I cannot argue against one saving for retirement. Most people live a long time nowadays and at some point elderly people are going to need to provide for their needs without much income in the form of a paycheck. Saving is a good thing, and paying off debt is even better. The less money you have invested in Things (tm), the more flexibility you have to make life choices.
Yet 401(k) and defined benefit (pension) plans are a subversive tool in the corporate world. Corporations do a particularly good job of selling these benefits. Heck, most even match 401(k) investments to a certain point, and that’s free money I never turned down in my career. By the end of my time with the corporation, I was investing 15% of my paycheck in my 401(k). Saving for retirement was one of the few career-related choices I had control of.
The promise of future benefits is pushed on us like a pile of garbage bulldozed into a hole to be covered by dirt for a few thousand years. A future of little to no work and monthly 401(k) payouts is indeed tempting. Yet what percentage of employees are even investing at a level to make this feasible? Many coworkers of mine were saving at rates of 8, 6, or even 2 percent. I will not denigrate anyone for saving his money, but those rates do not lead to a beach-infused retirement. This does not even consider the unpredictability of inflation rates, lifespan, and quality of life.
The question I asked myself is, “Why am I putting off a happy and fulfilling life for the distant future?” This opened the door to possibilities. While compounding interest makes early investment critical, would I be willing to give up a year of savings for many years of happiness? The question was quite easy to answer when placed in those terms. Yes, I would give up a year of retirement savings to reroute my career in a more positive direction. Yes, I would take a more clear and immediate route to happiness today rather than wait to see how successfully my retire-in-thirty-years plan could be pulled off.
In no way am I recommending against saving for retirement. But I found when I looked at the retirement question through the filter of more specific, actionable questions, my perspective changed. Will I really stop working one day when I turn fifty-five? I don’t think so. Would I rather have a couple more thousand in savings or a sweet vacation with my family? Family vacations have always been a great experience for each of us. When I look back, would I trade my 401(k) for more time with my kids? YES!
Ultimately my choice was not so drastic. It was a matter of forgoing the “security of retirement” feeling for a short time. After gaining solid footing in a new career, saving money resumed its important place in my life. The salesmen would have me believe in a shiny, happy future with a gold watch and pension plan as a singular career goal. That picture was wiped away like tarnish from the family silver, revealing an even more beautiful future that I could begin enjoying in the present!
Save for retirement. Save for a rainy day. Save for personal flexibility. But don’t buy the beautiful retirement picture corporations are selling. It is possible to be happy with work life even before retiring. When evaluating your employment situation, it is important not to focus on what is coming after the work is all done.