Barbara shares: “I know it’s hard for people in their 20s and 30s to think about retirement, but if you do have an employer with retirement programs, take the time to learn about how they could benefit you in the future.”

Barbara Dillon, 69, didn’t start thinking about her own retirement until her mid-40s.

At the time, she and her husband, Craig Smithson, were running their own business: an organizational management consulting service that engaged with state and local municipalities. Though she loved the work, and numerous opportunities to travel the United States, Barbara says Smithson/Dillon Associates felt the strain of uncertainty that often comes with sole proprietorship.

“Because it was just the two of us,” Barbara remembers, “we didn’t really have a retirement plan. We decided one of us should start thinking about getting a regular job, with regular benefits, and prepare for [the future].”

For Barbara, that meant taking on the role of Director of Personnel for a city in Southern California. This opportunity sharpened her skills as a negotiator, employee trainer, and human resources professional. Stepping away from her own enterprise, however, was bittersweet.

“My husband and I had worked really well together,” Barbara says, “and I later learned how much he missed me doing my part of the business. My contribution. But at the same time, I was now in a whole other career, negotiating with unions and becoming proficient at it and being recognized as a ‘go-to’ person. There is a large degree of satisfaction in that.”

Barbara’s accelerating proficiency in labor relations, contract negotiations, financial services, and governmental nuance later found her serving as Director of Human Resources for the City of Fairfield, California, where she worked for 15 years. That position offered Barbara opportunities to further solidify her family’s financial security — after all, she was expected to help guide her colleagues through similar challenges.

“Since I was the Human Resources director,” Barbara recalls, “I would work, with whomever the deferred compensation providers were, to provide [financial] education for our employees. Along the way, I became educated as well.”

Just as important, Barbara’s occupation allowed her to lean on a strong network of financial and retirement advisors.

“I developed good relationships with one of the providers, with whom I have my retirement funds and my deferred compensation, my 401a [a retirement savings plan commonly offered to government employees]. I still meet with them once a year.”

In 2012, Barbara retired from her position at the City of Fairfield. Shortly thereafter, Craig retired from Smithson-Dillon Associates. Barbara credits their shared life of better financial security to deliberate forward-thinking.

“We made a choice, a very conscious choice, to pay off our mortgage before I had retired,” Barbara says. “We didn’t want to worry about it once we were both not working, so we paid a little more upfront, and saved more over time, for a 15-year mortgage. That was a great relief, in the end.”

Today, Barbara and Craig have plenty of time to enjoy their favorite hobbies and to travel the world. In May of 2016, they spent a week in Barcelona and another week touring Southern Spain, soaking up art museums, olive groves, and renting an apartment rather than living out of hotels.

“When we go on vacations,” Barbara says, “we try to do a lot of them on our own, instead of with big tour groups. We like trips where we can do a lot of traveling and walking around. As long as we’re healthy and able to do that, that seems the best to do.”

Back at home in Fairfield, Barbara has immersed herself in watercolor painting and displays her pieces at local art shows. Although she says she still takes on short-term, interim Human Resources assignments and provides consulting services, she now can work “based on [her] own choice” and encourages others to begin their retirement planning as soon as possible.

“I know it’s hard for people in their 20s and 30s to think about retirement,” Barbara says, “but if you do have an employer with retirement programs, take the time to learn about how they could benefit you in the future. At least learn about them, even if you decide not to participate yet.”

Retirement tips from Barbara, after a career in HR:

  • Take advantage of payroll deductions for retirement plans

  • Learn about plans offered by your employer

  • Learn about contribution levels, especially if you are over 50

  • If possible, do not withdraw retirement funds

  • When relocating for a new job, carefully consider the housing market at the time of your potential move and projected consider the possible gains and losses

  • Try to pay off your mortgage

  • Take time to develop your interests, so you look forward to fully enjoying your retirement

About plynty Americans aren’t doing enough for retirement planning. Here’s one startling fact: the median retirement savings across all working-age families in the United States is just $5,000.

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