"You guys have a financial planner?" my high schooler asked in surprise. "Well, yeah. He's been our planner since about a decade before you were born," I responded. My son was apparently amazed that we had enough finances to need planning. I said something along the lines of financial planning being necessary if one ever hoped to retire.
A short time later we sat across the desk from our longtime friend. I noticed a piece of paper sandwiched between the wood desktop and its glass covering. I read the title The Rules of Retirement (or something to that effect). There were nine 'rules' in short bold statements. Each was followed by a sentence or two. The whole thing was pretty concise.
As I quickly perused the rules, I realized that most of them weren't directly tied to finances. There was advice to "Retire to something not from something" and admonitions to avoid getting too wrapped up in yourself. After all, service to others has been proven to produce much happier and healthier retirees.
The only direct financial rule I saw read, "Retire according to your bank account not according to your age." This caused me to think back to early in my career when I worked for a government agency. I ended up in a group with a large number of men that were in their 50s. Given the rules at the time, most of them would technically qualify for retirement at age 55 or within a couple of years after hitting that mark. I thought these guys were ancient. Early 50s no longer seems very old to me.
The agency instituted a rule that required everyone within five years of retirement eligibility to attend a retirement planning seminar. As each of my coworkers hit the specified time, I watched them go buoyantly off to learn about how wonderful their upcoming retirement would be. Every last one of them returned looking as if they had been punched in the stomach. Mutterings like, "I'll never be able to afford to retire" were common.
The odd thing about this whole episode was that all of these men were trained accountants. Many of them were CPAs. I couldn't understand how they could have gotten to that point in life without doing any serious retirement planning. They all seemed to think that they could simply retire the moment they hit the minimum qualification and that everything would just work out hunky-dory.
By the time I left government employment, I had migrated from accounting to software development. Several of my coworkers were stunned that I would give up the opportunity to retire in my mid 50s. Having actually done some planning (and a lot of saving) by that time, I bluntly told my friends that regardless of whether I worked for the government, I wouldn't be able to afford to retire in my mid 50s, nor would they be able to do so unless they planned on retiring to Skid Row.
For many years I have planned to heed the rule about retiring according to my bank account rather than my age. Of course, fate can twist the best of plans. Some end up retiring due to neither savings nor age, but due to health problems, family situations, or employability challenges. You plan for the most likely scenario and then deal with reality as it comes.
And reality might not be much fun. Retirement savings are built on the future. As I noted in this post, the U.S. economy's "3-D hurricane of deficit, debt and demography" will likely produce suboptimal investment returns over time, meaning that most of us will work longer and retire later than we'd like. But we will probably be better off than our kids and grandkids, whose futures we immorally insist on mortgaging for the immediate gratification of today's government supplied benefits.
Experts tell us that most Americans aren't really doing any retirement planning. This includes the majority of people in my age bracket, not just the twenty-somethings. They are simply planning on crossing that bridge when they get there, assuming that it will somehow work out. The non-planners might be right. At least for awhile. Until we hit the wall we will continue to insist on generous government subsidies for most of these folks.
My wife and I are working to afford to retire some day in the distant future. We don't expect to receive government benefits. Our years of careful prudence will likely be repaid with "needs testing" that will prevent us from receiving Social Security or other socialized benefits. No matter. We are planning for it. But I expect to work many more years than either of my parents did to achieve this goal.
Our kids are a different story. There's little I can do to turn off the government's debt and deficit spigots. My family's ability to change the nation's demographic future is very limited. We are blessed, but we aren't wealthy. We won't be able to fund our kids' future retirements. They will simply have to deal with the realities faced by their own generation.
Hopefully everything will work out for us. We will simply deal with whatever really happens. But I pray for my kids and their future.