What Matters Most to You? Planning for a Very Long Life

Marcia writes in:

I’m having a hard time figuring out exactly how much to put away for retirement each week. I’m twenty five years old and most of the advice says to put away 10% of your salary into your 401(k) but I think I should be putting away more. I have three great grandparents that are still alive and over 100 and all of my grandparents are over 70 and still alive. Unless there’s something bad and unexpected I will probably live quite a bit longer than the average person. So should I be putting away more for retirement? How much more?

The best way to answer this question is to roll the clock ahead to age sixty five and ask yourself what you would like to be doing then.

Think about it. When you’re sixty five, do you intend to walk away from your job and settle into a non-employed retirement? Do you want to perhaps seek a different kind of employment, perhaps following a dream of being a writer or a painter or something like that? Do you want to keep doing the job you’re doing until you drop to the floor?

I’ve known the answer to this question all my life. I do not want to be idle in my later years – I’ve always intended to fill them with my writing and that dream is no different now than when I was younger.

Until the final year or two of my life (or when I’m unable), I intend to work and earn some sort of income. What does that mean for my retirement savings? For the later years of my life, my retirement savings will only be a part of my income. I won’t need to withdraw all the money I need to live on from it each year.

Thus, it makes sense for me to not save quite as much purely for retirement and instead invest in long term care and long term disability insurance – these cover the situations in which I’m unable to work.

What does your story look like? Assuming good health, do you intend to keep working productively for as long as you can? If so, then you don’t need to put as much away annually as you might otherwise. On the other hand, you might want to enjoy a long retirement period that doesn’t involve working for an income. If that’s the case, then you should scale up.

Here’s the truth: most retirement planning advice out there assumes that you’ll retire at sixty five and then live without an income for at most another twenty years. In many cases, neither one of those assumptions are true. I certainly don’t want to be completely idle for the last twenty years of my life and I’d love to be able to see my great-grandchildren born – I got to know one of my own great-grandparents very well, in fact.

Instead, I think retirement planning should involve assuming you’ll live as long as possible. I’d take the age of your ancestor that lived the longest and tack on five years. Then, I’d ask myself how many of those years I wanted to spend without earning money – or with earning only some of the money I needed for retirement. Do you want a long “retirement” period or not? Some do, some don’t.

From there, you’ll start getting an idea of how many years you want to cover. Start playing with retirement calculators using these assumptions and see what you come up with. After all, if you think you’ll live to 95 and intend to work until you’re 80, you have fifty five years to save for retirement, thus you don’t need to scale up at all. On the other hand, if you think you’ll live to 95 and intend to retire at 65, you’re almost assuredly going to have to put more away for retirement.

Remember, focus on what makes you happy. If there’s an endeavor that earns a good income that you would be happy spending the rest of your life doing, then spend the rest of your life doing it!

One final caveat: long term care and long term disability insurance are both worth considering. Mostly, they’re hedges against something devastating happening in your life. They ensure that if something does happen that prevents you from working in a productive way, you won’t be a financial burden to those around you. They should at least be considered as part of any long term financial planning.

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