One morning earlier this summer one of my sons got an email from the National Park Service informing him that he had won a lottery for a permit allowing him to hike up Half Dome in Yosemite National Park—the next day. Michael didn't waste a second. He got in touch with a hiking buddy right away, did what he needed to do to get ready, packed up his gear and hopped in a car for the long drive around lunchtime and headed north.
The Half Dome granite crest, shown above, is probably Yosemite's most iconic formation. It rises nearly 5,000 feet above the valley floor and to nearly 9,000 feet above sea level. It is even featured on the logos of The North Face, Sierra Designs and Mountain Khakis outdoor product companies.
The pictures make the entire prospect seem incredibly daunting and, as a parent, I confess that I was more than a bit concerned for my son's safety even though he is a very experienced hiker and climber and is in excellent condition. Even so, and despite an 1865 report declaring that Half Dome was “perfectly inaccessible, being probably the only one of the prominent points about the Yosemite which never has been, and never will be, trodden by human foot,” thousands of people can now reach the summit via an arduous but manageable trail that gains 4,800 feet in elevation. Michael started up around 1 a.m.—to beat some questionable weather forecast for later in the day—and reached the summit around sunrise (see the pics nearby—that's him).
For my son, what was to be a taxing 16 mile hike became 20 miles and a bunch of added elevation due to a wrong turn in the dark. The final 400 feet up are via cables so that rock climbing equipment isn't required and not permitted when wet on account of the danger. It's pretty scary and often pretty much straight up.
The trek was tough and difficult but he made it unscathed. It was incredibly memorable for him. Yet Half Dome was hardly “perfectly inaccessible.”
All of which gets me to my point (besides how proud I am of my son). The popular press is awash in regular reports describing a “retirement crisis” in America. Recent pieces by the Harvard Business Review, the CFA Institute, The New York Times, the National Institute on Retirement Security, USA Today, Forbes and Money magazine all make the same general point. I have made the same point. (However: The extent of the crisis may be overstated, as a recent Towers Watson paper argues.)
But perhaps more importantly, the nature of the crisis and its reporting can make the prospect of a secure retirement seem “perfectly inaccessible.” The 2008-09 financial crisis and huge market losses have had a related effect on many, especially the young.
The truth is much more prosaic. Retirement planning—indeed, all financial planning—is very tough and is difficult at every level. It takes significant personal sacrifice and being psychologically strong when our emotions are screaming at us to do otherwise. Thinking about a future that is years or even decades away is exceedingly challenging for most of us, for whom lunch is a long-range plan. But good retirement planning isn't “perfectly inaccessible.”
Simply stated, good planning requires saving more and living more frugally. It requires difficult choices. The earlier good habits are developed, the better, obviously. But everyone at any age can make significant improvements to their situation by getting to it right away. For financial professionals, this fact should undergird much of what we do. People need help. There is no time to waste.
For those of you who are planning for retirement—which should be every adult not yet retired—consider this the notification that you’ve won a lottery and that a trail permit in your name has been issued—for right now. Half Dome may not await, but a healthy financial future does. Go for it.