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.
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…