CHICKEN LITTLE

As I was making an appointment last week, my being retired came up in the conversation. The woman behind the desk said, “Oh, you’re one of the lucky ones. I’ll never be able to retire.” Reading this you might think she was one of the boomer generation who just didn’t save or had had some tough breaks in life. But this woman looked to be mid-thirties so I replied with, “You’re young. Save your pennies. You don’t need a lot of money to get to retirement. At your age, you need a regular savings plan. You already have the time.” She went on to tell me it was really hard to save anything in this economy and there would be no social security by the time she retired. Oh, my goodness, Chicken Little, the sky is falling!

As I drove home, I kept thinking about her attitude. I’d heard it all before. In fact, I’d heard it for decades. At one time in my life, I was also counted among the people who bought into the no way to save philosophy. I’m not trying to make light of the recent economic downturn. It’s been tough for a lot of people. Martin and I have both lost jobs at one time in our careers. So, I know firsthand how not fun that is. We also lived through the high inflation late 1970’s when gas prices first spiked and mortgage rates were upwards of 18%!!! Maybe that’s part of the reason we took this latest downturn in stride. While it may look and feel like the world is going to Hell in a handbasket (that’s a very old name for a woman’s handbag, which goes with the very old saying of going to Hell in a…well, now you know), the economy always seems to recover eventually. And, those who don’t sit around boohooing over it, seem to come out ahead of the rest of the crowd. You can have a Chicken Little, the sky is falling attitude or you can have a how can I make lemonade of out of this lemon attitude. Your choice.

So, back to my having heard it all before. I’ve talked with people who tell me they’ve tried to save but just can’t do it. Yet, they go out to dinner most nights or stop at the bar for a quick one…or two… on the way home. I’ve heard from people who go to Hawaii every year or Europe every year or Mexico every year or take a cruise every year. I’ve known of plenty of people who bought a new car every two years or three years just to keep up with the Joneses or so they wouldn’t have to deal with repairs. I’ve also known of lots of people who got a promotion with a nice sized raise and immediately went for the larger, more expensive home. Warren Buffett still lives in the same house he bought in his twenties. That should tell you something. I’ve known of women who had to buy one of those crazy big jewelry chests to house all the baubles they couldn’t stop buying.

Fortunately, I’ve also talked with lots of people who paid themselves first out of every paycheck. They socked it away for retirement. They invested in their future. Some of those same people were on the verge of retiring when in the fall of 2008 the bottom dropped out of their portfolio. Did they say they got screwed out of their retirement? Did they boo hoo about how their golden years wouldn’t be what they dreamed of? No, they said how can I make lemonade of this lemon! They reworked their dream, downsizing to a smaller home or deciding not to travel as much or selling off some of their toys. Others decided to keep working a couple more years. They kept a positive attitude. They were resilient despite what life had just handed them. On the contrary, I know people who pulled all of their money out of the stock market, thus locking in their losses and blaming everyone they could think of for their situation. Planning for retirement is like planning for anything else. Stuff happens. And, that means reworking the plan. It doesn’t mean retirement won’t happen. It just means it may look differently from your original dream or it may be delayed. You learn to roll with the punches.

As for Social Security, I smiled to myself about the young woman thinking there would be none for her generation. It’s the same thing Martin and I used to think about Baby Boomers. Does it look differently for our generation than it did for our parents? Yes. And, it will probably look differently for Generation X. Full benefits will most likely occur later, just like it is for us. It may not be as much, meaning the self-discipline to set up a regular, consistent savings plan is even more important. The fact is, Social Security has never been enough to retire on alone. It has always been and will continue to be just a part of the plan. Pensions have all but disappeared. However, I’d rather have my own nest egg in the form of a self-directed 401K or IRA or other plan any day of the week.

The key to whether or not you have a secure retirement or not is dependent upon your attitude. I recently read a story that has nothing to do with retirement but everything to do with attitude. It is the story of a high school basketball player who desired nothing more in his young life than to play basketball. When he was cut from the team, he felt humiliated and defeated. When he got home that day, he went to his room and cried. Today, Michael Jordan, who is probably the best basketball player who ever played, says that was a good experience. He didn’t allow himself to be defeated or defined by that circumstance. Instead, he reworked his plan. Attitude, folks, attitude.

So, whatever the economy, the government, the markets are doing, focus on what you can do with what you have to do it. You can have a retirement. And, what it looks like depends entirely upon how you look at life.

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