Why Are Americans So Obsessed With Retirement?

It seems ironic to even bring up this topic, given that most people are woefully unprepared for retirement. Yet we seem to have two classes of people where retirement is concerned. One is obsessed with retirement to the point of throwing all their extra money into it, many even actively working toward early retirement. The other class is obsessed about not being prepared.

There’s a happy medium in there somewhere, but reaching a point of balance seems elusive. That begs the question, why are Americans so obsessed with retirement in the first place?

Maybe we wouldn’t be if we stopped for some deep contemplation of the reasons why. Here are my thoughts:

Why Are Americans So Obsessed With Retirement?
Why Are Americans So Obsessed With Retirement?

Following the Herd

The path of least resistance is usually found in following the herd. People naturally tend to gravitate toward the places where human traffic is heaviest. Whether it’s a restaurant or a movie theater with a long line, or a popular concert or sporting event, the thinking is If everyone else is there, I want to be there too.

So it is with retirement. Perhaps due largely to the 11-year bull run in stocks, the financial media and blogs are trumpeting retirement planning in every direction. If you’re even remotely plugged into the world, it’s impossible to ignore. It’s even become popular water cooler conversation in workplaces across the country.

Even if you don’t have a particularly strong interest in retirement, you could easily become obsessed just by following the herd.

Escaping Drudgery

It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that most people aren’t happy with their jobs. All jobs, and even businesses if you’re self-employed, have a generous amount of drudgery. While it’s sometimes possible to either minimize the drudgery, or plan an escape route out of a job that has too much of it, sometimes there’s simply nowhere else to go.

When that happens, fantasy can replace an immediate action plan. You start dreaming of crashing out of your unhappy circumstances. Some people live for the weekends, and others for vacations. But retirement is a permanent solution – a virtual escape hatch from the drudgery of the job.

If you don’t much like the work you’re doing, you can easily become obsessed with retirement.

Most People are Afraid to Take Chances

In a real way, planning for retirement is the ultimate form of playing it safe. You’re salting money away and investing it so eventually you can live the life you want. In doing so, you may be avoiding pursuing more immediate opportunities that could lead to disappointment or financial loss.

As much as anything, saving for retirement is more of a system than a goal. You set up a specific amount that you plan to invest each year, whether it’s a dollar amount or percentage of your income. You also expect to get a certain rate of return on your investment. Because it’s long-term, and it’s done incrementally, it does tend to be largely low risk (though it’s not without risk entirely).

In a real way, it makes it easier to avoid more immediate risks. Like starting a business, changing careers, or investing in someone else’s business start-up. Each has the potential to be life-changing if it works out well. If it doesn’t, you could be facing a near-term setback.

It could well be that becoming obsessed with retirement turns into a risk avoidance strategy. Even moderate risks are avoided in order to improve the longer-term chance of retiring. Pursuing your passion is replaced by pursuing retirement.

The Desire to Maintain the Suburban Lifestyle

Perhaps as no time in the past, people today lock into certain lifestyles. The suburban lifestyle – the single-family house, the late model car, the annual vacation, and having at least as much stuff as other people in your world – is seen as something you can’t live without.

But maintaining that lifestyle is expensive. In practical terms, it will become more so once you retire. This is especially true since traditional pensions are on the decline.

Saving for retirement could be as much as anything else an attempt to preserve that lifestyle to the very end of life.

There may be a less expensive lifestyle possible, but it virtually doesn’t exist if you’re locked into the suburban variety. Building up a fat retirement plan may be seen as a way to preserve it for a lifetime.

“I Have to be Rich to be Happy”

Have you noticed how many retirement projections have you being a millionaire by the time you’re retired? Truth be told, if you want to maintain the suburban lifestyle in retirement, becoming a millionaire is practically a necessity. Or at least until that will no longer be enough.

I’ve often thought one of the unspoken attractions of retirement planning is the prospect of becoming rich. Let’s face it, that’s virtually what it would take to maintain “the retirement of your dreams”.

