Plan Your Great Escape


Plan Your Great Escape

An extremely detailed list provided a road map to this couple's dream retirement.

The "grand funk" descended on Dianne Belk in 1990. Belk owned an engineering company in Los Angeles, and her husband, Larry Calder, owned an import-export business. She remembers thinking, I'm working 1,000 hours a week and my husband is working 1,000 hours a week. How will we know when we're done?

The finish line seemed preordained. "We both had working-class backgrounds," says Belk. "You work until you get your watch at 65, then you sit in your recliner and die."


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She and Calder decided that only a clean break would let them escape that fate. That's when they created a list of things to do to extricate themselves from their complex ties to companies, possessions and habits. And what a list it was: a staggering 4,000 items, many of which covered how to sell their businesses while still in their forties and organize their finances to last a lifetime.

Paring Back

For starters, Belk and Calder decided to leave high-priced California to become residents of Nevada, one of seven states with no broad-based income tax. Now they are residents of Florida, another no-income-tax state.


Once they knew where they would live and how they wanted to spend their time -- mostly traveling and doing volunteer work -- they could work up a financial plan. Using data they had gathered for several years on Quicken, they developed a budget for future expenses. They also consolidated their investments. To simplify their financial picture, the couple winnowed their brokerage accounts from half a dozen each to two apiece. They also reduced their stock portfolios from a total of about 60 companies -- "way too many under any circumstances," says Belk -- to 15 companies each.

The list was also a road map to long-distance caregiving for Belk's mother, who was living on her own in Arizona but was financially dependent on Belk. She and Calder planned an extended getaway to kick off their new lives, so she helped her mother get a credit card, gave her post-dated checks to cover monthly expenses and arranged with a lawyer to provide her mother with extra funds if necessary. "We had a joint account, so I could always wire money if I had to," says Belk.

She and Calder also divided their possessions into "must keep," "sell" and "donate" categories. They ended up keeping china, crystal, silver, paintings, books, photos, wine and some furniture. They thought they'd pruned back considerably. But after traveling extensively, they had their belongings shipped to the house they had recently purchased and promptly said, "What were we thinking?" Says Belk, "We didn't like the furniture, and we didn't need the clothes."

Grand Style

After five years of planning, the couple kicked off their retirement in grand style by circumnavigating the globe on a freighter with just five other passengers. Today, Belk, 60, and Calder, 56, divide their time between volunteer work and play, with an emphasis on the former. They both work with the Gulf Coast Community Foundation of Venice, a major charitable organization that helps fund the arts, education and environmental causes. Both Belk and Calder are private pilots, and they recently took a six-week, cross-country trip in their Piper Archer.

But Belk's main passion is being a trustee for the Ringling College of Art and Design, in Sarasota, where she uses her business experience to help the college's expansion project. Says Belk, "To me, that's not work -- that's fun."