John Arbini doesn’t believe retirement should be taken lightly. It’s something you need to begin preparing for the first day of the first job you have, he says. It will pay off in the long run, says the ex-banker, who fulfilled his goal of retiring before the age of 60 and talks here about how it’s done, how to fill the time and how to maintain domestic tranquility.

Q: Tell us about your background and our career.

A: I grew up in Walla Walla, where my grandfather developed one of the varieties of sweet onions the region has become famous for. I graduated from Whitman College there in 1963 and moved to Seattle to work for Seattle-First National Bank—later Seafirst. I was 22 at the time.

I was with Seafirst through the acquisition by Bank of America and spent a total of 36 years in banking before retiring a month shy of my 58th birthday. I retired in January of 1999 as executive vice president and senior credit officer for Bank of America’s Northwest Region, which included Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska.

My family and I have lived in Lakewood for 27 years and a good part of my career was spent in Tacoma, although I drove back and forth to Seattle for about nine of those years, including the last three. One of the biggest pluses of my retirement has been no more daily round trips to Seattle.

Q: And your family?

A: My wife, Karen, and I were married in 1963. We have three children and two grandchildren, all living in the Puget Sound area.

Q: Was there any particular reason for your retirement at such an early age—other than the fact that you could?

A: I was very fortunate in that regard. One of my goals had always been to retire by age 60 if I could. I was able to do so earlier because of the benefits accrued as a result of the merger of Nations Bank with Bank of America and, of course, the strength of the market over the last several years.

Q: What do you consider to be the secret to successful retirement?

A: Having activities and interests other than work. People whose lives revolve solely around work often have difficulty with retirement because they have nothing to retire to. Days can get awfully long when you only have the stock report on CNN to occupy your time.

Q: What was your best strategy in preparing for retirement?

A: First and foremost, having a financial plan. Without good planning you have no idea what you can or can’t do in retirement.

I can’t say that five years ago I had it planned exactly how it turned out, but you do need to have some idea what you want to do, when you want to do it, and how it’s going to be financed. Planning should also include contingencies for dealing with unexpected circumstances to whatever extent possible.

I was very fortunate with the market and benefits, but the plan was critical. With good planning you have a way of adjusting your expectations. For instance, it can be used to remind you to live below your means along the way so that when retirement does come, you don’t have to dramatically alter your lifestyle. Or it can point out that you’ll have to raise your level of saving to handle it.

Planning brings it all together. If you’re lucky, as I was, you can do it a few years sooner than you anticipated.

Q: What’s important is to focus on the issues and not just drift along.

A: At the very least, you need to know what your retirement benefits are, how they work, where the funds are invested, and how much discretion you have in directing those investments.

If you wait until just before retirement to find out what your benefits are, it’s too late. You need to know early on so if you have higher expectations in retirement you can do something about it— either increase your income or lower the expectations.

I think it’s important to realize that Social Security isn’t an end all security blanket. I am a great fan of George Bush’s proposal to allow Americans to invest a small portion of their social security contributions in the market, not because it’s going to insure that everyone has enough to retire on— it won’t—but because it will increase people’s awareness and provide a broader understanding of the investment options available for them.

Q: If you had to do it over again, what would you do differently?

A: I would have started even sooner than I did making myself aware of my own retirement issues, and would have been more aggressive in my investment decisions 10 or 12 years ago. Of course, hindsight is always 20/20, but when time is on your side your investment strategy can be more aggressive since there’s time to overcome any setbacks along the way. There’s an old saying that says it best, time is your friend and inflation is your enemy, so conservatism in the early stages of retirement planning isn’t in your best interests.

Planning for retirement should actually start the day you go to work. Regardless of whether you are self employed or working for someone else, you should know what’s available to you, understand the options, and maximize the benefit opportunity as soon as possible. In any case, don’t just roll along thinking your benefits will automatically take care of you. That’s the fallacy of Social Security, and you’re not going to do very well if that’s all you’ve got in retirement.

Q: Have you shared this advice with your children?

A: Yes, but they have also been doing an excellent job of looking out for themselves.

Q: How are you occupying your retirement?

A: Karen and I are doing the things we’ve always wanted to do but didn’t have the time before. We’re spending a lot more time with our children and grandchildren, especially the latter. I’m an active tennis player and have been putting more time on the courts.

We just finished building a second home at Sunriver in central Oregon and are spending a lot of time there. The Sunriver home is a retreat of sorts. We wanted a place that would always be there to draw the entire family together. I think we have accomplished that, and are now beginning to enjoy it.

We also enjoy following the Mariners. Karen and I have season tickets and go to as many games as we can. We’ve been going to Phoenix to catch spring training in the past, but this year most of our travel has been back and forth to Sunriver.

Q: Any activities you didn’t anticipate?

A: One of the things I’ve found most enjoyable in retirement is the opportunity to become reacquainted with interests that fell by the wayside as planning for family and career got in the way.

I’ve always had a fascination with World War II aviation. I’ve had it ever since I was a kid.

As a result, I’ve become involved in the Olympic Flight Museum at the Olympia Regional Airport. Not as much as I would like just yet because of the Sunriver project, but hope to be doing more soon. They have a number of flyable World War II ‘Warbirds,’ including a P -51 Mustang and a Corsair, two of the most recognizable aircraft of the war, as well as several other vintage airplanes.

The museum has over 500 members. During the winter they have a featured plane event each month. Veterans who flew them come and describe their experiences and we all get misty eyed

The museum also has a great educational project underway. They are in the process of restoring the fuselage and cockpit of a T-28 trainer from shortly after the war that will be mounted on a trailer so it can be taken to schools and other appropriate locations where young people can actually experience an airplane of this type first hand. I’m especially interested because it helps perpetuate aviation history and heritage.

Q: Do you fly?

A: No. I suppose you would classify me as an avid passenger. Get me up in the air and I can keep us there, but you don’t want me landing or taking off.

Q: You were active in civic affairs throughout your career. Is that still the case?

A: My civic activities have tailed off as other activities have begun to fill the available time.

I serve on the Lakewood Mayor’s Select Committee on Economic Development , the finance committee at St. Joseph Medical Center, and Tacoma-Pierce County Economic Development Board, where I have emeritus status.

Q: What does emeritus status mean?

A: It means that I don’t represent anyone anymore, but I’ve been around long enough that they don’t mind me attending meetings and helping where I can. They just don’t let me vote.

Q: What aren’t you getting done in retirement that you wished you could do?

A: The one thing that I miss most in retirement is the loss of contact with many of the acquaintances, customers, and professional colleagues that comes with 36 years in banking.

Q: How has retirement affected you on a personal level?

A: Well I’m certainly not as well organized as I was when I had an administrative assistant to help me keep track of where I needed to be and what I needed to do. However, I’m now able to do the things I want to do, when I want to do them. I like that!