Down is Not Very Far

Source: Lawyer Monthly

I received some disturbing news recently about someone I know who has depleted all of their savings. It wasn’t a surprise; the behavior they’ve displayed over the last several years was marked by a complete lack of discipline along with a profound and reckless disregard for consequences. A devil-may-care attitude, if you will.

Although the news is troubling, I also realize that there is absolutely nothing I can say or do for them. I had previously offered counsel, words of comfort, and suggestions for living within one’s means. Most of my overtures were received with either stony silence or a contemptuous disregard for what I had to say. Unless I was going to make a sizable financial contribution to the cause, my Suze Orman-type stylings on fiscal management were considered a nuisance. Eventually I stopped trying out of a need for self-preservation. But my concern for this person remains.

It’s tough watching a train wreck in the making, especially when you can see that somebody is hurtling towards one, totally oblivious to the speed at which they’re traveling.

For those of us who weren’t so fortunate to have a parent provide a “loan” of $14 million dollars, as was the case with someone we all know, it takes the better part of our working years — upwards of 30 to 35 years or more — to accumulate a sizable retirement nest egg. And because of the demise of the traditional pension, the responsibility for retirement saving began shifting from employer to employee starting with the baby boom generation. For me at least, this made for many a sleepless night wondering if I was following the so-called rules correctly. Was I putting enough away? Did I choose the correct funds? Was I too aggressive or too conservative?

I am far from a math whiz. I regularly embarrass my wife when I remove a cheat card from my wallet to look at the tip amount after a waiter hands me the bill (“Honey, you know you can you just ask me instead!”). My one financial virtue, however, is that I will follow a pre-established routine religiously. My personal budget and bill-paying routine can probably be found in the DSM Manual under Anal-Retentive Behavior. But I really don’t care. I’d prefer to lay awake at 2:00am thinking about how utterly embarrassing my track and field hurdle form was back in junior high than about money issues.

Edwin Moses had nothing to fear from this dude back in the late 70’s.

A consistent refrain in our home, taken completely from a hilarious SNL skit with Charles Barkley, is that whatever troubles we’re currently griping about are in fact simply “white people” problems” (also known as “first world problems”). With a roof over our heads, plenty of food available, access to good medical care, etc., we thankfully have no serious problems. When one of us forgets this, though, and begins to complain in a nonstop manner about a perceived slight, setback, or generic “problem,” the other one will quickly become Charles Barkley for a few seconds. Yeah… white people problems.

Context and perspective can’t hurt.

Many years ago when I was a low-level employee at my first job in Washington, DC, I made the mistake of going to the bathroom during the middle of a meeting. I later learned that while I had stepped out, I had been chosen to manage our office’s participation for an annual charity drive. Never mind coloring the damn parachute, that moment more than any other turned out to be an important lesson about how critical bladder control is to a career!

I remained resentful about the new duty up until I sat in on a required organizing assembly meeting. It was there that we were all entertained by a motivational speaker who was brought in to inspire us to meet the charity drive’s fundraising goals. The speaker was a retired professional football player who himself had overcome personal and economic adversity both prior to and after his playing career. I’ve long since forgotten his name, but I do recall the catch-phrase he repeatedly used to explain the importance of what we we’re all being asked to do:

“Down is not very far”

What he meant is that no matter how much we individually accomplish or accrue in life, it can all be lost quickly due to illness, tragedy, or carelessness. Life is uncertain.

The speaker’s phrase stayed in my head for the rest of my life. To me, it also underscores the importance of social safety nets, both private and government sponsored ones. In this current period of legislative attacks on Medicaid and affordable health care, and with Medicare and Social Security also in the crosshairs of those who use “reform” as a means to justify their actions, I often refer back to the motivational speaker’s phrase as a reminder of just how precarious one’s own security can become.

A recent study released by the Insured Retirement Institute highlights the high percentage of Americans who are not financially prepared for retirement. According to the Institute, 42 percent of baby boomers have nothing saved for retirement. Among boomers who do have retirement savings, 38 percent have less than $100,000 saved. The study is eye-opening and even frightening when we also consider that the safety nets designed to help those most in need are currently facing an uncertain financial footing. Down is not very far.

Charles Barkley’s skit remind me of how fortunate so many of us are. With a little luck both in health and perhaps the stock market too, I hope to remain fortunate till I’m very old. Many of you reading this probably have a friend or family member similar to the one I mentioned at the top of this post. Let’s hope the necessary lifelines they need will still be around for them.

For those wishing to help fight the good fight, please join me in contributing to the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (ncpssm.org) and also the AARP Foundation (AARP.org). I donate to both regularly.

