Imagine a world of total certainty – you know when you’ll die, how many times your car will crap out on you, what the markets will do, and if your third kid will need braces. In that world. figuring out exactly how much money you’ll need to save so that you can stop working entirely is just math, and the “it depends” part of the equation is limited to “it depends on how much you love/hate your job” or “it depends if you want to let your kids live with you until they’re 28” or even “it depends on whether you actually like lattes or not”.
In the real world “it depends” is the equation. You have no idea what the markets will do for the 56 years before you maybe turn 95-if-you-live-that-long-but-what-if-you-live-longer (and neither does anybody else). You don’t know if your job (or your ability to work it) will be around in seven years. You’d like to retire at 60, but that’s a decade or two away and you don’t know if you can keep from murdering that guy who never refills the printer paper for that long.
Whether you’re one of those early retirement people, are planning on working until three o’clock on the afternoon of your 65th birthday, or someone who can’t even visualize what “retirement” really means (points at herself), retirement planning is the exercise you go through to figure out how much of your money you should realistically be setting aside for that inevitable day when you stop collecting a paycheque, or invoicing clients, or collecting ad revenue, whether that day comes at 37 or 67.
But why? The easy answer is “so I don’t run out of money when I’m too old/sick/hungover on the beach in Mexico to go out and earn some more”. An answer much closer to the truth is “so I know how much I should be saving so that doesn’t happen”, and one even closer to the truth – knocking on its door, in fact – is “so I can spend money now and when I’m not earning it anymore”.
The best retirement planning helps you spend more.
It doesn’t always feel like it, and – no matter what anyone says – it’s an imprecise science at best, but planning for that inevitable day when you stop collecting a paycheque, or invoicing clients, or collecting ad revenue is an exercise that will let you spend more money than vaguely worrying about “saving enough” or “running out” will.
Now, don’t get me wrong. When I say “spend more money” I don’t mean “whatever you want, whenever you want”. I mean that if you put a realistic, measurable plan in place to fund your retirement – whatever yours happens to look like – with a reasonable margin of error that you review periodically, you will be able to spend more money than you would if you had plenty of worry but no plan.
We frown when we read the magazine articles about couples driving around Lexuses (Lexi?), facing a rapidly approaching retirement in which they’ll be lucky if they can afford a fifteen year old Dodge Caravan. Equally short-sighted, in my opinion, is living a Caravan life so you can drive the figurative Lexus at 67.
In theory, the metaphor-ridden path from Caravan to Lexus sounds great. It fits in with our collective bent towards modest living (in thought, anyway) and delayed gratification. In practice, there really is such a thing as saving too much.
Squinting myopically at the far-off future full of unicorns and rainbows and all the steak you can eat while smaller unicorns with one steak a week and rainbows every once in a while is right beside you is missing the point.
There is no universe in which I’ll become an extreme saver. I have lived the life of a budget so tight it leaves those elastic marks on my skin, and working out whether it costs more to blow my nose with a tissue from the box vs. two squares of toilet paper, or resenting the weather because having to run the dryer will cost me four cents is a chapter in my life I don’t care to re-read unless the payoff is really, really juicy.
Related: Why do we save?
“Making do” is all very well, but I don’t want to spend the next thirty years of my life “making do” so I can retire at 67 with a million dollars in the bank and with the “don’t spend” attitude etched so deeply into my psyche that I continue to count toilet paper squares.
Planning – whether you spend some time reading up and do it yourself, or you work with someone who’s actually interested in the exercise – moves you closer to balancing the equally important goals of Enough Now and Enough Later, and away from the the celebrated Hoping It Will All Work Out error and its less written about but more common cousin Vague, Guilty Worry.
Sandi Martin is an ex-banker who left the dark side to start Spring Personal Finance, a one woman fee only financial planning practice based in Gravenhurst, Ontario. She and her husband have three kids under five, none of whom are learning the words to “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank” quickly enough. She takes her clients seriously, but not much else.