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How Much is Enough?

Dan McDermott

AT A PARTY GIVEN BY a billionaire on affluent Shelter Island, New York, author Kurt Vonnegut informs his friend, Joseph Heller, that their host had recently made more money in a single day than Heller had earned in total from his hugely popular novel, Catch-22.

To that, Heller replies, “But I have something he will never have.”

“And what is that?” asks Vonnegut.

“Enough,” says Heller. “Enough.”

The story may be apocryphal—I’ve read a similar version featuring J.D. Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye. Still, it illustrates the importance of knowing what’s enough.

If you’re a bestselling author with royalties rolling in every six months, you may not want for much if your spending isn’t extravagant. Heller’s wants and needs were less than those of a titan of industry, and so more easily satisfied.

Money is both relative and a matter of perspective. For example, whether you have $6 or $10 in your pocket, it probably won’t change how you go about your day beyond, say, influencing your choice when it comes to buying a snack or a morning coffee.

Similarly, whether you have a $6 million or $10 million net worth probably won’t change how you lead your life, except perhaps causing you to make somewhat different decisions about philanthropy and estate planning.

But what if the difference is $600,000 or $1 million? That might determine whether you take an earlier retirement or continue to work. At $600,000, you might be notably more cautious about spending, while $1 million would offer more of a cushion and greater peace of mind.

That difference in the perception of whether we have enough often drives whether we work later in our lives. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Americans over the age of 55 will take roughly half of all new jobs created in the next decade, economists estimate, as the U.S. population ages and more people postpone retirement. What’s more, the biggest jump in labor force-growth in coming years will come from those age 75 and older, where overall employment is projected to nearly double by 2030.”

My wife and I are approaching the “what’s enough” quandary in several ways.  As empty-nesters, we continue to work and to add to the coffers, while enjoying life without being extravagant. We also work with a fee-based financial planner to plot out various retirement scenarios and to help us manage our financial risks.

In the coming years, we’ll practice what I preach and begin a phased approach to retirement by gradually reducing the amount we work. For now, we’re relatively healthy. Fingers crossed, this will continue and we’ll be comfortable waiting to claim Social Security, thereby reaping higher monthly payments.

Over the decades, we’ve seen plenty of business titans succumb to greed and engage in illegal activities because they seemed clueless as to what constitutes enough. Our goal is to follow Heller’s lead—or is it Salinger’s?—and adopt the mentality that whatever we have is indeed enough.

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