of these stuffed in the bottom of my pack during any active adventure with potentially cold temperatures at camps or rest stops. There is nothing like featherweight goose or duck down to ward off the incipient chill. A standout for delivering state-of-the-art warmth at very low weight and reasonable cost is Montbell. I own both their EX Light Down Jacket (apparently discontinued in favor of the Superior Down Jacket) and their amazing Mirage Parka, which, for well under a pound either way, cover me from a range of temperatures in the 40’s down into the teens. Being toasty warm in the great outdoors is one of the greatest retirement gifts!
I was reintroduced to the humble umbrella by lightweight adventuring pioneer Ray Jardine. After encounters with driving rain and baking sun in the western wilderness, I’ve grown to appreciate the merits. My current favorite model for outdoor adventure is the euroSCHIRM Swing Liteflex Trekking Umbrella. This half-pound wonder is constructed of very strong fiberglass and reflective nylon. It will turn away the most searing sunshine, and stand up to the heaviest rain and wind. But, always keep a hand through the wrist loop in a bad storm: I nearly lost my Liteflex over a cliff in Glacier National Park, before learning that lesson!
I am an Amazon fan. I’ve used them for books and music since they were a tiny, visionary Internet startup. As a software engineer, I’m in awe of their online and backend systems. Smart shopping carts, one-click ordering, consolidated shipments, on-demand printing. Amazon sweats the details as no retail company ever has. And they’re just darned convenient. Driving out for routine shopping is so 20th century.
Amazon Prime is the backbone of your relationship with Amazon. I was a relative latecomer to the service, but, after experiencing it now, have no trouble justifying the $99 annual fee. For starters, Prime gets you free 2nd-day shipping on most orders. Gone are concerns about consolidating your orders to save on shipping costs: let Amazon’s systems take care of order optimization. Prime also entitles you to an ever-growing library of free media: movies, music, and books.
Amazon also had the vision and financial clout to become a leading producer of consumer electronics. The company pioneered the first truly useable, mass market electronic book, the Kindle. Whether or not the company endures, that accomplishment alone will likely go down in the history books.
I’m an avid reader. Given that retirees have more time on their hands, books make excellent retirement gifts. I’m usually working through a half-dozen titles. I bought one of the earlier Kindles and it revolutionized my reading. I could have all my books with me in one slim volume that fit easily into my day pack. I could get new books instantaneously, and they took up no space. So I read more, and more widely, than ever before. When tablet computers came out I was seduced for a few years by an Android model. But, ultimately, the tablet didn’t add enough value over my smartphone, for the trouble of maintaining another full computing device. So I’ve returned to a trusty Kindle Paperwhite. Compared to a tablet, the Kindle is optimized for reading, has superior battery life, and doesn’t require constant security updates.
Earlier this year, plagued by a slow and buggy smart TV, we tried Amazon’s Fire TV Stick. We watch very little video, a few hours/week, so the cost and overhead had to be very low for us to take the plunge. The Fire TV Stick instantly doubled or tripled the speed of navigating and streaming movies and TV shows to our big screen. And it’s far more reliable than our smart TV. As an added bonus we get easy access to all our free Prime content, and even to our photo albums, via Amazon’s Cloud Drive.
Other Fun Retirement Gifts
Finally, a couple of modest retirement gifts are reminders that fun and romance can come in small, cheap packages…
My favorite true “toy” of the last year is this very cheap, simple Juggling Ball + Instructional Video set. Teach yourself to juggle in 30 minutes! Or not. In my case, it’s been more like 30 days, and I’m still not very good. But, in retirement, it’s important to take on new challenges, big or small, to keep learning. Juggling is great fun, and a good way to get your body, and brain, moving in different directions.
My favorite home “furnishing” of recent times is equally inexpensive, a set of Flameless LED Candles. There is nothing like soft candlelight for relaxing in the evening after a long day of doing just about anything. Real candles are classic, of course, but they make a mess, and can start a house fire. These modern alternatives turn on/off with a small switch, run for days, and are virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. Now you can have candles anywhere in the house, and use them often!
So, those are some of my favorite ideas for good values in retirement gifts. Whether it’s a fun new bicycle, an efficient backpack, a cozy warm jacket, a page-turner digital book, or a small toy to light your life, there are any number of fun and practical ways to enhance your retirement years without breaking the bank!
Darrow Kirkpatrick is a software engineer and author who lived frugally, invested successfully, and retired in 2011 at age 50. He writes regularly about saving, investing and retiring on his blog CanIRetireYet.com.