Anticipating the day when my job income stops and I have to depend on investments and retirement accounts for income is NOT something I’m suited for given my background and temperament. I’m always worried about what can go wrong, and I like to have “back-up.” This came up in a discussion with my wife (a retired licensed therapist) when she caught me reading Bob Rotella’s book “Golf is Not a Game of Perfect” — for the umpteenth time.
I was frustrated at having missed too many very short putts recently, and the book explains that older golfers struggle with short putts because they think too much and anticipate all the things that can go wrong instead of just stepping up and tapping the ball in. My wife’s advice was to suggest the thought: “I care; but not that much.” Easy for her to say, because she wasn’t betting on the outcome — but I’m sure she’s right.
So, for retirees whose job income stops, it may come as a surprise to learn that many are spending too little in retirement. The self-denial required to save an adequate amount to meet income needs makes it painful for the same people to shift gears and spend even on small insignificant purchases. Nibbling away at their “back-up” can drive some people nuts.
Meir Statman, a professor at Santa Clara University, has produced the exhaustive treatment on this subject in his articles in the Wall Street Journal including “The Mental Mistakes We Make With Retirement Spending.” His book, “Finance for Normal People: How Investors and Markets Behave” covers the subject in a broader context, but his article in the April AAII Journal offers excellent food for thought as it offers anecdotal comments from retirees who had responded to researchers.
I can easily identify with people who may find it painful to spend money from savings on anything that they would consider extravagant. Creating at least some part-time income helps come to terms with this issue for many retirees. A retired dentist and friend continues to work one day a week, as he puts it, “…to pay my various club dues.”
Magnetic resonance imaging measuring brain activity shows that when people considering whether to buy or not to buy an item were shown the price, those deciding not to buy triggered the most brain activity — a sign of anguish in the brain’s center for “painful sensations.”
The answer lies in planning, as best we can, what the last 30 years of life may bring. Bear in mind that there is just a 10 percent chance that someone age 65 will live to age 95, which also suggests that the odds of both spouses living to that age are remote. Another factor is that by age 80, many retirees are less inclined to want to spend time and money traveling.
This is especially true if one spouse has died. In general, retirement spending drops by 23 percent from age 62 to 84. Spending on entertainment like movies, concerts, etc., drops by 50 percent in the same period.
Then, there’s the conundrum of how much to give away — and when to give it. On the one hand, there’s the fear of giving away too much too soon and being short if, say, both spouses live well into their 90s, as was the case with my parents. The flip side, of course, is to have the satisfaction of making life better for children, deserving friends or favorite charities while we’re still alive.
By comparison, it’s depressing to think about reaching a “hand out of the grave” to write those checks specified by the will. That actual visual image invoked by some horror movie makes it even more depressing to consider — yet it’s the alternative for retirees who may be needlessly obsessed with maintaining their financial backstop.
In the end, “it’s not a game of perfect.” Adopting the thought: “I care; but not that much” may help to avoid finding ourselves at one extreme or the other. What matters most is that we give it some thought — or, as my wife would say: “Let’s look at that.”