For most middle income people, retirement planning represents the best shot at becoming rich, short of inheriting a fortune or buying a winning lottery ticket.

And in our money is the measure of all things culture, millions do equate wealth with happiness. And if you expect to be happy in retirement, then being rich is a natural part of the equation.

Deferred Dreams: “I’ll Start Really Living When I Retire”

In some respects, this also refers to deferred living. It’s easier to imagine being happy when you’re comfortably retired, and free from the need to earn a living. It’s much more difficult to decide to start pursuing your dreams today. Or more particularly, to decide to take the risks that will be involved in making it happen.

Anytime we can put off the day when we’ll be happy, it’s easier to imagine that it will happen, and that it will be a painless process. This is even more true given that for young people, retirement is many decades into the future.

Why Being Obsessed With Retirement isn’t Healthy

Everyone should have a plan to save money on a regular basis for retirement. But more because you’ll want to be prepared when that day arrives, than because you’re imagining some sort of heaven on earth when it does.

When we’re thinking about retirement, and being fed by the financial media, it’s easy to pretend that preparing for retirement is a risk-free proposition. It isn’t.

Here are some reasons why:

  • While making a provision for the future is always important, pinning your best hopes on such a faraway event can keep you from living in the moment.
  • Being obsessed with retirement ignores the possibility that you might not live long enough to see it. That’s not being fatalistic, it’s being realistic .
  • By becoming obsessed with retirement, you may avoid pursuing important opportunities, the kind that could create that dream life much earlier than retirement.
  • You may stay on a job, or even accept a job, mainly because it has a very generous 401(k) plan.
  • Retirement obsession relegates work to something that should be avoided, as if it’s something evil we need to run away from. That completely ignores the fact that the work we do gives our lives meaning and relevancy.
  • Not pursuing work that you like is largely a waste of your life.
  • Some people become so obsessed with saving for retirement that they neglect important near-term financial goals.
  • It’s even possible to become so obsessed with retirement that you neglect your health and give inadequate time and attention to your loved ones.
  • Retirement obsession ignores the possibility that your plans might not work out, despite your best efforts. And if they don’t – then what???

Final Thoughts on Why Are Americans So Obsessed with Retirement

Once again, none of this is a call to abandon retirement planning or saving. But it is a call to recognize that most of your life will take place before you retire. The future is important, and we have to prepare for it. But nothing is more important than right now. There’s a saying, yesterday’s a canceled check, tomorrow is a promissory note, but today is cash!

We’d all do well to remember that. Life is not always as certain as we’d like to believe. While I realize that we live in a “post religious era”, I’ve always found the following Bible verse sobering:

“Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’ ” – James 4:13-15

Make a provision for retirement by saving and investing on a regular basis. But by all means, don’t approach the task as if you’re preparing for the most important time in your life.

Now is the most important time in your life, and if you don’t get that right, the rest may not work out either.

Including your retirement.

As the saying goes, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. That includes retirement, even though many would convince us that it’s the most noble basket of all.

( Photo by 1smrtcookie )

20 Responses to Why Are Americans So Obsessed With Retirement?

  1. Jordan Peterson, the popular Canadian public intellectual, is fond of saying that shooting for happiness is bunk. Instead, search for meaning in one’s life. Why? Because happiness is often vague and a fleeting state of being, while difficulties in life are a constant and never-ending fact. But, if one can find a way to create meaning in such circumstances, then that’s what makes life worth living, as well as creating happiness (whatever that is) as a by-product.

    Such is the case with retirement. You live your life now, and not for some future goal, when you live in the land of milk and honey. Shooting for that goal, far off into the future, means that you miss out on life in the now.

  2. Well put, Tim. I’m afraid a lot of people are doing just that, focusing on retirement as if it’s the ultimate prize in life. What Peterson said is similar to something I read about nostalgia some years back. Even though nostalgia focuses on a supposedly better past, it actually says more about the present than about the past. People are more nostalgic when the present isn’t so good. In today’s world, I think the retirement preoccupation says more than a few bad things about the present. For example, if I can’t fix the present, then I’m going to prepare to have a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I think that’s perfectly rational if the rainbow is five to ten years out. But if you’re talking 20, 30 or 40 years, it’s just too long to wait. We don’t even know if the world condition will support anything remotely like retirement by then.

