My Biggest Fear? Retirement
It’s thirty years away and yet it’s the only thing that keeps me up at night
Whenever I am asked to name my biggest fear, my glib answer has always been “failure.” The truth is, I have a lot of fears. I am petrified of mice and dentists. I worry about climate change, my child(ren) dealing with the common core curriculum, wildfires, terrorism, losing my job, a lack of clean water, the health of my parents, and many more issues, both large and small.
But the one that is always near the forefront of my brain, the only thing that occasionally keeps me awake at night is retirement.
My father was born the year after the end of World War II, my mother a few years after that. They were the earliest of the Baby Boomers. Too poor to be hippies, my mother had to put cardboard in her shoes and my father was drafted and sent to fight in Vietnam. They worked their asses off, eventually bought some land, used it as collateral to build a home, and provided a great childhood for us.
They weren’t cheap, but they were frugal, never forgetting their hardships. They were determined not to let us suffer the same struggles while trying to not let us become spoiled. There were times, particularly in the early years, that they were stretched and stressed, but they rarely — perhaps never — lived above their means and they always realized the value of saving and planning. Now, they live in a nice home on an inlet of the bay, with a boat in the water and an enclosed deck that makes every day feel like a vacation.
They are living the retirement dream. I worry that I’ll never be able to do the same.
I must give my parents credit. They saw the retirement crisis coming. Even before I landed my first job out of college, they had preached the need to save for retirement individually because pensions were going away. They lauded the magic of compound interest and did their best to educate me. I was far from the best listener and they certainly didn’t make me (“It’s your money,” they said with that parental I-know-better-than-you shrug), but after twenty-two years, I finally knew when to take their advice. And so, back in early 2003 just before I turned 23, I already had a Roth IRA with $2,000.
And now I’m all set, right? I took that two grand, maxed out my IRA every year after, and now spend my free time just watching my coin multiply?
Well, not quite. In fact, I’m far behind where I should be. I haven’t done everything right.
I’ve dipped into my IRA twice, both times to help pay for a down payment on a home. (The first time, I also sold all my books, so I was certainly committed to the cause.) I was a homeowner before I turned 26 and, after nearly a decade, I was able to upgrade to a much nicer house on a beautiful, quiet street. I absolutely love the house I live in now, so I don’t regret it, but it certainly would have been nice to have had all those year of compound interest. I wrestled with it, but I ultimately decided that a home now was worth both the cost and the risk.
The other questionable decision came in 2013 when I left a job only a few months before I was vested, leaving almost $20,000 behind. The new job was certainly worth it and there’s no guarantee that the opportunity would have been there had I waited, so, again, I won’t use the word regret. I just wish timing had been a bit more kind to me.
Because of these decisions, I need to do even more to catch up. In recent years, I’ve become a personal finance junkie, reading every book and article on the subject from Ramit Sethi to Dave Ramsey to Kristin Wong to Alexa von Tobel, even Helaine Olen in an effort to maximize my retirement accounts (and minimize my fears).
I feel like we realistically do as much as we can. We don’t splurge. We both drive cars that are paid off and we rarely spend money on frivolous things. Aside from the house, the only debt we have is student loans — undergrad and business school for me; only grad school for her — but they still take a chunk out of the budget every month.
In terms of saving, we’re trying. We have a liquid savings account for emergencies or unplanned expenses. I contribute enough to get my company’s full 401(k) match, she contributes to her 403(b) and we both try to put at least something in our IRAs every month. We also have a 529 for the kid. My wife also has a pension, but considering Chris Christie’s war on teachers, I’m not banking on that. As with social security, I’m acting as if it will not be there when we retire. If it is? Gravy.
Still, doing the calcs, I fear it’s not nearly enough. A million dollars sounds like a lot, but, between inflation and longer life spans, it probably is not enough to carry us through retirement. I want more, not because I’m greedy, but because I’m worried.
A major reason my thoughts are consumed with retirement is because it appears that most people are not:
the average working American household only has about $2,500 in retirement savings. That includes people of all ages, but the outlook for near-retirement households isn’t much better: their average amount saved is only $14,500.
This fascinates me. I know millions of people struggle to pay their regular bills every month, so most of them don’t have the disposable income, let alone the knowledge, to create a portfolio that will grow over time. They’re just trying to get by. The sad irony is that those are the people that need to plan for it the most. When I worked manual labor, I was with guys that were going to have trouble even walking when they reached their mid-50s — there’s no way they could continue doing those jobs. And it’s not like they can just turn around and get a cushy office gig, not only because most were unqualified, but because their contemporary white-collar brethren are being shown the door themselves.
I’m 35, so stories of alleged ageism in the workplace and retirees outliving their money become more relevant to me every day. I’m in a better position than the average American, even those that are much closer to retirement than I am, but that gives me little comfort. I’m doing my best, but I often doubt that it’ll be enough.
Yeah, retirement scares the hell out of me.
Christopher Pierznik is the author of eight books, all of which can be purchased in paperback and Kindle. In addition to his own site, his work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, and many more. He has been quoted on Buzzfeed and Deadspin. Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.