Tortoises Win The Retirement Race
The race to the finish line—the time between an empty nest and retirement—is tightening. A major generational shift has taken place, and it's having a huge impact on when and how we save and plan.

Most older baby boomers like myself had children in their 20s and empty nests by age 50. They used that time to accumulate enough money to retire. When my children were in high school, their friends' parents were in their late 30s or early 40s. It was unusual to run across 50-somethings at a PTA meeting or high school basketball game.

I don't need a bunch of expensive research to confirm what I see with my own eyes: Couples are marrying later in life, having children later, and even spacing them out more. My own unscientific survey confirmed this. My oldest son just turned 50, and his two children are 14 and 12. My stepdaughter is 36, and she has a nine-year-old and four-year-old. They're right in line with their peer group.

So, assuming our grandchildren go to college, my children could easily be in their early 60s before their kids are off their payroll. Even if they push retirement back to 68, the time allotted for their race to the finish line has been cut by about 50%. If they had followed in their parents' footsteps and waited until the nest was empty to get serious about retirement, they'd damn sure have to be world-class sprinters.

On top of that, two-income households have become a virtual necessity just to make ends meet. Among folks my age, many mothers reentered the work force as their children went off to high school. The second income was a luxury, and the extra money could be used to jump-start capital accumulation for retirement. Today, a second income seems to be necessary just to meet current expenses.

Then there's that pesky issue of debt. For many of us, there's some lag time between both spouses committing to a debt-free life and wealth accumulation. It can easily take 3-5 years to pay off debt, and only then can one actually start socking away money. I remember wishing I had money to invest when I was younger. However, while I could have had $10,000 in my brokerage account, I would have also had a $10,000 credit-card balance with 18% annual interest. Simple math told me I was better off getting out of debt and staying that way.

So, let's imagine a couple whose nest is finally empty at age 62. At that point, they get serious about paying off debt and accumulating wealth. If it takes three years to become debt-free, that leaves just three years to stockpile money for retirement, if they retire at 68. This couple could save 100% of their salary for those three years, and they still would not have nearly enough to retire.

The Long Jog to the Finish Line

You might be thinking something like, "Well, Dennis, I'm 50. There's not much I can do about marrying and having had kids at 35 now." And you'd be right. Frankly, there are many advantages to marrying and having children at a later age, and I certainly don't want to harp on folks who made that decision. It does, however, mean you have to plan differently than the generation immediately before you.

So what can younger baby boomers do?

Get on with the job. I know I've said it before, and I'll say it again: the time to start planning for retirement is today. Younger boomers have to run a different race than I did, but they still need to start, regardless of other drains on their resources.

Reprioritize wealth accumulation. It's easy to give yourself a nice reward every time you get a raise, but it's much tougher to save a portion of that raise or use it to pay off debt. For me, that meant acknowledging that I had survived before I got a raise, so I didn't really need the extra money. I don't recommend being a scrooge; go ahead and reward yourself with a small portion of any raise, but you know where the rest goes: your 401(k), IRA, or other retirement savings account. If you're not contributing the maximum amount to tax-deferred retirement accounts, start now.

Don't buy the biggest house on the block. I have noticed that younger boomers are becoming more attuned to needs versus wants. Up until 2008, folks were buying the biggest house they could afford because real estate was an "investment." Houses weren't just homes, they were moneymakers—or so we thought. If you've opened a newspaper in the last five years, you know that's no longer true.

My son and his wife just bought a new house—a nice home that meets their needs well. They really liked another model that cost $25,000 more because it had one more bedroom. A spare bedroom would have been convenient when grandparents visited, but then again the house would have been too big in ten years or so.

They made the right decision. They saved the $25,000 as well as the interest on a higher mortgage, as they had already made the maximum down payment they could afford. They'll be just fine without the spare bedroom; that's what air mattresses and hotels are for.

Use some common sense. I've made this same mistake more than once: I'd decide to get serious about diet and exercise and go way overboard. On day one, I'd exercise to the point of exhaustion and cut my caloric intake in half. By the second day, I could hardly move, and I was starving to death (at least it felt that way). By the third day, my commitment would vanish. Had I paced myself, I would have been a lot more successful.

The same principle holds true for paying off debt and saving. For most folks, the best way to start is by withholding incremental amounts from their paychecks. Many employers will do this automatically and put the money in your 401(k) or IRA. Tackle debt the same way: cut up your credit cards and start paying a little extra on your regular payments. It is amazing how quickly you can make progress.

Become an educated investor now. It is easy to think, "Why do I need to learn about investing when I don't have any money to invest?" There are two responses to that question. First, you don't want to wait, because from day one you want to take what little capital you can start with and invest it wisely. And second, I found that the more I read about investing, the more motivated I became to have money to invest. The thought of my money working for me instead of the other way around sounded quite appealing. After all, isn't the goal to accumulate enough money and invest it wisely so we don't need to work at all?

One of the fun parts about being a grandparent is reading bedtime stories to the little ones. It is wonderful one-on-one time, and the little guy always gets to pick the book from the stack. Darned if one of my grandkids didn't pick The Tortoise and the Hare for me to read during a recent visit. As I read him the book, I realized how much the fable applies to us. Both the Tortoise and Hare want to get to their goal, but their approaches are quite different. It looks like a lot of baby boomers who became parents later in life will have to start slowly and steadily plod along. We all know who wins the race in the end.

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