    Meaning is highly underrated. If your life has it, an exit strategy like retirement becomes unnecessary. We should all work to downshift as we get older, but that shouldn’t be put off until 65 or later. Better to start working toward that easier, more meaningful life now. Of course, once again we circle back to the suburban lifestyle so many want to preserve to the grave. I think maybe that’s the aspect that robs life of meaning. Life should never be determined by a standard of living, but by the quality of your life.

  3. Hi Kevin. I think the reason we, as Americans, are obsessed with retirement is because that is what is fed to us from every source there is, TV, radio, internet, conversations with family/friends, etc. It all comes down to what we allow to fill our head. Now, that being said, if everything we read and hear is remotely true, then I believe people need to hear and act upon the message being trumpeted…that we all need to better prepare for old age. There is just so much information coming at us now that it’s hard to keep straight. I’ve seen firsthand what inadequate preparation is like with sick family, and it isn’t pretty. I also have family who have prepared well and live comfortably in retirement, though not extravagantly. My family’s nuts, let’s not go there! I think what will be will be for all of us. We all will live with our own choices. Your last line is most relevant…”Life should never be determined by a standard of living, but by the quality of your life.” Well said, Kevin.

  4. Thanks Bev. It was tough to write this article, because at the core I think saving for retirement is a good thing. But now we’re dealing with too much of a good thing. We’re bombarded with it everyday (that’s not an exaggeration). Commercials on TV make us look idiotic, as if we’re totally clueless. Young people coming out of school are keying into the company 401k plan, as if it’s a critical component of the job. They should be focusing on learning their skills and getting out of debt, but they’re told to start saving for retirement before they’re 30. It’s good if you can do that of course, but retirement savings shouldn’t be the central concern from early adulthood. There’s too much else going on.

    It’s as if building a meaningful life, honing transferable job skills, and developing sustainable income sources aren’t important, as long as you’re funding that all-important retirement plan. Too much future orientation takes us out of the present, and that’s never a good thing. And if it’s so important, how come it’s never even mentioned in school or college? It’s like kids graduate from college, then get hit with “you better save for retirement immediately, or you’ll be doomed.” I think that approach creates an unnecessary and counterproductive orientation toward playing it safe in life. You have to wonder if that isn’t contributing to all the depression and drug abuse. Too many “musts” in life can make that happen.

    Of course, by now Bev you’re well accustomed to my practice of taking a look at issues from a very different angle. I always get suspicious when too many people are lining up on the same side of the boat. That’s certainly true with the retirement thing. It’s as if retirement is what really matters, and everything between now and then is just details.

  5. Excellent article, Kevin. And I really enjoyed Tim’s comment as well. I wonder if the obsession with retirement partially stems from the recognition of the loss of responsibility within the population. Of course, my parents are responsible for preparing for the future, but I am also responsible for them in the same way that they were for me when I was a child. I think the prevailing mentality is exactly what Tim described. People not only look for happiness instead of meaning, but they think the older generation’s problems are the government’s to solve, and not our own. I’m currently working on getting my oldest son out of the idea that other people (siblings) are a burden, and trying to get him to see that all of us are dependent at some point in our life, and we owe it to the people around us to assume the responsibility to care for others. It’s possible that the desperation we see partly stems from the fear within the population that there will be no one there to care for them. If you prepare because you love your children, and want to be as little of a burden as possible, that is freeing. If you prepare because you think there will be no one there to help you when you are old, that can make one desperate.

  6. That’s an excellent point Kristen, fear no one will take care of them. In that way retirement becomes insurance against isolation and abandonment. That’s a very rational view, if that’s what motivates people. But if I can take that thought in a different direction, I think that ties in to suburbanization. When people left the cities for the suburbs, they accepted lifestyles of voluntary compartmentalization and even isolation. It’s as if the extra physical space created emotional separation. Not just the fact that people have property in the suburbs, but also that the suburban communities were usually miles away from their extended families in the city, or in other suburbs. The out-of-sight-out-of-mind idea takes affect.

