I’m Locked Out Of My Retirement Account. It’s Probably For The Best.

Illustration by Ryan Snook

Every so often, I get a phone call or email from someone wanting to make a movie or television show based on a book I’ve written. When this first happened, 25 years ago, I almost quit my day job in expectation of untold riches and began looking for a home in Beverly Hills. The TV people strung me along for a month, then asked if I could write a book with more sex and violence. I declined, gratuitous sex and violence being inconsistent with my day job as a Quaker pastor. So the TV people went on to do a wholesome family show about serial killers.

The experience wasn’t a total loss, because I had thoroughly enjoyed the month of sweet anticipation, dreaming of what I might do with the millions of dollars soon to come my way. The possibility of wealth is as enjoyable as the reality of it, perhaps more so, because it doesn’t bring with it the trouble that often accompanies affluence. Mostly, what I dreamed about was buying a pickup truck, which I eventually did a few years later. I drove it for 20 years before selling it to an acquaintance, who promptly crashed it into a tree, an event that grieved me more deeply than my loss of potential riches.

Recently, another venture promising vast treasure presented itself. Like past opportunities, I don’t expect it to pan out. But it has been a wonderful distraction during the pandemic, filling hour after hour with pleasant speculations. It turns out that in 25 years, my idea of the good life has changed, and while I would enjoy a pickup truck, what I really want is enough money so my wife can quit her job and take care of me. Unfortunately, she has little interest in my dreams and intends to keep her job as a school librarian no matter how much money I make. Some people think only of themselves.

Before the virus arrived, I made half of my income giving speeches. I still give speeches, but only to my wife on the topic of trimming the fat from our household budget. One of us hasn’t been paying any attention to me because we’re still spending the same amount of money each month, a good bit of it on vintage motorcycles, so I’ll leave it to you to deduce which one of us is bad with money.

There are some things about money that make no sense to me, but are inarguably true. I feel richer with a hundred-dollar bill in my wallet than I do with $10,000 in the bank. The hundred-dollar bill is the perfect denomination to carry. It’s too big to break. Who, after all, will whip out a hundred-dollar bill to buy a bag of M&Ms? But if I were to carry 100 of them in my wallet, I’d spend them in a day’s time on something big.

At the start of summer, my wife gave me a hundred-dollar bill, and I’ve had it ever since. In mid-September, she asked me to pick up a loaf of bread while I was out, and I said I didn’t have the money.

“Use that hundred-dollar bill I gave you,” she said.

“For a loaf of bread?” I asked,
incredulous. “You’re crazy. There’s no way I’m going to use that to buy a loaf of bread.”

I still have it, tucked in my wallet behind my expired Tractor Supply gift card.

Another mystery about money is that no matter how many bills I have, I always have just enough money to pay them. I know this isn’t true for everyone, but it’s been true for me for as long as I can remember. Several months ago, our air-conditioner conked out. I called the repairman, even though I didn’t have any money (except the hundred-dollar bill in my wallet, which I wasn’t about to waste on air-conditioning). That same afternoon, an hour before the repairman arrived, a check for $1,000 landed in our mailbox. I mentioned this to a friend who told me it was a God thing, but I’ve studied enough theology to know God has bigger issues to deal with than my air-conditioning. But perhaps I’m wrong, and making me happy is more important to God than say, peace in the Middle East or climate change or eliminating the coronavirus.

Yet another mystery about money is the currency different nations use. You might think that in a global economy, we would all use the same currency, but you would be mistaken. On the island of Yap in Micronesia, the natives use limestone discs called Rai stones whose value is linked to the number of people who’ve died pushing that particular stone around for the past 1,500 years. The larger the Rai stone, the higher the value. In northern Italy, wheels of cheese are used as money, each wheel marked with its own serial number. In various African nations, pre-paid cellphone minutes serve as currency. The Chinese introduced paper money circa 800 A.D., but the United States didn’t have any agreed-upon standard until the National Banks Act following the Civil War.

Today, the value of the American dollar depends solely upon the U.S. government telling us it has value. When enough people stop taking the government’s word for it, a hundred dollar bill won’t be worth the 12.3 cents it costs to produce it. Think about that: The money we have sitting in our bank and retirement accounts only has value because our government says it does. If you were thinking of hoarding gold, now might be a good time to start.

I’ve never gotten used to the fact that my money isn’t really money. Mostly what I own are electronic chits residing in a computer somewhere. I wish I knew a hacker, because I forgot the password to my retirement account years ago and it would be nice to get to it, just in case. The man at Vanguard tells me my money’s safe and sound, but that’s only until I remember my password, then it will be a fiscal bloodbath. For years, I wrote my passwords on a piece of paper taped to my computer, but I was told that was risky, so I threw away the piece of paper. Ironically, that turned out to be even more risky, since I forgot the passwords. So here I am all these years later, a beggar staring through the window at a feast, unable to partake.

If you were wondering what venture promising vast treasure was knocking on my door, now you know: the slim chance I’ll remember the password to my retirement account. At one time, it was BeeBoy, my childhood nickname. But I happened to mention that in an article, so I changed it to BeeBoy1 to throw off the hackers. Then someone suggested I add a symbol to my password, so I changed it to BeeBoy1symbol. Pretty smart, eh? I can’t remember what I’ve added since then, but once I figure it out, I’m going to be loaded.