Is Saving for Old People?

A post on a “savings generation gap” at Get Rich Slowly the other day caught my eye. In it, J.D. argued that there’s a “generation gap” between spenders and savers. People who are over some particular age threshold – somewhere around 35 or 40 – tend to save their money, whereas people who are younger than that tend to spend their money.

I agree with J.D.’s general conclusion that there is some sort of gap between spenders and savers, but I think the age thing is merely incidental. In my eyes, the real difference between spenders and savers is that the savers realize that they have something to lose.

In my own life, I was a big spender during my early professional years. I lived in an apartment with my wife and, in essence, had very little to be responsible for outside of my job and my marriage. I worked hard at both of those, but in terms of worrying about taking care of the future, there really wasn’t much to take care of. I didn’t have a house. I didn’t have dependents. I wasn’t established in the community yet – most of my friends were holdovers from college who were similarly unanchored. I had lots of free time.

Roll the clock forward several years. At that point, we’re living in a house. We have two children. I’m involved in several community projects and serve on multiple boards. We have lots of friends and acquaintances in our town, too.

Before, I didn’t really have too much that I could lose. If I spent all my money, there really wasn’t any risk involved with it. As long as I kept up with my career, I could live through my money mistakes. I felt very free to spend with reckless abandon because there was little real-world consequence to spending in that way.

Today, if I spent like that, there would be serious consequences. Would we be able to keep our home? Would we have to leave the community we’ve worked hard to establish ourselves in? What about our children? Am I doing what I can to take care of them? As I write this, I’m sitting in a home that’s a huge six-figure investment of our money – I need to make sure it’s not falling apart, either. The income from my writing career is notoriously unstable, too.

I save because I now have things in my life that I need to protect. That wasn’t true earlier in my life.

I think the idea that “saving is for old people” comes from the journey that people take in life. Early on, we have fewer elements in our life that we need to protect. We don’t have a home. We often don’t have a marriage. We often don’t have children. We often don’t have an established role in the community. We often don’t have an established career.

Later on, many people do establish these things. They begin to realize that they can indeed lose their life’s work. They want to protect all the work that they’ve done. So they begin to save. Often, this is coupled with other shifts in life perspective as well.

In that context, there is something of a correlation between age and saving tendencies, because older people have more to protect and are more aware that it needs to be protected. Older people have the fruits of many years of labor, something that younger people simply have not had the time to bring to harvest yet.

Of course, looking back on my journey, I regret not saving during my early years. Most of the things I spent money on then have left me with nothing at all now except for a worse position in life. Spending so freely for so long directly means more worries today – a result that I could have easily prevented by looking with even the slightest critical eye at my purchasing choices.

Did I need to learn that lesson? I don’t know. I think that some people need to learn it. I think that others have it ingrained in them from an early age.