It Took Decades

Richard Quinn

IF YOU’VE WORKED a lifetime—while prudently saving and investing—so that in old age you’re well off financially, should you feel guilty?

If your retirement income is greater than the income of most American families, including those still raising young children and facing college costs, as well as the cost of their own retirement, is that embarrassing?

A few years back, during a discussion about how people spend, save and invest, my son-in-law—who’s a financial advisor to high net worth families—casually said to me, “You’re wealthy.” What? Me wealthy? I’m not even close to qualifying as one of his clients. I was shocked by the comment.

Had I completely lost perspective? I’m well aware of the data on Americans’ income, net worth and savings rates. Rather, I think my shock reflects the fact that my road to wealth (I still cringe at that word) has been a long one. I started work at age 18, retired at 67 and have continued to collect investment gains in the 10 years since. My wealth isn’t that out of line with the average—meaning the mean, not the median—for Americans in my age group.

I suspect many seniors have been on a similar long journey—“long” being the operative word. When I listen to some millennials talk, I get the impression they believe us old folks rolled out of bed at age 18, instantly found financial success and that the road to where we are today was without potholes and bumps.

Half of my investment wealth is the 401(k) balance I’ve accumulated since 1982. Another chunk is my former employer’s stock, which I amassed over my career of nearly 50 years by taking advantage of the company’s stock purchase plan and reinvesting dividends.

What about the rest? Much of it was accumulated in the years after sending our four children to college—a decade of high costs that ended in 1998. Those were the lean years, when I worked fulltime, while running a small side business just to get by.

A big portion of my net worth is real estate. Some of that came from living in a modest home for 44 years that we purchased for $59,000 and recently sold for $505,000. The proceeds allow us to live in our current condo mortgage-free. I also bought a vacation home 33 years ago for $159,000, which I rented most of the summer to help pay the mortgage. It’s now valued at $425,000. In retirement, I drive a luxury car—my one frivolous purchase. But in my defense, I saved for more than a decade, so I could pay cash for it at age 70.

I have friends and relatives who have not done as well, partly because of life choices and partly because of misfortune beyond their control. Should that cause me guilt?

This wealth accumulation thing meant tradeoffs—in how I spent my time, and how my wife and I spent our money: working 12 or more hours a day, many times on weekends, and avoiding excess spending, because saving money always came first. In the 55-plus condo community where we now live, many of the residents retired after selling businesses that they owned for many years—another road to wealth—but where the decades of effort is often overlooked by those who envy the end result.

I have two financial goals left: to be sure my wife can maintain her lifestyle should she be on her own and to leave as much money as possible to my four children. Some people will disagree with that second goal. But I view it as an obligation.

Indeed, the accumulation of even modest wealth comes with obligations. As I see it, if you can, you should help with the grandchildren’s college, support your children if they run into temporary financial difficulties, and donate to charities and local volunteer organizations. If you can, you should also be generous in mundane ways, such as leaving large tips.

Back to the original question: Should those of us with accumulated wealth feel guilty for a lifetime of saving and investing? I still struggle with the question. But I know one thing for sure: Those of us with wealth (there’s that word again) should be grateful for our good fortune—financially and otherwise—even if we worked for what we have.

Richard Quinn blogs at Before retiring in 2010, Dick was a compensation and benefits executive. His previous articles include Making CentsScared Debtless and What If. Follow Dick on Twitter @QuinnsComments.

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