I WAS AT WORK WHEN my daughter called. “Grandpa was taken to the hospital in an ambulance, and you need to meet Mom and Grandma there as soon as you can.”
I entered the hospital room 45 minutes later, and I saw my mom in tears standing next to my dad’s lifeless body. Dad’s hair and face were spotted with wood chips and dirt, and he was wearing a torn flannel shirt and old blue jeans. He had spent the day working in his backyard, something he loved to do.
As I looked at my parents, all I could think about were some of the last words that I remember my dad saying. It had been just five days earlier. The family was gathered in our living room after Thanksgiving dinner, and my daughter asked, “Grandpa, what was the best time of your life?”
My dad looked at Mom, his wife of 54 years, and smiled as he answered, “The best time of my life has been since I retired because I have been able to spend more time with my wife and best friend.”
Although I didn’t know it at the time, my dad’s short answer to my daughter’s simple question would cause me to change my retirement plan. I was age 53, and I’d always envisioned retiring sometime between 65 and 70. But my dad’s death at age 74, the result of his second heart attack, would become the catalyst to reframe my future plans and accelerate my retirement timeline.
Like many engineers, I created my own spreadsheet and made my own retirement projections. Unfortunately, I never revisited that spreadsheet or the assumptions that went into it. Although I probably created my custom retirement spreadsheet more than 20 years ago, I never felt the need to go back to it because I loved my job and I was now in my best earning years.
When my dad died, I knew practically nothing about my parents’ finances. I had tried to talk to them about their financial situation on several occasions, just in case something happened, but they never wanted to talk about money. All I knew was that when Dad retired, he assumed responsibility for paying the bills, balancing the checkbook and handling their investments.
It had been 12 years since Mom had turned over the finances to Dad. And now, because of the sudden loss, she couldn’t concentrate, and had difficulty paying her bills and getting her finances organized. To make things worse, we couldn’t find the passwords for any of their accounts. Mom needed me to help her get smart about her financial situation quickly.
It wasn’t quick. Over the next three years, my mom and I had a financial baptism by fire as I slowly helped her uncover, unpack and clean up her financial situation. We interacted with lawyers, financial advisors, and insurance and annuity companies. We dealt with banks, health insurance companies, Dad’s former employers, Medicare and the Social Security Administration. We learned numerous financial lessons, and some of the harder lessons were taught to us through high fees and excessive taxes.
One thing that was particularly frustrating about my dad’s finances: He seemed to have money all over the place. Dad had stock certificates in shoe boxes, drawers and filing cabinets. He held some stocks in his name only, and others were in both of their names. And he had numerous investment accounts, checking accounts and certificates of deposit in different locations.
It took nearly two years to track down all the money. At least we assume it’s all the money. I could imagine my dad opening some of these accounts 40 years ago because of an offer of a free toaster or a digital clock radio and then just leaving the money there for decades. How else would something like this occur?
Then I thought about my wife and me, and we seemed to have money all over the place as well. We had accounts at Vanguard Group, Charles Schwab, TD Ameritrade, the federal government’s Thrift Savings Plan, TreasuryDirect and our local credit union. My wife might be in the same situation as my mom if something were to happen to me. I’m not sure how we got so many accounts, but I’m fairly sure I didn’t get a free toaster or digital clock radio for opening them.
We started to consolidate our accounts as much as possible. What I discovered was that having so many accounts obscured our net worth. I was not in the habit of checking all our investments regularly, and I practically never traded. I was pleasantly surprised to see our net worth when we looked at the balances and did the math on our accounts.
I had been on financial cruise control, with my retirement set for 65, but my dad’s last words about the best time of his life caused me to rethink my own retirement plans. I’d never considered retiring prior to 65, but after cleaning up and clarifying our financial situation, I ended up retiring at 56.
Dad was a loving and devoted husband. He loved his four kids, his 14 grandchildren and his church. But he didn’t love thinking about or talking about money. When the topic of money came up in a conversation, he often said to me, “Charlie, there’s a lot more to life than money.”
Death is a sobering reminder of the frailty and fleeting nature of life. But death can also be an important opportunity to reevaluate your own priorities and values. It was for me. Today, I’m happy to say that I’m able to spend my time with my wife and best friend. Retirement has been the best time of my life.
I’m thankful to my dad for the financial lessons he taught me while he was alive and after he passed. I loved my dad, and still do.
Chuck Staley and his wife Gina have five children between ages seven and 30. He worked for 35 years as a Department of Defense engineer at Edwards Air Force Base before retiring in January 2022. Chuck now volunteers as a part-time pastor at a small church. He recently started a sole proprietorship, Walk Worthy Solutions, to train federal employees about retirement planning and leadership. Chuck enjoys walking daily with his wife, reading, home improvement projects, and traveling with his family.