There’s a good reason I can’t get into extreme savings for retirement. When desperate financial times call for desperate financial measures, there is a good incentive to cut all unnecessary spending and eliminate bad debt. Many people even wait until they hit rock bottom before reforming their approach to their finances, because the effects of bad money management aren’t always clear until they’re completely unavoidable.
After one extreme — complete lack of reasoning and complete lack of understanding consequences — there is a tendency to hit the other extreme. An obsessive spender is just as likely to become an obsessive saver. A little obsession might be good. When I realized I wasn’t saving for my future, I began tracking every cent of income and expense, and it helped me learn where I could cut back my spending and improve my income. It’s an important part of moving your life in the right direction, and I still recommend this to anyone who hasn’t seriously considered their money management skills, particularly those who aren’t left with much net income at the end of the month, if any.
There’s a danger in taking saving too far. Money is more than a number, and you are more than just your net worth. The only point in growing your bank account balances is to use that money for something at some point. Money has no intrinsic meaning; its purpose is only what you can do with it. Although it’s a problem not many will face, it is possible to save too much money.
The government encourage saving decades in advance for retirement by providing tax incentives. It’s a good way to decrease the burden on employers, who at one time offered pensions to assist their employees when they could no longer work. Pensions have all but disappeared in the private sector, replaced by 401(k) plans and IRAs. Preparing for retirement in advance is healthy financial planning, but you still have to consider there is a chance, though remote, that you won’t survive until the end of the saving-for-retirement phase of your life.
It’s a morbid thought, of course, and I wish all Consumerism Commentary readers a long, healthy life. An insurance company may use actuarial tables to determine the chances of any individual living a certain number of additional years, but it’s just an estimation. When we plan for the future we have to assume that the money we invest or save while looking at a time horizon decades in the future will be there when we need it, but we also have to assume that we’ll be there to use it. That’s a lot of assumptions, and putting money away that could be used today is a certain type of risk.
Having a will helps a saver feel comfortable with the fact that if his money outlives him, it will at least see a chance to be used, either by relatives who might save it or by a non-profit organization who can use the funds to move its mission forward. For those who have the means, however, having not completed everything on a “bucket list” could be a regret. Life is almost always shorter than we want it to be, and with many fulfilling activities, many of which require money, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to wait until retirement to do everything.
It’s not a good idea, though, to take this “life is short” mantra and use it as an excuse to spend money with wanton abandon. This is a toxic financial attitude, even though it could be considered the opposite of putting your financial concerns off until the future, another toxic attitude.
While I fully agree that everyone should seize the day in as many opportunities as possible, this approach should be balanced with enough consideration for the future. I don’t think that balance can ever be perfect, though. All anyone can do is make an educated guess, and aim for an approach to finances with which one is comfortable. One that provides a chance for thriving when income from work is no longer a factor while taking advantage of opportunities today for enjoying life.
The good news is that we can enjoy life today while saving for the future. It doesn’t have to be one or the other, although when you’re living paycheck to paycheck or worse, the smart decision is to focus on getting out of that situation and beginning to build wealth as the primary and only priority. Once you are building wealth, you are in a better position to have that flexibility. The frugal approach to life assists with this goal. You can find ways to enjoy life on a budget while keeping the automatic investing plan in full force.
Although I save for retirement to cover myself in the likely event I’ll eventually want to stop working in exchange for money — likely well before I reach the government-suggested age of retirement — I want to make the most of my time today. That doesn’t always require money, but sometimes it does.
- I see people putting up with terrible bosses and jobs they don’t like. Life is too short to waste your time in situations that aren’t ideal, or at least moving in that direction. It’s a myth that we need to just accept what we have and be happy when we’re treated poorly at work. When the economy is bad, people are brainwashed into thinking they should be lucky to have any job. Get out and find something better.
- Unhappy marriages and personal relationships are similar to bad working situations. Life is too short to spend your life with someone who doesn’t make you happy or to force yourself to spend time with people who don’t share your values. There are seven billion people in the world.
- Why waste your time watching television when life is so short? Well, while reading a novel might better flex your neurons, seeking entertainment is a part of enjoying life today, so don’t be too quickly to accept the productivity refrain that mindless entertainment is a waste of time. There may be better ways to be entertained, but life is not worth living if you have to be productive every waking minute of every day — especially if that “productivity” is for the benefit of someone else.
Recognize that life is short and that we might lose our chance to enjoy life if we wait around for retirement or financial independence to start living. We can’t use the fact that life is short as an excuse that prevents good decision-making, which takes the idea to the extreme to the detriment of important goals like saving for the future.
How do you balance the need to plan for your financial future and to achieve financial independence with the need to make use of what you have and enjoy life today? How do you make the most of what is a relatively short life without sacrificing your future? How do you prevent “life is short” from becoming a toxic financial attitude that takes away your ability to save?
Updated July 17, 2015 and originally published June 30, 2015.