Until next time…

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31 thoughts on “Down is Not Very Far

  1. We are all one catastrophic illness away from dire poverty. We do support AARP. I’d love to see some legislature that would stop spiraling drug costs too. We need good healthcare much more than we need a wall.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Drug controls would sure be a good start. It should be a no-brainer and non-partisan issue to boot. But sadly the drug companies are such a huge obstacle to competitive pricing. Trump actually ran on that issue; let’s see if he can follow through on it.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you for this sobering reminder, Marty. It should be required reading for anyone even vaguely interested in retiring (ever). Great post!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh, my, now you’re going to force me to find an online currency converter for Australian to American, and I haven’t even had my morning coffee yet, Vy. 😉 The oft-quoted suggestion/goal here is $1 million dollars. I’m not anywhere close to that! But I also don’t plan on touching my savings for another 4.5 years anyway. Keep saving, Vy!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I like your serious side too Marty. I’m sorry your friend has fallen so far, but it’s a sobering reminder. Unfortunately, many people simply can’t retire because they can’t survive on their pensions. I met a checkout man at Wal-mart who is 73 and working 35 hours a week because his railroad pension just won’t cut it. Look around and notice how many older folks are still working. Something’s not right.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Thank you for the reminder of how fortunate I am. Yes, I don’t need to look far (siblings) to worry about others and their later years. How will they manage a health crisis (I recently saw the bills of what that can amount to without coverage) or even rent, food and heat as costs continue to rise and their income is stagnant. With siblings, it’s hard to know how much you can help in financial support now (especially when you did all the right things to save through the years and they ignored all the advice). Because even now, with every downturn in the market or new item about company pensions, I still worry abut our long term security as well. Even though I am indeed fortunate (being the anal retentive type as well)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Right you are, Pat. So many older people are struggling, and I do worry about the social safety net being eroded. Siblings and other family members are another layer of complexity when it comes to financial hardships. Pride and old histories usually are the main complicating factors.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. I think you should send this post/essay for publication in the ARRP Magazine (which, by the way, is a terrific mag with well-written articles). “Down is not very far” is a great reminder to not get caught up in the ‘must haves’ at the moment (like, I must have a new car, I must have a new spring wardrobe, I must have new kitchenware, etc.). I’d like to send your post to my kids (in their mid-30’s) but they’d just shake their heads and ignore me. I get it, I did the same with my parents. My guy and I have saved much (no pension) and still worry, particularly if we live to our early 90s, which is quite possible. On the other hand, we want to enjoy our life now too. It’s a balancing act. GREAT post. Thanks.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks so much for your kind words, Pamela. I think the fears we all have become more intense the older we get (which given the average age of my readership here, I’m sure I haven’t helped that dynamic any!). So much of life is simply a process from one though to another, and I suspect your kids will eventually become more attuned to all of this in due time. But right now, it’s our time. 🙂 Thanks again for reading.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. 42% of baby boomers don’t have anything saved for retirement? Oh, that is not going to make the millennials happy at all. I understand rationally how we’re all so close to down, but my heart just won’t accept it. Maybe in this case, denial is a good thing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s indeed a bit of conundrum. I do understand the thoughts of conservative policy wonks who are pushing for reforms to Social Security and Medicare because they want to save the systems from eventual insolvency. Most of their assumptions assume that people will save privately too. But as high percentages of are boomers frighteningly proving, that isn’t necessarily happening. Millennials have every right to be wary of all of this.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks for the reminder. I’m sorry for your friend. Thankfully, I’m pretty good at hoarding my money. I live off very little of my paycheck and sock the rest away in my retirement. I do have a state pension, but I can’t depend on that being around down the road with so many states going bankrupt. Thanks for sharing this.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Sobering post… 1st, because of your friend’s uncontrolled spending to their serious detriment. What can be done with people who act so foolishly with regard to money? And are we all responsibly to support them financially for their irresponsibility? Complicated questions… 2nd, down is not very far for most people who are living paycheck to paycheck as well as seniors. I can’t believe that as a society we have turned out back on “the least of these”. This is not going to end well for us as a country if we continue to abandon the most vulnerable among us. We are only as strong as our weakest link.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I consult my EZ-Tip app on a fairly regular basis. No shame. It also breaks down how much each person in your party owes. It’s genius.

    Astronomer Tycho Brahe died when his bladder ruptured. He was at a royal banquet and wouldn’t excuse himself to use the bathroom for fear of offending his hosts.

    My sister can’t manage money. She’s had full-time employment for decades, no children, no mortgage, very little overhead and has not much to show for it. She spends it as quickly as she gets it. On stupid shit, too. My mom was the same way. She died with $800 in her savings account. I’m worried about my sister. Who’s going to take care of her when she’s old? I’ve got enough dependants already.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, good. An app… to use at a restaurant table. That’ll go over even better for me!

      Tycho Brahe? You’re a walking encyclopedia, and apparently a medical one at that. You should have been in my profession: ready reference!

      Yes, I’m *very* familiar with people like your mother and sister. I’ve thought about the motivational psychology about this behavior type for a long time. Okay, the motivational pop psychology, since I have no actual professional skills here. I’ve always felt it stems from a forced deprivation in their past, either in childhood or a marriage. In spite of the irrationality of the actions, it’s a kind of mental pushback from an earlier authority figure involving money.

      Like

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