IMHO: The Right Choices

April 17, 2006 ( - A couple of Saturdays ago, I was working on a column, when I got a call from my sister. My father, who had been battling cancer for several years now, had suffered a series of heart attacks. By the end of the day, he had passed.

As the family converged, my siblings and I tried as best as we could, together with Mom, to deal with the tasks that required our attention, and divvied up the ones that seemed to call out for individual attention.   Having spent my entire professional career in financial services, and having picked up a law degree along the way, my “job” was to organize the will and assets.  

My parents each chose careers of service to others; Dad as a minister, and then a director of missions where he helped other ministers until his “official” retirement several years ago (far as I could tell, Dad’s only retirement was from the receipt of a regular paycheck), while Mom was a school teacher – a teacher who took a fairly significant “sabbatical” so that she could stay at home with her four kids until the youngest was ready to head off to school.   They both loved what they did, but they aren’t professions that tend to make one wealthy (in a monetary sense, anyway).

Despite that, my Depression-era reared parents saved what they could.   On top of the expenses of rearing four kids, Dad, considered self-employed for most of his working life, funded both the employer and employee portions of Social Security withholding and still found a way to set aside money in a tax-sheltered account (he also tithed “biblically,” for those who can appreciate that financial impact).   Mom, covered by a state pension plan, saved diligently to buy back the service credits she had forgone during the years she worked in our home without a paycheck, and also set aside money in her 403(b) account.   Somehow, despite all those draws on their modest incomes, they managed to accumulate a respectable nest egg.

Still, you can’t spend as much time dealing with retirement matters as we do without being concerned about how long that “respectable” nest egg will last.   The scariest issues are covered – their house, long-term care insurance, retiree medical…and over the next couple of weeks, as some of the pain of our loss subsides, I’ll be working with Mom on her retirement income plan.   I doubt that there will be trips to “Boca” on the near-term agenda – but then, Mom and Dad were never big on those kinds of things to begin with.    

I’ve always been proud of my parents, who sacrificed so much along the way to give us the best they could.   I’m also proud – and more than a little impressed – of how committed they were to saving what they could, when they could, and the results of that commitment.  

So often – perhaps too often, IMHO – these days, I think we are inclined to excuse inadequate savings rates as the product of strained finances, a tight economy, or the simple human inclination to indulge in short-term pleasures.   My parents’ example reminds me – and hopefully all of us – that the decision to save is just that – a decision, a choice.  

Here’s hoping more of us make the right ones – while we still can.