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A Lucky Tortoise

Richard Quinn

I’VE BEEN REVIEWING my past writing on HumbleDollar, my own blog and social media. I notice I often throw out personal details, such as the second home we own, paying for our children’s college and our spending on travel. My intention isn’t to boast.

In fact, I don’t even think of myself as wealthy, though the statistics say my wife and I are above average. Perhaps that’s because what we have today was accumulated over 60 years, between when I got my first job at age 18 and today at age 78. Slow and steady, as they say.

I had lots of help—because I’ve enjoyed a life devoid of uncontrollable adversity. I never lost my job, had uninsured medical bills, had a relative to support, got in over my head with debt or had student loans. My nine years of night school starting at age 26 were mostly paid for by the Department of Veterans Affairs. There was never a year I didn’t receive a raise, though I vividly recall one increase of just $12 a month. My wife and I have been married for 53 years.

Fortunate indeed.

In our defense, we also never caused bad things to happen. We always lived within our means. We never paid a penny in credit card debt. We lived on one income from the day we were married, with the constraint on spending that goes with that. When my income—net of savings—proved insufficient, such as when we had three children in college at once, I started what folks now call “side hustles.”

My wife and I today drive a Mercedes, which is seven years old, and a Jaguar, now two years old. But I’d argue the perception of luxury is mistaken. Many pickup trucks—today’s most popular vehicle—cost more.

Our life wasn’t always this way. We bought basic vehicles that we kept until—in three cases—the engines blew up. Once we had an older Chevy stolen. The police called to say where they had found it abandoned. I went and “stole” it back, cleaned up the food and other garbage in the backseat, had it repaired and kept it five more years.

I started saving and investing at age 18, not very successfully I admit, but the idea was there. I had to cut back in some years, but I never stopped saving. My best investment was a pension based on 50 years of service. Did I give up higher pay by staying with one company? Very likely. But I enjoyed my work and we didn’t want to risk being relocated.

Today, we’re financially secure. What isn’t apparent are the decades it took to reach this point. My best income years didn’t start until 2005, when I was 62. From that point on—five more working years—I saved 100% of my bonuses. The growth from our investments since has been significant, as it should have been for anyone with at least some stock market exposure.

I worked with some rabbits who saw advancement in changing jobs, rushing ever upward, some employing rather unethical tactics in the process. But looking back, even considering some missed opportunities, this tortoise won his race.

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Roboticus Aquarius
Roboticus Aquarius
10 months ago

“Luck is when preparation meets opportunity” reads a sign that hung in the high school weight room where I spent many hours. As time passes, the truth behind that quote (attributed to Seneca) strikes home with ever greater depth.

Our society tends to have a top heavy reward structure. If we are lucky enough that we grow into positions of responsibility, or build a successful business, there seems to be a pivot point where life goes from being a constant tension between needs and frugality, to a place where you suddenly have the ability to spend far beyond what you ever thought possible.

That switch is happening to us just now, and the first thing we did was buy a vacation for our parents later this year, probably the last one any of them will take due to their age and physical issues (assuming no issues from the pandemic.)

Was this a frugal or responsible decision? Not even. Did we fret about the cost? You bet. But I’m convinced it was a good life decision. It’s important to understand that the point of all this savings is not to die with the most money in the bank. It is to help us create the life we’ve struggled for, and to give us options as we age, whether that option involves creating family memories, helping family with education or housing, or something else entirely. These things are worthy of discussion. Thanks for some great columns!

Peter Blanchette
Peter Blanchette
10 months ago

The major difference between you and the majority of current retirees and soon to be retirees is the fact that you have a pension. Pensions have a lot to do with the ability of retirees to delay having to begin accessing their retirement savings. Those savings can continue to accrue often to the point that the MRD commences. All those discussions about the 4% rule on this forum are moot for those with pensions. Many future retirees will be people who have had to pay heavily for their education and will suffer through a lower retirement savings base as a result.

R Quinn
R Quinn
10 months ago

There is no question that in retirement a pension is a big plus. However, the fact is most Americans never had a pension. They were concentrated in heavily unionized companies and public employment.

Even more important, pensions provide little value unless a worker spends decades with the employer. In today’s environment it seems neither worker or employer want any part of that commitment. 401k plans better serve that population.

As far as education costs go. Isn’t the purpose of a degree to allow a better economic future? That’s an investment- provided the education has economic value. The average monthly loan payment is less than the average car payment. The real problem I think is those with loans, but never got a degree or a degree with limited earnings potential.

parkslope
parkslope
10 months ago
Reply to  R Quinn

“The percentage of workers in the private sector whose only retirement account is a defined benefit pension plan is now 4%, down from 60% in the early 1980s.”
https://money.cnn.com/retirement/guide/pensions_basics.moneymag/index7.htm
Adding in the number of public employees with pensions in the 1980s pushes the percentage of workers above 60%.

CNN didn’t provide a source for their data so you may be able to find contradictory evidence.

R Quinn
R Quinn
10 months ago
Reply to  parkslope

These data are very confusing and some reporting is on retirement plans and not just DB Then there is this from the DOL. “From 1980 through 2008, the proportion of private wage and salary workers participating in DBpension plans fell from 38 percent to 20 percent (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2008; Department of Labor 2002).” So one says 60% in 1980 and the other 38% Who knows?

Mark Schwartz
Mark Schwartz
10 months ago

Richard, your choice to stay with one company for your career is notable for our generation. My 3 – 30’s kids have collectively already have had over 10 job changes between them in their young careers. Definitely a different mindset with the gen-x and gen-y kids today.

SCao
SCao
10 months ago

Thanks for sharing, and many good lessons there for us. I am sure lots of hard work and personal good choices made in your journey. Thank you.

R Quinn
R Quinn
10 months ago
Reply to  SCao

I think the key for many people is the choices they make throughout their lives. Little choices and big choices all matter.

William Perry
William Perry
10 months ago

I also benefited from my veteran benefits to complete my degree. My time in service as one of the last of the draftees changed my outlook for the better. It took me a long time to figure that out. I enjoy your posts.

Andrew Forsythe
Andrew Forsythe
10 months ago

Good habits, acquired early and maintained for decades, are one of the real keys. Your history is a prime example. And as you point out, a little good luck never hurts.

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