    Contrast to the time before WW2, when most people lived in cities. Not only was there physical closeness to other people, but extended family usually lived in the same city, neighborhood or street. Urban living facilitated closeness, concern and even direct care. Suburbanization tore that apart. It’s even reflected now in the media. Have you noticed how characters always seem to have only minimal contact with their families, or they’re estranged or never even mentioned? That’s become the new American cultural ideal as reflected in art.

    I think the whole suburban movement was a move away from problems (often meaning obligations), to create a lifetime of over-romanticized “rugged individualism”, where the System was entrusted and expected to take care of those obligations. That included family, the elderly and the “old neighborhood” left behind.

    I’m often stunned by how so many ills are connected. That’s why while we can and should talk about these issues, it emphasizes the fact that they’re more complicated than they seem on the surface, and there are no easy solutions. But I think it always helps to be aware of what’s not so obvious.

    Thanks for a very insightful observation, one that never crossed my mind. I seriously learn a lot from reader comments!

  7. It could be suburbanization to a degree. I wonder if it might have a lot to do with the recent push to marginalize family as well. Current thinking is that the child is educated by the state, and is the ultimate responsibility of the state. The stay-at-home mom has been forced into the work force. It is just now becoming acceptable again to stay at home with the kids, I mean within the last year or so. For quite a while women were encouraged to work and send their children to government schools further dividing the family. As a woman I felt the scorn from society for staying with my children, and even though I knew it was for the best, the pressure for me to go back to my career was insane. Michelle Obama said the goal should be to get more women in the work force, and outside of the home by providing government sponsored early childhood care. But, as a result families lost strength, stability, and connection with one another. Last night I watched a YouTube video by Justin Rhodes where he visited a farmer who had given up his 9 to 5 office job to farm with his wife and children. It was amazing to see the responsibility the children took on. The video is called “How to quit your job & start a farm for $600.” In the future, there is no doubt that those children will take care of each other, and their parents if necessary. However, it was the father’s rugged individualism, I believe, that gave them the strength to give up the dependence on society as a whole. It’s fascinating how the family really is the backbone of society, and government never will be able to properly fill that role.

  8. That’s all true, but the more society relies on the system/state, the more marginalized the family and the individual become. All these programs aimed at taking care of people are well-intentioned, but they ignore human nature and the reality that being challenged is precisely what brings out the best in us. People who have dealt with major challenges are tougher, more resilient, and more realistic. I think that describes that farm family. By contrast, those who are cared for tend to be more fragile. In fact, we’re developing a more fragile society that’s becoming increasingly reality-optional. It’s driving the PC/you-hurt-my-feelings/everyone gets a trophy juggernaut. I think it also has something to do with the opiod crisis, as one of the contributing factors at any rate.

    I also have to agree with you that the job of raising kids has largely been taken over by/forced on the state. I saw it when my own kids were growing up in the 90s and 2000s. It was completely unlike when I went to school, and the family was primarily responsible, and the state largely invisible. We found ourselves dealing with a tangled web of bureaucratic rules and regulations handed down from people we never met. It felt like this bizarre Wizard of Oz thing, where we were dealing with this nameless, faceless, all-powerful but usually completely wrong entity that never came out in public. For example, at the beginning of each school year, they included a section in the school year handbook that both parents and students were required to sign, threatening all kinds of criminal prosecution for activities X, Y and Z. It was all very Orwellian. Even elementary school kids had to sign it, despite not have legal capacity or understanding. Then there was the pass-or-die testing. I’ve got to stop, otherwise I’ll be writing another article…

  9. Very well said, Kevin, I think you are exactly right. You make a great point that the more society relies on the state, the less capable people become. I believe this does lead to desperation in the populace. People feel they are dependent on a state that doesn’t “love” people. And they are correct; it can’t love people. Entities cannot love, societies cannot love. Only individuals are capable of that, and only individuals who care about another individual can help properly in a world made up of complicated individual situations. We really need to get back to the family, and the responsibilities that come with being a part of a tiny community, where the individuals can both know, and love the others enough to care for and assist them properly.

