“Get a Life: You Don’t Need a Million to Retire Well”

July 12, 2008 at 5:56 am | Posted in Nonfiction, Personal Finance | Leave a comment

(April 29, 2007)

I just finished a really unconventional book on retirement planning: Get a Life by Ralph Warner.  It’s so different and fantastic that I wanted to share it, although I imagine most who read this probably aren’t focusing too hard on retirement right now.  (Myself, I plan to retire at 45 and live to be 90).

The basic premise of Get a Life is that most people work hard for decades to save as much money as possible for their retirements – not only to the point that they don’t enjoy their youth, but also to the point that when they retire they are unhealthy, can’t remember how to have fun any more, have few friends, and aren’t on great terms with their families.  So they have a pile of money and little else – they just sit in front of the TV all day and wait to die.  Depressing, huh?  By that analysis, there is no amount of money in the world that can buy someone excellent health, solid friendships, a happy marriage, or devoted children.

The other problem with conventional retirement planning is that it is simply impossible to know how long you will live or how much money you’ll wind up needing.  It’s all absolute guesswork.  Even worse, almost all retirement planning information available is paid for by the advertisements of various investment firms, or supplied by authors and publishers who feed off the anxiety that makes people buy investment books.  None of these materials will advise you to talk to actual retired people about their lifestyles.  Most assume you’ll look forward to playing a lot of golf, going on cruises, or maybe even buying an RV.  (Three elements of my worst retirement nightmare!)

The first chapter of the book advises that we seriously analyze our retirement fantasies.  If we plan to volunteer, do a lot of travel, go back to school, or work part-time, Warner warns that it may not be all that easy to jump into these activities immediately upon retirement.  It’s far better to rearrange our priorities and schedules now and gradually start working these interests into our lives.  That way we’ll be able to find out whether they really are everything we thought they’d be, whether we’ll be healthy enough to handle them, and whether we’ll be able to make ourselves a niche.

Next Get a Life covers health.  It turns out that exercising or not exercising has very little to do with our life spans – and absolutely everything to do with how healthy we are and how much we’re able to do when we are into advanced age.  So, if you’re going to live to be 85 one way or the other, you’d do better to get in shape and start eating a healthy diet as soon as possible, or you may wind up being old and sick for many more of those 85 years than necessary.

Warner goes on to advise that we build our family ties and start making friends in different age groups.  He gives the specific example of getting over it if your children have made lifestyle choices you don’t approve of (including homosexuality), because if you let it get in the way you’ll be an awfully lonely old person.  Likewise, if you’re relatively young now, it will pay to make friends who are a lot older, so you can learn how to age gracefully.  As you’re getting older, it’s a good idea to make younger friends, because they can share interests that will help you think like a younger person.  Both groups have a lot to offer each other.

The second half of the book discusses financial concerns.  The first of these is how to avoid nursing homes – puncturing the idea that long-term care insurance will actually benefit many people because the benefits are only paid out if you really can’t care for yourself at all.  Remaining chapters talk about calculating how much money you will need, where to get it, how to save more, and different investment vehicles.  Warner talks frankly about issues such as a parent remarrying, and how to reassure the kids that the new spouse isn’t a gold-digger.  He also discusses how the Amish deal with their elderly, and talks about how older people can help each other by being roommates.  (It’s probably easier to have roommates who don’t play loud music, keep strange pets, or have a revolving door for new lovers – a whole different story in your 70s than in your 20s, you know?)

One of the neat features of the book is that each chapter ends with an interview with a really interesting, active retiree.  Some of these folks are into their 90’s, and it’s incredible all the things they do.  Some of them have had to live through rotten disasters: one woman lost her husband only two months after their house burned down.  Yet they are all cheerful and they all sound totally together.  I found myself wanting to make friends with a few, who happen to live in Berkeley.

Essentially, Get a Life has a very positive message.  The only alarm notes are that it’s never too soon to slow down and appreciate life more, and that it’s incredibly important to take care of your health as much as possible.  And, of course, there’s an entire section on credit card debt and how we must pay it off as soon as possible.  That’s probably the one area of the book that will give you the same advice you’ll read in any other personal finance book.  Pay down that debt!

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