A Lifetime of Choices

Once in a Lifetime

Stephen writes in:

I am struggling with continuing to save because of the fragility of my life. Both of my parents and my older sister died in their 50s. I turned 50 last year and there are so many things I still want to do in life. Lately, I have been thinking a lot about how it won’t matter how much money I have in the bank if I die in the next few years, but just spending it all doesn’t seem smart, either. I am stuck and I hope you can help.

This is a scenario that I’ve thought about many times. I have had several friends and relatives die younger than they should, and each time their passing has made me reflect on my own mortality.

Over time, I’ve come to several conclusions with regards to balancing my own mortality and the logical desire to secure a potential longer-term future.

First, I need to do what I can in my life to minimize my chances of dying young. I need to eat well, get some exercise, get adequate sleep, and so on. It also means I should visit the doctor regularly and get checkups, and that a thorough and accurate medical history is really important so that we can watch for things that befell my closer family members.

I’ll give you a personal example. My family gets cirrhosis of the liver very easily and very young. One of my uncles passed away from liver cirrhosis when he wasn’t too much older than I am right now. This means, logically, that I should minimize my drinking. An occasional beer or glass of wine is acceptable – getting intoxicated with any regularity is not.

It is for these reasons that I drink very little, I have never smoked, I visit the doctor fairly regularly, and I’m a pescavore (vegetarian plus fish – basically, the Mediterranean diet). Those are steps that I can take to increase the likelihood of a long life.

Second, I’m not banking on the end of my life to fulfill my “bucket list.” Many of the items I have on my “bucket list” are going to happen in the next ten years.

Some of these things mostly require an investment of time. Many others, however, like international travel, require a serious shot of money.

How does that jibe with sensible personal finance? It’s simple. I don’t spend much money (or time) in my day-to-day life so that I can do these things.

If I make every day pleasurable with lots of little treats for myself, it’s going to drain my bank accounts. I won’t be able to afford it over the long haul – the math just doesn’t add up.

Similarly, if I spend too much time each day doing frivolous things, I won’t have time left for the things that matter to me. If I have a couple of hours free in the evening, I can spend them writing another article for The Simple Dollar or watching a television show. If I make the more productive choice over and over again, I’ll find myself with the time I need.

Finally, I make decisions in my life assuming that I’ll live for a very long time, regardless of how I feel about my long-term prospects. Why? Being 70 years old with nothing in the bank is a dreadful prospect.

Even if I think the odds of living that long are pretty low, the downside of living to that age without having anything put aside is very bad. I don’t want to live in an extremely low-end retirement home or have to scrounge to put a meal on the table when I’m 70. If there’s any chance at all of living that long, I want to make sure that I have a good life.

Another factor in this decision is that I have descendants, which plays a significant role here. If I were to die early, the money I’ve saved will go to make the lives of my children substantially better. It won’t make up for having their old man around during their later childhood or early adulthood, but it’s a start.

If I didn’t have children, would my motivation be the same? It depends. I have a number of charitable organizations that I care deeply about. It is extremely likely that I would assign any money I left behind to one (or more) of those organizations. (Naturally, Sarah comes first in line here.) It is hard for me to assess how big this motivator would be if I didn’t have children.

Still, the primary motivator is ensuring that I’m not in misery if I do live to a ripe old age. I view every dollar I save right now as a few dollars that my 70 year old self will be able to use – and, to me, that’s worth it, especially considering, as I noted above, I’m taking steps to ensure that I make it to that ripe old age.

Thinking about your own mortality is never easy, but it does become a little easier if you’re planning steps to lighten your load on the entire path of your life.

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