My father had a very short retirement. Healthy his entire life, he worked until he couldn’t. Four months later he died at age 73. My parents came of age in the Great Depression and while they never made a lot of money, they understood the importance of living within their means. They were able to save enough so my dad could buy his own drug store, and a few years later we were even able to buy a small house. They sent me to camp in the summer and paid the college tuition not covered by my partial state scholarship.
After my dad passed away, my mother continued her frugal ways, banking most of her Social Security and her share of my dad’s pension. She found ways to save money that at the time seemed extreme to me, but compared to today’s debt-laden and out-of-control consumers, her behavior was the model of fiscal sanity.
Earlier this year the issue of retirement became personal: I turned 65. While I’m cut from the same cloth as my father, I’m also fortunate to work in a profession I enjoy—one where age and experience are perceived positively. The idea of retirement has not even entered my mind.
Starting very early in my career I had the benefit of a ringside seat to the retirement of one client after another. Most of them went well, others not-so-well and a few were truly tragic. The lessons were not lost on me. As a result, I was determined to structure things so that if and when the day came that I decided to stop working, there would already be enough balance in my life so that the impact would be minor.
These experiences, both personal and professional, incented me to take a more careful look at this major life transition we so casually call retirement, to see if reframing the subject just a bit might help us gain some fresh insight and help us with our decision-making.
The idea that retirement is something that can be achieved without either considerable personal wealth or a lifetime of sacrifice is so recent in historical terms we can say with considerable confidence that it is still an experiment—or at the very least a work in progress.
Retirement is a personal decision with financial consequences. I can’t overemphasize how critical it is to prioritize this correctly.
We have no control over or ability to predict the financial markets, interest rates, the cost of living, the economy or for that matter almost anything else in the general world. But we can control how much we spend.
How recent is our conventional wisdom about retirement? As late as 1940, only 15% of all private-sector workers were covered by any kind of pension. Today nearly 60% of private-sector workers have some kind of pension or retirement savings and over 90% of working Americans will qualify for Social Security benefits.
It is hardly news that there isn’t enough money to pay all the ultimate retirees what they’ve been promised. But the reason for the shortfall is not because interest rates have been too low, or the stock market hasn’t generated attractive enough returns, or pension managers didn’t make the right choices. The simple reason for the shortfall is because individuals, corporations, municipalities and the U.S. government haven’t put aside enough money along the way to cover the future expenses and/or have had unrealistic expectations regarding investment returns. In short, not enough money was put aside for a rainy day.
It seems to me that the most sensible response to this reality is for all of us to actively start working on building a plan B. Whether that means working longer, saving more and/or spending less—it doesn’t matter. The government may come through with the money, or the stock market might bail us out with better returns than we expect. But it’s better to be prepared for a risk that doesn’t actualize than to be unprepared for one that does.
There is no shortage of opinions on how to plan for retirement. But without the right context our ability to choose among the limitless choices is impossible. The proper context is that retirement is first and foremost a personal life decision, albeit one with major financial implications. The idea that there is some kind of generic “best investment” that can be evaluated outside of that context is insane. The best investment for you and your life may correlate with what you just read in Money or Motley Fool, or it may not. The only one who has to live with the results of your choices is you.
Sheldon Garon, author of “Beyond Our Means: Why America Spends While the World Saves,” notes that America has never had a tradition of frugality. The behavior of my parent’s generation was the exception, not the rule. That is why there are some notable economists today who are actively encouraging consumers to increase their spending and their debt as the solution for continued economic prosperity.
After declining briefly after the financial crisis, debt has starting to become more available and once again individuals, corporations and the government are increasing their debt. What this means is that being frugal is not part of our American economic DNA, and if you look around there are few structural, cultural or social incentives to live within your means. The choice to be fiscally sensible may be rational, but it also may be lonely.
The whole point of growing up is so that we can be discerning: We can make independent choices irrespective of outside incentives that want to take us down another path. I still remember my mother’s frustration when she had reached her limit to my teenage behavior: “So if all of your friends are jumping off the Empire State Building you’re going to join them?” Bernie Madoff attracted billions of dollars simply because investors felt comfortable, not because they understood what he was doing, but because their friends were investing. Doing what everyone else is doing may feel good, but it’s not adult behavior. Just ask my mother.
We all know that the future is uncertain: Look at almost every aspect of your life and ask yourself if any of it turned out exactly as you anticipated. Why should it be different with money? It isn’t—and the sooner we accept that fact, making good investment choices for our retirement will become much easier.
Our only control over the world is how we respond to it. For those of you whose retirement is likely to have enough resources for a comfortable but perhaps not luxurious lifestyle, that control will be actualized by how and where you spend your money. If your spending is driven by your priorities, and your priorities are driven by who you are and how you see the world, your financial decisions are much more likely to be sound and the ultimate results acceptable to you.
The result of choices driven by balanced personal priorities may not land you on the cover of Money, or give you bragging rights with your friends—but your compass will be pointed in the right direction. That’s the best financial advice I know.