Walsh's Wonderings — Planning for retirement

Robert F. Walsh
Robert F. Walsh

Wall Street Journal financial writer Jonathan Clements once wrote, “Retirement is like a long vacation in Las Vegas. The goal is to enjoy it the fullest, but not so fully that you run out of money.” I’m at that age when the clammy hand of mortality rests uncomfortably on my shoulder, so perhaps it’s time to start thinking about my retirement before my boss does.

According to the Social Security Administration, a man reaching age 65 today can expect to live until age 84 (a woman until 86). It goes on to say one of every four of us who make it to 65 will live past 90, and one of 10 will live past 95. This is terrifying for anyone who’s ever tried to enter numbers into a retirement calculator to figure out if one’s retirement savings will last.

Luckily, those numbers are valid only for those who first make it to 65; most of us don’t have a chance of seeing our 90th birthday. The real statistical average is calculated to include those who die during or shortly after childbirth, during adolescence or early adulthood, and as a result of war. Research by the World Health Organization and Imperial College London puts life expectancy rates in the United States at 76 for men and 83 for women.

So I guess the glass is really half full. (Or half empty, which is conveniently more affordable.)

Jeanne Calment, a French woman who died in 1997 at 122 years old, must have had one heck of a nest egg. I can’t seem to get ahead on my retirement savings no matter the adjustments I make. Perhaps if I pass away at 72 (peacefully, I hope, while sinking a putt to break 80 on the 18th hole)? No, the calculator says I’ll be homeless and hungry by then. What if I reduce my monthly bills by selling my car and wearing burlap sacks? No, I’ll still come up short (and no doubt in need of talcum powder and rash cream).

My financial adviser can’t seem to give me the magic number I need to put away from each paycheck to ensure that I’m not living on ramen noodles and Hi-C when I hit the other side of 70. I keep asking if I’m being responsible at my current rate of savings, and he always assures me I am. Whenever I ask if I need to save more, though, he replies, “You would be better off when it’s time to retire …”

Of course I would, but how much is enough? I want to save enough for my wife to look back fondly at the time we had together but not enough for her to look forward to all the great things she’ll be able to afford when I’m gone. Let her second husband fund that stuff.

Saving for retirement reminds me of the childhood game where we tried to see who could flick a quarter nearest to the edge of the table without going over. Save too much and we rob ourselves of the ability to enjoy it while we can; save too little and we’re captives of the whims of ungrateful children and government assistance.

In the end, I usually end up ignoring the retirement calculator completely. It’s easier to avoid retirement altogether and hope that the Walmart stays open long enough to carry me through until that final putt.

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