Pascal’s Retirement

Jonathan Clements

LIFE MAY HAVE BEEN nasty, brutish and short at one time, but it sure isn’t today. Thinking ahead to retirement? Forget the famous quote by 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes—and ponder the famous wager suggested by 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal.

As Pascal saw it, it’s rational to believe in God. If you believe and it turns out God doesn’t exist, the price is modest: an hour lost from every Sunday morning and a little less immorality. But if you don’t believe and God does indeed exist, the price is considerably higher: an eternity roasting in hell. In other words, we should focus less on the odds of something happening and more on the consequences—and, for Pascal, that was a slam-dunk reason to believe in God.

That brings us to retirement. While we can’t calculate the odds of God existing, we can calculate the odds of reaching retirement age—and it’s pretty easy to imagine the dire consequences if we aren’t financially prepared.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, there’s an 88.7% chance of a newborn reaching age 60, based on 2014 mortality rates. Nothing nasty, brutish and short about that. Meanwhile, a penniless retirement may be less grim than an eternity in hell, but it isn’t exactly a cheery thought.

In short, not only are the odds of reaching retirement age extraordinarily good, but also the consequences of not saving are extraordinarily bad. If Pascal was still kicking around, you have to imagine he’d be a big advocate of fully funding a 401(k).

And yet most Americans are pitifully ill-prepared for retirement. A 2015 government study found that 52% of households age 65 to 74 have no retirement savings. For this group, the median income is $29,000, most of which comes from Social Security.

It’s important to have compassion. Some portion of this 52% will have had lives beset by ill-health, low incomes, frequent bouts of unemployment and just plain old bad luck, and their failure to save for retirement is understandable.

But others surely could have saved. Why didn’t they? At issue is a battle all of us wage every day. We know it’s better for our future self if we eat less, save more, drink less and exercise more, and yet we find ourselves slumped on the couch, chugging beer, eating Cheetos and shopping online.

Think of your worst weaknesses—and, yes, we all have them—and imagine the consequences if you gave into them not just today, but every day for years to come. It isn’t a pretty picture, right? But all too frequently, that’s exactly what happens. We promise we’ll behave better tomorrow, but that better tomorrow often never arrives.

What to do? Somehow, we need to make ourselves care more about our future self, so we’re less tempted to slip today. When it comes to retirement, that means thinking of all the great things we might do with the freedom that retirement offers—and pondering how dreadful it would be to spend those years pinching pennies and dragging our tired bodies to jobs we wish we could quit.

Indeed, there’s evidence we care more about our future self if we’re pushed to imagine the person we will become. For instance, experiments have found that if folks are shown what they might look like at retirement age, they’re inclined to spend less today and save more for tomorrow. Interested in trying this yourself? Check out your future self with a site like or—and remember there’s almost a 90% chance that one day you’ll be that person.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter @ClementsMoney and on Facebook.

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