Phil Gulley: Age-Old Problem

I’ve been thinking about retirement lately, and it’s a lot of work.
My father-in-law, Howard Apple, passed away when my wife was 13, leaving his wife and two daughters to fend for themselves on a Southern Indiana farm. He didn’t have life insurance or any appreciable wealth, except for some acreage of rocky clay and woods on a gravel road. My mother-in-law learned to drive and became the cook and housecleaner for an elderly couple in town. My wife and her sister took after-school jobs to keep the wolf from the door.

Those thin years made my wife skittish about retirement, so when we married, she reined in my free-spending habits. We’ve been saving for 31 years and are now pulling down a robust .05 percent interest rate on the money in our bank account. The same bank only made $4.2 billion last year, so I don’t begrudge it the low interest rate. Times are hard all over.

We’ve been trying to figure out how much money we need to save before we can retire, but we can’t get a straight answer from anyone. When we first began saving, we were told $1 million would suffice. That isn’t as hard as it sounds. Let’s say you want to retire at age 65. At 55, simply set aside $100,000 a year for 10 years, and you’re there. But let’s say you don’t have $100,000 to spare when you’re 55. If push comes to shove, you can always set aside a million dollars on your 65th birthday and be good to go.

Or so I thought.

I set the $1 million mark as our Holy Grail, and then I met a financial planner at a dinner party. Always on the lookout for free advice, I asked her how much we should have in hand when we retire. She suggested $3 million, and maybe more depending on how much we planned on spending. She also said it wasn’t wise to spend more than 4 percent of our savings each year, so if we save $3 million, that will generate $120,000 in income a year. Which sounded like a lot of money, until she warned us about that most insidious of thieves—inflation. Thirty years from now, $120,000 probably won’t buy much. Maybe a nice dinner out and a trip to the Dairy Queen afterward.

In addition to our savings account, we’ve invested in several mutual funds. We don’t know what mutual funds are, but we were told everyone should have them, so we went and got ourselves some. Each month, we send some money to a company in New York that sends us a piece of paper telling us how much is in our fund. There’s a certain level of trust involved, because it’s not actually money. What we’re buying are electronic chits in a computer somewhere, which is what passes for money these days. There’s no old prospector somewhere with a poke full of gold with our name on it. No gold coin I can bite to make sure it’s real. It makes me nervous when I think about it, so I try not to.

We’ve been attempting to supplement our retirement savings by selling Amway. It works like this: I call my friends and acquaintances, explain to them that I’ve become a representative for Amway, and ask if I can visit them. When they hesitate (and they always hesitate), I offer not to sell them Amway if they give me $50. I’ve only been doing this a few months and have already made thousands of dollars not selling Amway. My wife is thinking of not selling Avon and Tupperware.

My biggest worry about retirement isn’t how I’ll pay for it, but whether I should even do it. We’ve all heard stories about guys who retired and five minutes later dropped dead. It gives one pause. Some people fill their retirement years volunteering for worthy causes. I like to think I’d do that, but who am I kidding? I’d spend 10 hours a day watching YouTube videos and eating Cheetos. People like me shouldn’t be entrusted with large amounts of free time. I know a guy who was sensible and kind, then turned 65, retired, and before you know it was watching Fox News and agreeing with Bill O’Reilly. Retirement can do strange things to the unfettered mind.

A common theme in many retirements is travel. My wife has been hinting she might enjoy this, and I sense we’re headed for conflict. I’ve taken enough trips to know the best part of any journey is the anticipation of it. The actual trip is a nightmare. I could spend my entire retirement planning to travel, studying maps, scheduling the itinerary, conversing with people who’ve been there, and be perfectly content staying home. Why ruin a vacation by taking it?

These aren’t the only things that make me leery of retirement. Frankly, it seems like too much work. I can’t count the number of people who’ve retired and told me, “I’m busier than I’ve ever been. I don’t know how I found the time to work.” This is because people who aren’t retired think retirees have nothing better to do than help them. Well, I say to heck with that. If I’m going to have to keep on working after my career is over, I’d just as soon be paid for it.

There are two things I won’t be doing when I retire. The first is going places with other retirees on a bus. They’re at their worst when they gather in large numbers and travel somewhere that way. Just last month, I went to a cafeteria for lunch. I happened to arrive as a busload of geezers pulled into the parking lot. I held the door open for them, so I ended up behind 47 retirees who spent 20 minutes deciding between cottage cheese and applesauce and then paid with pocket change. It’s like they didn’t understand that not all of us are retired and might need to get back to work to watch YouTube videos and eat Cheetos.

The other thing I won’t be doing is accepting senior-citizen discounts. Why do older people even get discounts at stores and restaurants? It seems unfair, like knocking off 10 percent for white people. Cashier: Oh, I notice you’re white. That’ll save you a little money. A discount for old people? Really? The average American age 65 or older is 47 times wealthier than the average American 35 or younger. Give that discount to the people who need it—the single mother, the college student, the fast-food worker. Better yet, give it to me, since I’m $3 million short of my retirement goal.