Plan for the future? Sure. Lately, I’ve been planning for the next hour or day. Planning for my far future, like next year, only happens if I want to get a headache. Long term life plans for coming decades are important, but they are extrapolations that must be made from a stable present. Right now, the best stability I can find is internal and doesn’t involve numbers but it does involve math. Me understanding me and managing me is a priceless exercise that costs nothing but time and courage. A sense of humor helps.
Retirement planning for the average person leading a normal life usually involves adding income, subtracting expenses, guessing at raises and inflation, putting in a safety margin, and extrapolating to some guessed at lifespan. Let’s see.
- Median household income in the US ~ $51,000.
- Median household net worth in the US ~ $69,000. (A figure which, ironically, ignores the value of the household’s house.)
- Median age in the US ~ 37
- Median life expectancy ~ 79
So, we just throw all of those numbers into a retirement calculator and what do we get? Nothing very useful. A person with the median income probably doesn’t have the median net worth, isn’t the median age, and doesn’t have the median life expectancy.
Personally, my income and net worth are far below the median while my age is significantly above it. As for my life expectancy, well, skip the statistics. At my age, lifestyle probably has a greater effect than my age on determining my life expectancy.
Several times I’ve calculated retirement plans, set that course, and embarked. Oh well. Calculating such a plan now would be meaningless. As so many people I know, extrapolating from where I am produces an answer of working for the rest of my life by necessity. That can be fun, if it is the right job in the right place with the right people. It happens, and I am glad I am closer than most to that model. Being closer to that ideal also explains a bit of my current financial deficit. Compromises happen. If I’d stayed in my engineering job, I’d probably be a millionaire – and possibly either crazy or dead from stress. My finances would’ve looked great, but my life expectancy would’ve been compromised.
Yet I am optimistic. How’d that happen? Am I just fooling myself?
I am optimistic because, for most people, life isn’t all bad luck. I had a string of it, but I can also have a string of equally good luck. If I only trusted to luck I’d be working without worrying about tracking hours or maximizing income. I’d be reading more books, volunteering more, and spending a lot more time hiking, skiing, bicycling, dancing, and generally socializing. Maybe that would be a better plan. Maybe that would more readily lead to serendipitous opportunities. There’s no way to know.
What I understand about my personal finances is amplified by what I know about me. I know that my needs can be easily met. My wants don’t cost much more. Frugality has its value. I’ve already found a place where I can enjoy life.
I have a wonderful network of friends. I have enough skills that I can’t exercise them all in a day, and that is a wealth for a lifetime. Many of them are even valuable enough to command a much higher income. Someday I may get the opportunity to enjoy that combination.
Because I need so little to enjoy life, it won’t take much for me to make more than enough. I’ll be able to follow one of my favorite old-school rules: Spend less than I make. Then, after I have cleared old, outstanding bills, I’ll be able to follow another of my old-school rules: Invest the rest. If I am spending less than I make and investing the rest, and doing so in ways that are healthy, then I can sustain a comfortable life. That retirement plan doesn’t fit into a calculator, and it doesn’t need to. Check out my book (or buy it). Those rules are in there, and there isn’t a retirement calculator.
Of course, I look forward to making a lot more than I need, benefiting from successful investments, and being comfortably comfortable. And I also buy lottery tickets. Why pass up an opportunity and a chance to dream?
My Rule of 7 and Retiring One Percent both get about as detailed as I think is necessary for retirement planning for those of us without those median jobs and lifestyles. New Road Map’s Nine Step Program is a good example of planning that isn’t only a retirement plan. Life is uncertain. Pretending that it isn’t is appealing, but it is also an illusion. I’ve had enough retirement plans fade for me to think otherwise. Personal understanding, living according to simple values, and persistence are more in my control, have as much certainty as I can give them, and are far more valuable. That’s my plan – at least for now.