  10. This is going to sound a bit spacey, I realize, but we really need to get back to connecting with our humanity. This attempt to sanitize and clinicalize (I know that’s not a word, but I think you know where I’m going) is turning us into robitrons (see, there aren’t even words to describe what’s happening any more!). That causes us to separate from each other, rely on systems, and even to deny our humanity and individuality.

    We can’t do anything about this in the big picture, but we can be aware of it and choose another course for ourselves. We will of course be weird in the eyes of many, but I’m beginning to believe finding the better way begins with being unconventional. Which often means returning to the old ways, that worked for humanity for centuries.

  11. What a wonderful conversation going on here. I am enjoying reading it and it gives me much to think about. I agree completely that we need to return to self-reliance, and I really like what Kristen said about a state or entity cannot love. Caring for our families or whomever out of love is so much more powerful than dependence on a system. But back to retirement obsession, I suppose in the old days it wasn’t a concern because families lived together or close by, took in aging parents, the young worked, the older ones helped where they could, etc. All that seems to gone, sadly. Everyone is trying to save enough to be able to pay some stranger or “entity” to care for them in their old age.

  12. You just summarized the whole article and the comments too Bev. That’s exactly what’s happening. The concept of family and community has been replaced by lone wolf syndrome, with the expectation that those who can no longer care for themselves must be cared for by the system. We have to pay into the system to make sure money’s there for us when our time comes (soc sec, retirement savings). As someone said earlier, sooner or later, everyone will need help.

    That’s bad enough on the financial side, but no amount of money can replace care and closeness by loved ones. I wonder if we can ever go back to what worked – however imperfectly – throughout human history? The more I study history, the more I learn that people from previous generations and centuries weren’t as ignorant as we like to believe today. But then I suppose nothing we can come up with will ever work perfectly. Balance is the best shot – save some for retirement, while keeping family and friends close.

  13. Kevin, I really had to think on this article deeply. It is true, people have turned to society for old age care. I looked back on my family history, my grandparents and my parents and their age of retirement. Family took care of family. Yet I am a realist, who let my children lived at home until 22 or so, to get an education, and know I can not depend on my children to take care of me in my old age, financially. I see their struggles to make ends meet and know they can not afford their own retirement. Or should I say the retirement society is selling their generation. Those advertisments are geared for 40- 50 year olds to “keep up with the Jones”.

    It wasn’t that long ago retirement was very different. Many people didn’t own a car, or they owned one at most — two-car families didn’t exist. There were few TVs, no computers, no cell phones, no entertainment centers, no home gym equipment. Long-distance phone calls were expensive, so people usually communicated with distant friends and relatives via regular mail. Everything was cash on the barrel except for buying a home. Hospitals were only used for accidents or surgeries, and every one used the town doctor, or asked the pharmacist for something over the counter.

    Retirees pursued hobbies and were active in their church and community service clubs when they no longer could physically work. Entertainment often consisted of listening to the radio, reading the newspaper, visiting and playing cards with neighbors and pot-luck dinners. Vacation travel usually meant driving to neighboring counties or states to visit relatives. There were no European vacations, no time-shares and Florida and Arizona as retirement destinations weren’t an option for most folks. And people were content!

    Today’s retirement “crisis” has been well documented, and I don’t mean to diminish the challenges we face. The takeaway for me, however, is that we should be focusing on what we do have, not on what we don’t. We shouldn’t let advertising and this culture of acquisition we live in define us and our expectations. We should make the best possible life by banding together with family/friends and communities. We should keep our health in check, with exercise and diet, so we can work longer like our ancestors did. Good obsessions.

