Knee deep in debt, Bob and Carol were trying to decide if they should raid their retirement account to pay for the rest of the kids’ college education or if they should take on more student loan debt. Both choices made them sick to their stomach to think about. Either way, they couldn’t see a comfortable retirement in their future. It’s a situation that’s all too common today.
Life was different during our grandparents’ era. My grandfather, for example, went to college and paid for it himself. He became a civil engineer. My grandmother owned a beauty salon and together they raised three children. All three kids went to college, paid for with cash from my grandpa’s job and savings and their children paid for part of the expenses with summer job money. All three kids went on to live very nice middle class lives. Grandpa retired to a life of leisure full of golf. Grandma’s retirement revolved around church, singing in the choir, helping her friends, and taking care of the house. They liked to travel, especially to Florida for the winter.
It would be lovely if that was how our lives went, but it isn’t, we’re more likely to be in Bob and Carol’s situation. In Grandpa’s days, having debt would have been an embarrassment as well as scary. Coming out of the Great Depression, you might buy something on lay away, where you paid a little every week until you fully paid for the item and took it home. Otherwise, owing someone money was frowned upon.
Somewhere along the way, the finance companies talked us into thinking it was ok to use debt to pay for everything. You could buy anything on a credit card and make low monthly payments. Nowadays, many don’t even own their car. You carry the debt for the car that’s owned by the dealer. [Debt can be helpful see Use Debt to Your Advantage]
Grandpa had it right by not using debt to pay for goods. Using debt to buy consumables like a car or everyday items will make you poor. Once you take on debt, your expenses go up with debt payments. A $25,000 car turns into a $450 per month payment for five years or over $28,000 total. If you saved that $450 per month BEFORE you bought your car and invested it, you would only need to put aside $22,500 and you could do it in just over four years. That’s almost a $6,000 difference. What could you do with $6,000?
For many of us, our retirement years will be very different than our grandparents’ retirement. My grandpa had a pension, plenty of savings, Social Security at 65, he didn’t have to deal with high health care costs, and was debt free his whole life. I don’t have a pension, won’t be eligible for full Social Security benefits until 67, will have to pay for more of my health care costs, and cope with a home mortgage. And many will be dealing with their kids’ college debt as they try to retire. We will have to work a lot harder to get that comfortable, carefree life, plus we will live much longer lives than previous generations. How will we fill all those extra years and how will we pay for them?
Some people don’t want to retire at 65, they love what they do. My advice to these people is keep working. There’s a good chance you can work until 70 or even 80 and still have plenty of years to relax in retirement. The extra money will help finance those extra years. If you’re to the point where you need a change, consider a completely different job using the expertise you’ve gained. For example, you could teach math instead of working as an engineer. You could also consider a more relaxed job involving a hobby. One of my clients loved playing tennis and ran the club house at his tennis club when he retired. He was able to see his friends, make a little money, and play tennis for free. Or if you’ve saved enough to last a long retirement, you could consider volunteering at a charity that inspires you. You won’t make money, but will have purpose in life which research has shown is a key component to successful aging.
So why do we need to work longer these days than in Grandpa’s time? A lot of factors come into play. The only retirement plan most of us have today are the ones we fund. Companies decided they didn’t want to take on the risk of investment markets not doing well, so they pushed the risk on their employees. Healthcare costs have gone up and companies push more of the cost to the employees. More people are self-employed where you pay for everything and everything is going up in price.
Life has become much more complicated to manage. Today, we expect to have choices. Some people want to be able to pay more for insurance to go the doctor of our choice while others want to save money on their insurance and don’t care which doctor they go to. While choices are good it can be hard to know which choice is right for you.
The truth is, your retirement success is not affected as much by the outside world, as by your spending and saving habits. Just like always, spending less than you make leads to financial success. If you lose a job, you have to cut back. If college is too expensive, you can to consider a less expensive college, try two years at a community college (no one asks where you completed your Freshmen and Sophomore year), or have your child participate in a work/study program to help pay the cost of college. A much bigger part of your paycheck goes to healthcare which means you have to cut back somewhere else. Your car? Your home? Your hobbies? You have to choose insurance and retirement programs to meet your needs. That takes education and planning.
Take a moment to visualize your future self. What do you want your life to be like? Feel how comfortable life would be if you could choose to work, play golf, or travel. Then look at what could get in the way of getting to that retirement. What can you do now, in the next year that is totally achievable to help make sure you achieve that retirement? Is your comfortable retirement worth enough to make a commitment to your one year plan? When you’re tempted to spend money on those lower priority items, think about your future self and consider “paying” him/her by putting that money in your savings account instead.
Control your spending and save for your future. Think about working a little longer since you’re going to live a little longer. You too can have that comfortable retirement that my grandparents lived.
Contact me if you’d like a carefree retirement.
To find out ways to invest for retirement, check out Part 2: Index funds are safe, right?
Photo by Extra Zebra; https://www.flickr.com/photos/23438569@N02/