I got my first steady job in the summer of 1972 at an ice-cream store in a brand new shopping mall. I was fourteen. Except for a month or two in 1977 after my employer went out of business, I’ve worked at least one job ever since. Those early positions were more character-building than income-producing. Saving for retirement — or for any purpose — never crossed my mind. I spent every penny and then some, relying on credit to make up the difference.
Some of my earlier jobs required participation in a retirement plan. I minimized my contributions and cashed in whenever I changed jobs, paying both the ten percent penalty and the taxes on the meager sum I’d still managed to amass. Regrets are not my thing. What’s done is done, and the mistakes I’ve made have shaped me at least as much as anything else. But now that I’m 56, older me would like to have a word with younger me about the long-term cost of cashing out.
I launched my professional career and my retirement savings plan late compared with others my age, when I was thirty-two. Working to my seventieth birthday would be my penance for earlier mistakes and taking so long to settle down. I checked the balance on the retirement account statements that came in the mail every quarter, always disappointed to see the magic of compound interest hadn’t yet kicked in.
But I stuck to the plan, increasing my contributions now and then over the years as circumstances allowed. I didn’t pay much attention until the value of my portfolio reached six-figures. The bigger the number, the greater the impact over time of tiny little differences in the rate of return. Somebody who knew what they were doing could surely do better. How much money was I missing out on?
For the next few years, my anxiety increased in direct proportion to my net worth. Accounts at half a dozen financial institutions needed to be rebalanced. Just thinking about the paperwork gave me a headache. When a Certified Financial Planner friend opened a wealth management firm, I turned everything over to her.
Since then, I haven’t lost a minute of sleep worrying about my investments. She dumped expensive funds from my portfolio, resulting in a huge drop in fees — more than enough to cover her annual fee for managing my accounts. Based on where I was at the time, she told me I could retire at age sixty-five, knocking at least five years off what I’d always believed. I’ve loved her ever since.
When I turned 56 in March, I made an appointment to see her. The countdown to retirement dropped to a single digit — just nine more years to age sixty-five. My joy about retiring far exceeds my horror about being so damn old. I’m not ready to shop for my rocking chair yet, but with less than ten years to go, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
The single post about retirement I’d planned ended up long enough to break into four parts. Since April is Financial Literacy Month, I’m continuing this discussion every Monday in April. Hopefully, you’ll learn something from my experience to help with your retirement plans. Next week, a look at the income side of my retirement planning equation.