  14. Hi Deb – You’re hitting on a lot of thoughts I have on this. As I get older, I think more about my grandparents and how they handled retirement. It was exactly as you described. They lived simple, inexpensive lives, they slowed down but didn’t stop working completely, and they relied deeply on others, whether siblings, adult children or close friends. As you say, all of that is gone today. My parents generation, the World War 2 generation, seemed to come up in the golden age of retirement. Enhanced Social Security, pensions, greatly appreciated houses, and job security right up until they retired. They’ve been able to live well. That’s the new standard, but it’s largely a holdover from the post WW2 economic boom.

    Today we seem to be going back to my grandparents time, or at least we should be. They had low expectations, high efforts, and knew the value of relationships and reciprocity. Unless we return to those values, tens of millions will likely be impoverished in old age. In fact, a more enlightened generation would accept the reality that the popular myths about retirement are no longer relevant, but maybe to do so is to appear weak in some way, or maybe even anti-social.

    Maybe by today’s high expectations, my grandparents generation were impoverished. But they had a richness of spirit, and maybe more than a generous amount of stubborness that insulated them from that condition. As long as they had a place to live, money in the bank (or under the mattress), food in the refrigerator, and people to keep them company, they were good. Today we think we’re in crisis if we don’t “have it all”, whatever that means any more. What’s even worse I think is how the whole retirement planning regime has turned entirely into a money chase. That alone leaves us bankrupt of all the other qualities and values that make us human. If money is the measure of all things, then relationships and society fall apart. I think that’s where we’re heading.

  15. Kevin, You are so right, the greed of society wanting it all! And still they are not happy! The Golden years have become the Plastic years for so many. People worry about their income and not their expenses. They just go file bankruptcy and start over again. My grandparents treasures were in their hearts, things that didn’t cost money made them the happiest. I inherited simplicity from them. And endurance from my parents. I don’t want to be a burden to my children with the cost of healthcare, because I will make over the amount allowed for Medicaid in retirement. I will make due.

  16. That’s my feeling exactly Deb. The retirement years won’t be any more perfect (or worse) than the rest of my life has been, because there’s nothing magical about it – only a bunch of happy images of Heaven on Earth cast by the media. In looking back, I’m pretty happy with my life. The lack of perfection has produced the challenges that enabled me to find out who I really am. My grandparents relished being self-sufficient and self-sustaining, accepting help only in dire circumstances. That should be how it is all our lives. But then I’ve always relished going in the opposite direction of the herd.

  17. I just read an article on Medium Digest which talked about the 9.9% income group ( that’s the group above high middle class but not the 1%). While reading it, I was reminded of why people keep feeling they need a lot of money and purchases to feel good about themselves–it is for a feeling of being in a special class of people who only see to their betterment no matter how much those with less are hurt by actions. Take the arguments about needing special charter schools to provide a better education only because the costs are higher. I heard recently that Mayer DeBlasio (fake Italian by the way) want to integrate schools in a certain area of Manhattan with lower functioning students to better those students’ chances to succeed. All that will do is lower the performance of those schools and the students have the extra problem of having to travel by bus to school, prolonging the school day. Good idea but poor dealing with a solution to help students achieve. The students should go to schools near them if there’s a problem with getting the students to learn in neighborhood schools there’s a problem with the curriculum being taught or the way it is presented. before I go off on a tangent on this, the reason I mentioned this, is because that specific neighborhood has a big 9.9% income group who don’t play well with others despite the liberal rhetoric they talk about equal opportunities for all.
    It is from this group, we get the “dream” of retiring to a leisure life. I was reminded of this talking to my landlord who’s a wannabe rich thinker when she mentioned (probably by accident) that her husband used to bring home over $2000/weekly but doesn’t now because of his age (he’s a private contractor for those jobs you hire a handyman for). She is upset that she has to budget her money better and can’t do as much remodeling and travel as she wants to. I won’t tell how little pity I have for her. The only concern I have is keeping my rent stable as I am working with a non-rising income since I was forced into retirement.
    Too many people feel they need to spend to feel good and to find activities to do. My definition of retirement is not having a clock to punch, I make my schedule, I stay up as late as I want and don’t worry if I stay up late reading. I set no alarms and let my body wake me (usually at first light which is why I hate the short days of winter). If I have to change the location of where I live, I still expect to be able to get around to stores, etc by myself, independently. I don’t need a high income to be happy.

