The Thing About Money, Part 4: Retirement, or, I don’t want to be old and poor

(This is the fourth post in a six-post series titled The Thing About Money. Click to read The Thing About Money, Part I.)

As mentioned in Part 3 of this series, one of the things that scares me about my current debt load/financial situation in general is not having enough money to retire on. 

This worry isn’t without warrant. According to this 2018 survey, 42% of Americans have “less than $10,000 saved” for retirement. 42%. So, pretty much half of us (assuming this excludes children–Why haven’t you opened an IRA yet, little Timmy?). This is especially true of millennials; 57% of us have less than $10,000 saved (GUESS WHO HAS TWO THUMBS AND IS IN THE CLUB? THIS GIRL!!!!). 14% don’t have any retirement savings at all.

Nothing. Zero. Nada. 

This is a problem.

As per the National Council on Aging, “over 25 million Americans aged 60+ are economically insecure—living at or below 250% of the federal poverty level.” A full third of senior households don’t have any money left over by the end of the month, and some have to go into debt just to meet their basic living expenses. And even if they get social security, on average, women get $4500 less a year because they paid less into the system (and this number is even worse for women of color). Many elderly people are working well into their seventies, but eventually, there comes a time when their bodies just can’t do it anymore. 

There’s a big joke about having to eat cat food into one’s retirement, but it seems like there are people who are actually out there doing it. Frankly, I don’t want to be one of those people. 

You bet your ass I will push Mittens right out of line to get to that Fancy Feast. Photo from pexels.com.

This is a multigenerational issue. In a previously-mentioned episode of Bad with Money with Gaby Dunn, Gaby talks to her parents about their retirement plans. Her mom laughs and says “You’re my retirement plan.” She includes something along the lines of how they’ve invested so much in Gaby and pretty much that they expect her to help support her parents in their retirement. This is an incredible amount of stress to place on one’s child. And some parents live longer than we expect, which means we could be taking care of them after our own retirement*. 

Luckily, I don’t have to worry about my mom. She’s about to retire from the military, so she has a guaranteed paycheck and affordable medical care for the rest of her life. The knowledge that she’ll be taken care of takes a great weight off of me; she’s too proud to ever ask for help, but I would have given it to her, had she needed it. But she doesn’t. And I’m super grateful, because now I have the freedom to only worry about myself.

Unfortunately, the reverse of this situation is the reality for people as well. Many parents of adult children are having to delay or are not adequately saving for retirement because their children still need support, either with general expenses or, often, student loans. It’s completely understandable why someone would want to help their children, especially if they’re struggling; however, this seems like a good time to remind everyone of what they tell you on planes–put your own oxygen mask on before helping others. 

I don’t want this to be my future, for myself or my mother. 

Like my mother, I am also too proud to ask for help if I need it, unless I’m in an incredibly desperate situation. There was one–exactly one–situation when I had to call my step-dad for emergency support, and it still ranks as one of the most shameful moments of my life. After I graduated college, I was trying to support myself on the only job I could get at the time–minimum wage at a local bagel shop. Parking was notoriously hard in my neighborhood, so I often played roulette with spaces in random apartment buildings. One morning I walked to my car to find it booted. The cost to remove the boot? $200. 

I did not have $200.

So I cried. I called the number on the boot and cried on the phone with the company, cried when some random man showed up to take the boot off, cried when he ran my almost-maxed-out credit card, and cried on my way to work, wondering how I was going to pay rent the next week. After work, I did the unthinkable–

I called my step-dad and asked for help. 

And cried some more. And he, sweet man–full of remorse from years of alcoholism and still feeling like he needed to buy my love to make up for it–he transferred some money into my high school savings account so I could write a rent check without it bouncing and get a few groceries for the week. I felt like shit. I felt like the smallest, most pathetic, most useless human on the face of the earth. I felt manipulative for calling him, because I knew he would help me, because I was too embarrassed to talk to my own mother. 

I am still embarrassed when I think of this story. 

However, I tell this story to remind myself of why saving is so important. I don’t ever want to rely on anyone else again for my support. Additionally, I have no children to care for me and currently no intention to have any, nor, if I do, would I expect them to care for me. That’s not their job. As such, I need to make efforts now to ensure that my finances are ok later. 

I currently have a tiny bit of money stashed away for retirement. As in, like, less than $5000. Additionally, I worked overseas for a full three and a half years, so that’s three and a half years I didn’t pay into social security. I’m in my thirties, and even though retirement seems like it’s a long way away, I don’t think I’m going to make it into old age gracefully if I don’t drastically change things now. 

However, there is a part of me that wonders if it’s even worth the effort. Should I worry about “the market” when climate change is going to cause “Human Civilization to crumble” by the time 2050 rolls around (aka when I’m 63)? Should I instead be stockpiling clean water, bullets, and sunscreen? (I talked about this a bit in my first post, so I’m stopping my existential ramble… now.)

Assuming we are still alive in 2050 and not slaves to our computers or in a war against an army of machines, I will need some retirement savings. 

It’s not easy. Since starting my new job, I’ve budgeted a pretty good chunk–about $500/month–to go into an IRA. Even with the rest of my expenses and my student loan payments, I should be able to keep this up at least through June. But then I might get kicked out of my employer-owned housing, and that $500/month might have to be added to my rent just so I can find a place to live (three cheers for the south bay). 

I recently cancelled my cell phone insurance and photoshop monthly plan, in an effort to save some more money. I tell myself that if I keep playing with my spreadsheets and adjusting my numbers by five dollars here, ten dollars there, I will somehow feel like I am not going to end up old and destitute, only to have my body tossed in a pauper’s field with the gravel barely covering my bones, where on windy days the dirt blows away and you can see my skull (Oh Milat—why did you stare at the mayor?)

But this is why I need to start now. As the oft-quoted Einstein supposedly said, compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe. I have about thirty years to get this powerful force to work for, and not against, me. So, next week, let’s take a good hard look at my budget. 

* This may be behind a paywall. I’ll work on posting more sources that are open access, but your local library may have a subscription through which you can access this article.

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