The Two Things Keeping You From Retirement

The biggest financial finish line in the majority of people’s lives is retirement. Researchers have poured years into studying how to get people to actually take the steps to prepare for retirement because not enough people are doing so. The definition of retirement is to leave one’s job and cease working. Quitting work is the easy part of retirement. The hard part is being financially prepared to no longer have paychecks coming. Everyone is looking for a magic bullet to retirement—the as-seen-on-TV pill for becoming rich. People want to win the lottery or inherit large amounts of unexpected money because otherwise, they just don’t know how they will ever have enough money to retire.

The most interesting thing about how to have enough money to comfortably retire is that, by definition, everyone is already doing it. Retirement indicates you had a job in the first place and you were working. The way to retire comfortably is to work. That’s it. There’s no magic pill that allows all those rich people to retire before you. They worked. And they saved.

The two main reasons people struggle with saving money for retirement are: self-deception and temporal discounting. Let’s examine those more closely:

SELF-DECEPTION: Lying to yourself about retirement comes in many varieties. In some of the worst cases, people cite winning the lottery or the end of the world as their retirement plans. Maybe the world will end before you retire, but there are no odds on that because it’s literally never happened. Your chances for winning the latest powerball jackpot were slightly better than the odds for the world ending: 1 in 292.2 million. Not great chances. Other people “can’t afford” to save money now but they lie to themselves by saying they will be able to save when they make more money. This retirement tactic is betting against yourself. What if you never make significantly more than you do right now? Even if you do, you are giving up the power of compound interest and forcing yourself to work even harder to save the same amount of money at a later date. Also, how can you count on yourself to “afford” saving for retirement later and not keep justifying that you “just don’t make enough”?

Self-deception leads people into believing that debt is normal and living paycheck-to-paycheck is the only possible way. Adults have forgotten the basic elementary school lesson about needs vs. wants. My daughter just brought home a lesson from school where they were stranded on an island and had to pick from a list of things they needed and put the rest under “want.” Needs included food, shelter, clothing, and heat. Wants included toys, games, cars, furniture, and books. It was a silly assignment. Even my daughter thought so. It was “SO EASY” she said. But I think the same assignment should be given to everyone employed full-time because we seem to forget. Suddenly, we NEED a new car, a new couch, and more toys. We fail the assignment (no, we’re not smarter than a second grader!). “Needs” on the assignment also did not include a fancy house, brand-name clothes, or catered food. We don’t need nice versions of those things and it is possible to find a place somewhere between living paycheck-to-paycheck but having all the things and being stranded on an island with loads of money in the bank. It all comes down to being honest with yourself.

TEMPORAL DISCOUNTING: The basic definition of temporal discounting is that money loses its value over time. For example if I offered to give you $10 today or $10 in a week, you would choose the $10 today because there is no benefit to waiting. The $10 next week is worth less to you. But what if I offered you $10 today or $12 in a week? Would $2 be worth waiting a week? You don’t know me… maybe you don’t trust I’ll give it to you. You can also think of so many things to do with $10 today and offering you cash got you excited to use it right now.

Related: Research Highlight: Temporal Discounting

Researchers have been making temporal discounting calculations for years trying to understand exactly how much we devalue our future money in favor of money today. We are the same way with our retirement money. When we get a paycheck, we want to use that money right now. We overvalue having nice cars, big houses, fancy vacations, and other fancy “stuff” right now because we can’t imagine saving for retirement is worth as much.

One of the reasons we are guilty of devaluing money in the future is that we are generally terrible at considering our future selves. We picture some stereotypic old person in a rocking chair and that vision is not enough to motivate us to get there. That person doesn’t need money. They’re OLD! And BORING. Spoiler: Your future self is STILL YOU. Instead of adding a vague face, grey hair (or bald!), take a good look in the mirror. The person looking back at you is the one you’re cheating. Do you want to work forever? Would you rather have all the fancy things and work all the time or would you rather save some money to be able to enjoy whatever you want all day every day when you no longer have to work?

It is important to make “temporal discounting calculations.” No, retirement is not worth working extremely hard and missing all opportunities for the next ten to thirty years. That is the path to being both rich and miserable. You’ll ruin relationships. You’ll miss your children’s childhoods. You’ll have regrets and you’ll have to live with them. Future money should only be discounted for something that is worth more than money today. Don’t rob your future self to make today’s self the coolest-looking guy at the office. That’s not worth it.

Make a list of your top 3 priorities. When Mr. T and I actually took time to write down our priorities, they all fell under: Family, Experiences (ie: Travel, New Skills, etc.), and Church. After you have your 3 most important things, write them down and post them somewhere that you see daily. Keep those in mind. When you go to swipe that credit card, picture that list and ask yourself: “Does this money benefit my top three priorities?” If the answer is NO, put the credit card back and walk away.

By simply being honest with yourself about your finances and making calculated decisions about the money you spend today over the money you save, you actually have a chance at having enough money to comfortably retire. And then the only question is: Will you retire early?

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  1. There have been a lot of talks around the office this past week about finance and the same things you mentioned, people thinking “retirement them” is different than “current them”. Also, the other big one was “where is my money going, we make good money but are always broke…” I’ve had a lot of talks, at least 1-2 a day with different people each time about how to track your money if they aren’t already (most aren’t – palm slap to forehead) and starting with just asking, do I NEED this or do I WANT this. Starting there is easy, free and starts getting your brain setup for a financial mindset change.
    After reading your post, I realized Temporal Discounting plays such a HUGE part of it for all the people I talked to. Now that they “can afford” nicer things they feel they deserve it, and then are wondering where their money is going now that they make more than they ever have. It’s an amazing concept, but then I’m also fascinated by the interplay of sociology and psychology.

    • MaggieBanks

      Early retirement is an interesting point here because just thinking about early retirement changes the temporal discounting level. Because immediately, instead of picturing some old person retiring, we actually picture ourselves, so we break that barrier between us and our future selves. Temporal discounting is one of my favorite topics. 🙂

  2. I love this: “Your future self is STILL YOU”. I’ve found it hard to envision myself 20 or 30 years from now because I will be REALLY old! But I’m getting better at it. And that $10 I have today is worth more to my future self, whether it actually grows in value or not. It represents security and stability, and I just can’t put a price on that. I think Suze Orman said it best – we need to get as much pleasure from saving as we do from spending.

    • MaggieBanks

      You’ll only find that pleasure in saving if you have a good vision of what that saving will mean for you in the future. It is hard to envision, but if you just picture you NOW, and plan on what you would do NOW if you hit financial independence, work toward that!

  3. I am just seven workdays from telling my boss that I am early retiring and moving into a life of leisure, so I guess I cleared the hurdle of these pitfalls. Or did I?

    I think I had my own version of self deception – I deceived myself into believing I was making less money than I actually was. We banked our raises and bonuses and kept our lifestyle standard the same. Additionally, we have discounted the actual security our savings will provide some day and over saved so that we had a substantial prefer. I guess you can use these concepts for the good as well as the bad. ?

    • MaggieBanks

      It’s all about a little perspective. 🙂 You were able to see yourself retiring, so you got yourself there… and self-deception on the positive? I like it!

  4. Ah, there’s so much good advice in here that’s so hard to follow! Both relate to self-awareness, both of yourself now and in the future. An important meditation for everyone… Keep the behavioral economics mojo flowing!

    • MaggieBanks

      Thanks Mortimer! I know it’s hard to be self-aware and have a good vision of what we actually plan to do and be in the future, but think of the possibilities! If you can get a good sense of that, life changes!

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