Six Seasons

Sanjib Saha

AS A CHILD GROWING up in India, I was taught about the six seasons of Bengal: summer, monsoons, autumn, late autumn, winter and spring. From my recollection, some seasons felt distinct, while others were subtle and transitory. Still, each season had unique characteristics, making it different from the others.

A HumbleDollar Voices question—if you could live your financial life again, what would you do differently?—reminded me of the six seasons. How so? Our financial life can also pass through as many as six seasons.

I started my financial life with the idea that there were only two seasons: working years and retirement. If I’d recognized the six seasons beforehand and acted accordingly, I could’ve done much better with my most valuable asset—time. What are the six seasons of our financial life?

1. Summer: Financial learning. Bengali New Year starts with summer, arguably the most unpleasant season. Yet the hope of a new beginning overshadows the discomfort from heat and humidity.

Similarly, we often start our adult financial life with an occasional stumble and fall. But the thrill of independence trumps any hardships. This is a period to make financial mistakes and learn from them. To explore and settle on a career path. To find a partner and plan a family. The shorter this season, the better. Those who manage to jumpstart their wealth building—saving for housing and retirement—have better odds of enjoying the seasons that follow.

2. Monsoons: Full-throttle saving. The rainy season in Bengal is disruptive. Growing up, I used to hate getting stranded at home because of heavy rain or waterlogging. Instead of playing outside or being with my friends, I had to study or do chores. On the bright side, the extra focus on studies lightened the academic pressure for the rest of the year.

The second season in our financial life comes almost as abruptly. We focus mostly on career advancement and earning money, rather than recreation and personal enjoyment. Overwhelming financial responsibilities—for family and housing—force us to reduce waste and streamline spending. Our savings rate rises sharply.

3. Autumn: Slower accumulation. The autumn is highlighted by the festival of Durga Puja, the most enjoyable time of the year for most Bengalis. People slow down to soak up the celebratory mood.

The third season in financial life feels the same way. A lifestyle of all work and no play seems unappealing. Our focus tilts away from the career rat race and toward family and other priorities. It isn’t uncommon to scale back career aspirations and make more time for children, or to give up a job altogether to care for an elderly family member. We still earn enough to save a bit toward future financial goals. But we also make a conscious choice to value life outside of work, even when it means less income.

4. Late Autumn: Financial security. Depending on how the prior seasons have turned out, there’s a good chance we can dial back work even further and earn just enough for ongoing living expenses. When can we do this? First, near-term financial needs, such as college education for the kids, must be funded by now. Second, enough must already be saved toward our future financial goals for compounding to take care of the rest. For instance, retirement accounts must have a reasonable balance and enough time to grow before they are tapped.

To be clear, we’d still be financially dependent on our jobs during this season, even if we don’t especially like our work. Though we don’t care much about saving anymore, we still need a minimum income to pay the bills. Getting to this stage is when we begin to feel financially secure. How? We know that we have enough for the future, and thus we can choose to spend more time on personal and family interests.

5. Winter: Financial independence. My childhood friends and I used to look forward to the winter months. It was not only the time for school holidays, but also for the seasonal savors. Similarly, we all look forward to financial independence. We may not be wealthy, but we’ve met our financial obligations to others and ourselves. Debts are either paid off or accounted for. Our nest egg is larger and we no longer fear tapping it. We can now choose either to stop working or to work only for enjoyment and supplemental income. From now on, our time is ours.

6. Spring: Conventional retirement. The king of seasons is aptly called the golden age of financial life. Withdrawals from our nest egg may fall as we become eligible for Social Security, Medicare and any other retirement benefits. On the flip side, this final season involves some unique uncertainties. There’s longevity risk, unexpected health issues, and the possible loss of a partner and dependence on others. Still, it’s the season to reflect and be thankful for life’s diverse experiences.

Sanjib Saha is a software engineer by profession, but he’s now transitioning to early retirement. Self-taught in investments, he passed the Series 65 licensing exam as a non-industry candidate. Sanjib is passionate about raising financial literacy and enjoys helping others with their finances. Check out his earlier articles.

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