Over Coffee

Richard Quinn

SITTING IN A COFFEE shop, I struck up conversation with a middle-aged woman. We were talking about winning the lottery and then, as if one thought naturally followed the other, we got onto the topic of retirement. She mentioned how difficult it was for her and her husband to pay the mortgage and the monthly bills.

“After saving for retirement?”  I interjected.

“We can’t save for retirement,” she responded. “Our plan is to get our mortgage paid off, sell the house when we retire and invest the proceeds.”

A smart strategy? According to data from Freddie Mac and elsewhere, the price of existing homes has increased at just above the inflation rate—and that’s before maintenance costs and other expenses. By contrast, the 90-year inflation-adjusted total return for the S&P 500 is around 7% a year.

This couple seemed to be treading water. I was thinking to myself, “Where are you going to live once you sell your house? If you’ve never invested in the financial markets your entire life, is retirement really the time to start?”

Then the coffee shop was empty and I was left with two millennial baristas, who became the next victims of my inquiries. I started by asking, “Were those tattoos expensive?” I know the answer—hundreds of dollars and up—from previous investigation. But when I see tattooed young people, spending money on what—in my opinion—just messes up their bodies, I can’t help myself. My occasional follow-up question is, “Have you thought about how that might look when you’re 65?”

But not today. Today, I was thinking about HumbleDollar stuff, so I say, “Have you guys”—actually they’re young women ages 21 and 25—”thought about saving for retirement?”

One takes the muffin from her mouth, and the other stops her pour over, and they stare at me. “No,” is the coordinated response.

“I’m still in college,” 21 says.

“I have no money and six years of student loans,” adds 25.

I’m thinking to myself, “Be nice, don’t ask 25 why she is a barista and not in a job that might allow her to chip away at those loans.” But as luck would have it, she gives me an opening. She says she has both a bachelor’s and master’s degree, hence the six years of loans.

“Are you going to eventually work in your degree field?” I tread lightly.

Are you ready for this?

“I can’t,” 25 replies. “It requires a PhD.”

As my thoughts spin trying to comprehend what I just heard, I return to my first victim. “Did you have any kind of financial education programs when you were in high school?” I ask 21.

“We did.”

“Okay, do you know the difference between a stock and bond?”

She giggles and says, “No.”

“Ever heard of compound interest?”

A moment of pondering and a head shake.

Are we at the point where we throw up our collective hands in frustration? With this lack of knowledge, is it possible for all Americans to have a retirement that’s reasonably free from financial stress?

Before you draw a conclusion about that, here’s another point of view—from a commentator on one of my blogs. It would appear that, where there’s a will, there may indeed be a way.

The comment: “I have never earned over $60,000 in one year in my entire life.  But I have been smart with the money I did earn. I was able to amass a nice nest egg that enabled me to retire early at age 55. And now after 11 years in comfortable retirement, my nest egg has increased.”

No planning, questionable planning, serious planning. Take your pick—and get your reward.

Richard Quinn blogs at Before retiring in 2010, Dick was a compensation and benefits executive. His previous articles include Get the PointPoor Judgment and How to Blow It. Follow Dick on Twitter @QuinnsComments.

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