I don't really like thinking about retirement. Back when we lived in Chicago, I participated in a focus group for the Gallup organization. (I believe they were working on behalf of a government agency.) The focus of the group was retirement planning and 401(k) participation. The twelve participants had two things in common: all of us were willing to give up two hours of our time for $125 and none of us were actively saving for retirement.
I had a good excuse. I was only 26, fairly recently married, just in my first Grown-Up Job. I was more worried about paying my student loans than saving for retirement. We each had to go around and talk about what we thought of when we thought of retirement. Most people had grand, idyllic scenarios of golf and relaxing in warmer climates.
"When I think of retirement, I get quite anxious and I don't want to think about it because I know I'm not doing anything for it and I'm terrified that I'm going to have to eat cat food so that I'll be able to afford my medication."
Yes, it all came out in a big rush, just like that. Because when I get anxious, I talk fast and in a stream of consciousness. I want to get the thoughts out of my head as quickly as possible and then think about something else.
The upshot of this focus group was that I did start participating in my company's 401(k) program. Not very much, but at least it was something. Then I got a new job at a company that wasn't quite a start-up but was swimming in $24 million of venture capital. The slick HR guy extolled the virtues of maintaining an aggressive portfolio. He'd made something like 35% return on his 401(k) investment in the last year.
I rolled over my meager portfolio and selected the very aggressive growth funds from the prospectus. This was in February of 2000. By November of 2000, the company had imploded, I was out of a job, and I had lost half of what I'd put into my 401(k). In Joe Biden style, let me repeat that. I lost half of my actual 401(k) contribution, not half of its mystical imaginary money value.
It was a valuable lesson about risk. And it was much better to learn it at 28 than it would have been to learn it at 58. Fast forward now to March of this year. Just before Easter, I signed up for my company's pension plan. As near as I can figure the Irish system, there's a public pension, which is similar to Social Security, and then employers can offer pension plans, which can be sort of like a 401(k). You contribute a certain percentage of your salary, your employer contributes, and then you make designation for which funds you want the money to go into.
I was out the day that the kindly people from the pension company came, so I missed all of the Important Advice that they distributed. I can't remember the exact rationale I used when I made my designations, but I think my breakdown went something like 10% aggressive risk, 30% high-moderate risk, 40% moderate-low risk, and 20% safe. Whatever it was, I was pleased with my selections.
I spend pretty much all day, every day listening to NPR, either by streaming it online or by downloading podcasts to my IPod shuffle. At the time, the talk was dominated by news of financial difficulties due to the sub-prime mortgage meltdown, the soaring gas prices, the rapidly inflating prices of everything else, and the weakening of the dollar.
I'm no economist, but it didn't sound good to me. What particularly scared me was that because all of these credit-default swap and mortgage-backed securities and credit derivative thingies were pretty much unregulated and privately traded, no one knew what was on anyone else's books. I think it was Warren Buffett who observed that "you don't know who's swimming naked until the tide goes out."
After I made my designations for my pension, I pretty much forgot about it. Until the office administrator told me that a letter had come from the pension fund administrator. You might think that this letter would have been marked "personal and confidential" and addressed to me. Nope. This letter was addressed to the pensions contact person in our office and it acknowledged receipt of all the pension paperwork for the company. Then it went on to name me in particular and express concern that my portfolio was too risk-adverse for a person of my age, that it was a horrible mistake to have chosen such conservative allocations, and that I should contact her immediately to remedy the situation.
I was fuming mad. Not only had this person impugned my financial acumen, she'd also done the equivalent of posting the allocation in the company canteen. I boiled about it for a little bit and then thought about what she'd said. Yes, it was fairly risk adverse. And I'm old enough to be flattered about the 'person of my age' comment, in the given context. But I still felt that things were too unsettled, that too many smart people were saying that Bad Things Could Happen.
So I drafted a snarky letter about sharing personal concerns with an entire workplace, but I never sent it. To send it would be to invite a dialogue with this person and I did not want to have that dialogue. I did not want to think about retirement. I would not like to in a box, I would not like to with a fox. I would not like it Ms. Judgment, I won't think about retirement.
After the last two weeks, I could feel all smug and pleased with self for having a slight clue about the depths of the financial predicament. I could, except that I feel too depressed and unsettled and nervous. But at least I have a good glimmer of hope that should I ever be able to retire, I will not have to decide between medication and cat food, and not just because medication in Ireland is free if you're over 65.
If you're still confused about how we ended up in this dark place, I encourage you to check out the following NPR shows: