IMHO: Birthday Presence

Just after Christmas my family flew to Chicago for a surprise - my mother-in-law's 85th birthday.

It was a huge success – she wasn’t expecting us – in fact, wasn’t expecting to have all three of her children and their families in town on that day.

Over the course of our time there, I heard her tell several people “I never thought I’d make it this long.”   Now, my mother-in-law doesn’t look (or act) 85.   Still, even by today’s lengthening longevity standards, 85 is a long time – and, even as we planned our surprise trip “home”, we couldn’t help but wonder how many more birthdays we’d have together.

None of us know how many birthdays we’ll have – and how many of those will happen during retirement.   Indeed, contemplation of our personal mortality is something that most, IMHO, reserve for special, isolated occasions (some not even then, of course).   And yet, one of the most important aspects of planning for a financially secure retirement is making some attempt to predict just how long that retirement is going to be.

There are simple ways to deal with this complex and sensitive issue, not least of which the cogitations of actuarial science imbedded in those ubiquitous retirement projection calculators.   After all, it seem so much more emotionally palatable to know that the “average” 52-year-old is likely to live to “X” than it is to actually think about the years that personally remain on this mortal coil.

Other Variables

If there are limits to our ability (or willingness) to focus on retirement’s “duration”, we nonetheless have the ability to influence other key variables in the equation of a financially secure retirement.   We can, as a growing number of workers suggest they will, postpone retirement’s commencement by working longer.   Not just age, but health, influences our ability to do so – a pertinent concern at a time of year when New Year’s “resolutions” are in vogue.   Today’s workplace is certainly more conducive to such concepts than it was for our parents – and yet, I’m always struck by data on just how many of today’s retirees “attained” that status involuntarily, and earlier than they had planned.  

A more obvious choice -one at the core of today’s retirement savings campaigns – is to save more, and perhaps to save more earlier.   Unlike employment choices that may ultimately lie outside our control – or the uncertain and sometimes tenuous nature of human mortality – we all make choices every day about how to spend – or not to spend – the resources at our disposal.   Admittedly those are frequently difficult choices – how much more have you had to spend to fill your automobile tank this week than you did even a year ago – and yet a tough choice now could mean the difference in an impossible trade-off twenty years down the road.

Like my mother-in-law, we may not ever think we’ll “make it” as far as we actually do.   But if we’re lucky enough to get there – surprised or not – we surely don’t want to arrive empty-handed.