How to Really Prepare for Retirement

Originally published by The Guy Code on February 25, 2002.

We’ve all seen ads and read headlines about the importance of preparing for retirement.

Few of those ads feel the need to spell out what they mean by “prepare.” The ad makers assume that when they say, “Get ready for retirement,” their target audience will hear, “Make sure you have enough money.”

They then tell you that if you follow their system, you’ll have enough. Enough so that you can ‘enjoy retirement.’ To illustrate this, the ad will show good-looking, healthy silver-haired couples laughing together on a cruise ship someplace – the earthly equivalent of heaven.

I wonder if the ads would be more effective if they showed a silver-haired man cavorting with a raven-haired woman, or a gray-haired matron flirting with a young blond buck. Hmmm . . .

Anyway, the point is that if you took all of your cues from ads, you might conclude that the only thing old people worry about is money. (And arthritis.)

I suppose that’s true in some cases. A man who finds himself in a poorly heated Chicago apartment at the age of 79, down to his last few tins of tuna, is likely to be pretty focused on money. On that day, he might really wish he had put more than 1percent of his paycheck into that 401(k).

When you’re running out of money and your joints are too old to let you work, the food isn’t too good. The shelter’s weak, too.

Most Americans won’t end up that way, but the fear hangs in our minds. We know our companies won’t seek us out then in an effort to give us a helpful bundle of dough. We know we may be divorced by then, or widowed, and our kids may live in different states and visit us rarely if at all.

Every country is a hard place to grow old. In others – India, much of Africa – food and basic amenities are a problem. Here, we can probably count on those things. But the threat hovers – and right behind poverty is the threat of loneliness.

As men, we may hope that as long as we have money, our kids and spouse will find us worthwhile. We may wonder if our wallet is really all we’re worth – just as it’s all a john is worth to a prostitute – but we may not want to dwell on that idea.

The commercials for financial institutions do not encourage such thoughts. They focus on the “independence” money supposedly gives. The “freedom.”

In the ads, of course, that freedom is often symbolized by a beautiful woman. Money gives you the freedom to sleep with a beautiful woman. And it gives your kids a reason to stay in touch.

If we buy into the myth of money, we will feel a constant sense of not having enough. After all, no one has “enough” money.

Thus empty, we will continue to work and strive and fight our way to the top of whatever heap we happen to be stuck in.

Value beyond that paycheck

And all our work will ensure that we are not home enough to show our families, or ourselves, that we have any other value beyond that paycheck.

We may think that if the check is big enough, this problem will no longer feel like a problem. And maybe we’ll be right, for a few years. Maybe even all our years. Money can paper over a lot of personality flaws. It can make a boorish man seem witty, just as beauty can make a narcissistic woman seem fun.

But it’s sad to base a life on ads for Merrill Lynch.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time with older folks – folks who get by on small, fixed incomes. And I have to say that while money tends not to disappear as an issue, it’s hardly ever the biggest thing on their minds.

Now, I’m talking about a select group of older folks: The ones who had, when I met them, six months or so to live.

Many of them used to worry a lot about money, just like the rest of us. Then they got the news that almost all of the sand had fallen from their hourglass.

One man in his early fifties put it this way: “Bill, for the last thirty years, all I cared about was working and fucking. Suddenly I got this disease. Now I know I can’t do what I wanted to do.” He started to cry. “I wanted to build a school, you know, down in Mexico. Something that would have my name on it. People would go there, poor kids – kids who couldn’t go to such a school otherwise.”

But it was too late for that now, and he knew it. There is no such school there with his name on it. The kids who live where he wanted to build it pass their days as if my friend had never lived.

There’s something about a terminal diagnosis that lets you know you’ve done just about all the earning and donating you’re going to do. All the fucking, too. Time’s almost up. How do you want to spend your last six months?

Kind of puts a new spin on that Microsoft tagline, doesn’t it? ‘Where do you want to go today – keeping in mind that you don’t have many days left?’

Seems easy

It may seem as though such folks have it easy, in a way. When you know you only have six months or so left, after all, you worry less about money because there isn’t enough time for you to run out of it.

But how do any of us know that we have even one month left – let alone six?

I’m not saying that people should not save for retirement — only that we should always keep in mind that retirement may not be in our cards.

A literary agent I met recently said that in the wake of September 11, he doesn’t work as hard as he used to. “I try to leave by 6 each night now,” he said. “I never used to do that. And when I’m home, I try to be there – not reading, or on the phone, but really there.”

Why does he do that? Because he suddenly realized that his kids won’t be young forever, and neither will he. In fact, he, or they, could be gone before the end of today. Realizing that has snapped him out of his habit of working, working, working, with the idea that someday, he could relax. Once he was “secure.”

There are few ads that stress the importance of relationships. Oh, sometimes you’ll see one from the Mormons, or the Foundation for a Better Life, whatever that is. (What is that organization, by the way? They advertise in movie theaters, but their Web site only adds to the mystery.)

The reason there are few such ads is that there is little money to be made from our personal relationships. Except when you get married, of course. Then there are oodles of money to be made, by photographers, caterers, dressmakers, ministers, banquet halls, hotels, and on and on.

No wonder we so often hear about the glories of wedded bliss.

In general, ads are set up to convince us that we will feel happy if we buy the product advertised. Our fears will vanish in a blissful smile, a peck on the cheek from an attractive loved one.

Life isn’t like that, of course. No amount of money can make us truly secure. That’s just the way it is, and at some level, most of us know that. If Paul McCartney’s money couldn’t save his wife from cancer, then we know that our own pitiful fortunes aren’t going to save us, either.

So what do we do? Pay attention to the people in your life. Listen to them. Get to know them. Appreciate them. Donate money to build them a school. Treat them as though you and they will not always be here. That’s the best way to prepare for the ultimate retirement — yours and theirs.

This message has not been brought to you by Merrill Lynch.

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