“There has been a lot of moving around, in my career,” says Robert Woodward, 64. “It was not a traditional path.”
That path began, steadily enough, with a bachelor’s degree in geology from the University of Arizona and a summer job at ARCO International Oil & Gas. There, Robert sharpened his skills in mapping and exploration, which helped propel him into graduate work in geology at the University of Southern California in the late 1970s.
“When I was done with school,” Robert remembers, “I found myself back at ARCO. I was an exploration geologist, so the job meant we lived in Anchorage, in Lafayette, in Takarta, in Plano, and in Tunisia.”
All of that exploration made Robert and his wife, Jennifer, 62, uniquely adaptable to change. Jennifer’s career — seasoned with jobs at an Alaskan department of Parks & Recreation, at a legal office, and as a teacher in an American school in Tunisia — matched Robert’s, step for step, as the couple and their two children moved around the world.
“We didn’t think a lot about retirement, then,” Jennifer admits, “but we got more serious [about it] as time went on.”
In the midst of their globe-trotting, Robert wisely took advantage of a 401(k) program that had been established at ARCO only a year after he had joined the company.
“It was a pretty good deal,” Robert remembers, “and very generous. We were broke at the time, and we were paying off credit card debt. But my [ARCO] supervisor basically told me, ‘You’re an idiot. You need to take advantage of this.’”
During the Woodwards’ three-and-a-half years spent living in Indonesia, where cost of living was dramatically lower than in America, the family seized the opportunity to make larger contributions into Robert’s 401(k). Robert now cites that decision as one of their most beneficial financial strategies.
“If we had stayed in the States,” Robert says, “we still would have saved money, but not nearly as much. ARCO was doing pretty well at matching funds, so we just kept at it.”
In 1999, Robert left ARCO, and the family (including Jennifer’s mother, Geneva) moved from Tunisia to Chico, California. There, Jennifer worked at a local bookstore and Robert worked for the city, first as a “meter maid” and then as a Community Services Officer, booking and transporting people to jail. Later, he became a certified crime analyst.
“There’s a lot of data mapping in crime analysis,” Robert says, “so I was able to use some of my previous skills [as a geologist] in my new job. I was doing it in ways they hadn’t done it before, and that’s the kind of thing that makes you feel pretty good.”
In early 2000, “and on a whim,” Robert purchased Apple stock at what he estimates was then $1.18 a share. Today, he describes Apple as “a big chunk” of the Woodwards’ portfolio and says it helped the family ride out the financial recession of 2008 — a recession that prompted some personal introspection.
“During that time, organizations in the city went through a lot of cutbacks,” Robert says. “So after that heated up, we really started thinking, ‘what kind of a life do we want?’”
The answer meant downsizing their belongings and reframing their lives, a task which proved more daunting than expected.
“Every time we would move somewhere, we would accumulate things,” Jennifer admits. “You can get a lot of furniture for cheap in Indonesia.”
Today, the Woodwards draw from individual IRA accounts as well as from a pension provided by Robert’s Chico career, which ended in 2013. In June of 2016, the couple moved to Taos, New Mexico. There, they live with Geneva in a creative co-housing community populated by a colorful cast of artists, writers, and skiers.
“In a more basic American neighborhood, we really didn’t feel much community,” Jennifer says. “But the beauty of a co-housing situation is that you share a lot of common spaces. You come together on workloads or on meals. It’s great.”
After years of globe-trotting, and a few moments of financial uncertainty, Robert and Jennifer have finally slipped happily into a comfortable retirement.
“I could never have expected living in co-housing,” Robert says, “but it works well for us. Some people live to work. We have worked to live.”
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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