  18. Hi Maria Rose – It’s pretty clear we’re becoming a two class society, the haves (top 10%) and the have-nots, which is everybody else (three if you add the top 1% as it’s own class). But the top 10% are the ones running up house prices, concert tickets and sporting event tickets with their “pay any price” mindset (because they literaly can in most cases).

    The problem is that most financial advice is directed toward – and comes from – the top 10%. But how you manage your finances and even your life are very different between an income of $50,000 and $250,000. It isn’t just a matter of degree either. One can save and invest money regularly while still living well, the other is in perpetual survival mode, making significant trade-offs, and hoping to save enough to not be part of the working poor. Of course the standard advice from the top 10% is to become part of the top 10%. That’s possible if you’re an engineer, an IT professional or a corporate manager in a strong industry. But most careers don’t pay that much, and most employers are now working purposefully to cap salaries in a form of survival mode. There are reams of statistics to back this up. Productivity is rising, but the rewards aren’t being shared with employees. Then we have global wage arbitrage, where work is gravitating toward the countries with low wages. The typical worker has little leverage.

    For the bottom 90% it really comes down to lowering expenses, finding ways to increase income, saving as much as possible, and in general, thinking outside the box. The problem is that our society is awash in top 10% privilege, causing the bottom 90% to want the same things, or think they need to follow the same financial paths. But the constraints of capped incomes and rising base living expenses is forcing a change in thinking, or at least it should. That’s why I hit the theme of creating a meaningful life in the retirement years, rather than the standard “if you save X% of your pay and invest it at X% for X decades you’ll have the retirement of your dreams” stuff that’s all over the financial media and blogs.

    We can all do better in managing our finances, but at the same time we have to be realistic and admit that what works for some people won’t work for all. That’s the fantasy that needs to be dropped.

  19. Wow. This article really hit me. I spend 75% of my waking life obsessed with cutting every corner so I can retire. I imagine myself living homeless under a bridge and alone if I don’t put every possible extra cent in the bank or my 401k and it makes me miserable and afraid all the time. Thank you for this.

  20. Don’t blame yourself too much Brian, you’re getting a lot of help from the financial media. They want everyone focused on retirement so you’ll invest and they’ll make more money. Then you have the doom-and-gloom crowd who have millions of people looking down the road at the same dismal future – living under a bridge and begging off food and medical services.

    I have to confess I have at least some of the same feelings, but I’ve learned to control it. Savings have become the single largest line item in our household budget, but more because we think it’s the right thing to do – given all the uncertainties of today’s economic situation – than it is to provide for retirement.

    In fact, as long as God blesses me to be able to work my plan is to continue to do so, at least in a reduced capacity. I feel that as long as I have the ability to work and earn a living, our savings and investments are just to provide a safety net. It makes it a lot easier than thinking “I have to have $X million to be comfortable in retirement otherwise I’ll be poor, broke, cold and alone”.

    I feel like saving and investing and having money put away is something everyone should do at every age, and not just for retirement purposes. It’s all about building a comfortable life. The amount of money you’ll need to achieve that comfort level will be different for everyone. It was liberating when I realized I didn’t have to reach anyone else’s level of savings to be happy.

    While we’re busy saving money we also leave ourselves enough to live comfortably, to give regularly, and to do many of the things we like to do. We’re in a good position to be able to do that, but I find it offers a balance that makes the effort easier to do, and both covers us in the present and makes a provision for the future.

    Retirement, if it does come in my life, will almost certainly be because I’m no longer able to work, and not because I want to retire rich. After all, most of the people who retire rich spent most of their lives being rich. That’s not important to me, but being comfortable and eliminating as much stress as possible is. It makes it possible to move forward and prepare for the future without panicking over it.

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