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Loosening My Grip

Ken Begley

AS I WROTE THIS STORY, the word count kept climbing and climbing because it has more twists and turns than a detective novel. It was so long I was afraid no one would read it, not even my mother. So, here is a condensed version of what I wanted to say.

The hardest transition for some folks as they reach retirement is to go from a saver to a spender of what they’ve saved. You spend a lifetime saving up money for your golden years and then that period of saving money ends. You should now spend and enjoy some of your hoard.

That was—and still is—difficult for me. After all, it’s rare for folks to flip a switch and suddenly change their whole personality. This is true if you’re going in either direction.

My wife Cindy was age 22 and I was 31 when we married. I had always been a supersaver by nature, so I had a good-sized net worth at the time. I tell people that those years before Cindy were my single and “rich” years. I had a great job and low expenses because I was only responsible for myself. I could spend a fair amount but I was saving even more. I had a great life. What about Cindy? She really had nothing because, well, she was 22.

But I wanted more and I wanted Cindy—badly.

After we got married, I lost that great-paying job due to massive cutbacks at my employer. I never had another job as good as the one I lost. We both wanted to stay in our little town, where few jobs were available. I had to take whatever I could find, and that resulted in my pay dropping in half overnight.

Over the years, our family grew to five kids. Kentucky is known for poverty. Most jobs are low paying. For 12 years, Cindy stayed at home with the kids, while also managing to work two part-time jobs. After that, she went back to work fulltime.

Meanwhile, I had a fulltime and two part-time employers, plus I put in almost 43 years of active and reserve duty in the armed forces. I was shocked by the change in my status. I went from single and “rich” to married and “poor” in almost one fell swoop. Still, I was a saver and I became the most miserly person you would ever meet. It was not pleasant.

I was legendarily tightfisted. Take buying something at the candy machine at work. The wheels in my brain would start churning through reams of mental data, calculating the cost of a daily purchase from that machine extrapolated over days, weeks and years. The result was I wouldn’t buy the item in question. I did that with everything.

Spending money became repugnant to me even when we could well afford it. Any windfall we received went into our retirement accounts. Our net worth climbed and climbed. But in the process, we fought over money more and more because saving became an obsession for me.

What an awful position to be in. You have all this money but letting it go makes you miserable. You never feel rich. You always feel poor. It seemed that every time I made a purchase that was an “extravagance,” no matter how small, I would almost become physically sick. It was after one of these mental episodes that I thought, “Good grief, am I going to be this way for the rest of my life? Will I ever be able to enjoy spending the money more than I enjoy watching it accumulate in my bank account?” Such thoughts depressed me greatly.

But I changed and continue to change over time. How? First, two of my brothers died, one at 64 and another at 68. It was a shock. My dad died at 92 and my mom is still going strong at 95. My mortality was staring me in the face. I am not going to live forever. Would I be on my deathbed staring at my financial accounts? I doubt that.

Second, I realized that, at age 65, we pretty much live on my military and civilian pensions. I still haven’t had the need to even touch my Social Security or retirement savings. Those savings are substantial by the standards of our Kentucky town. One day, our tax bill will be enormous if we don’t start spending down our savings.

The upshot: I decided to turn over to Cindy most decisions on giving to charity, gifts to our children, vacations, dining out and, yes, going to the candy machine, with limited input from me. It made my wife happy not to be married to a money-grubbing control freak. And I was happy to get to enjoy what our hard-earned money can buy.

No, I’ll never be a big spender. But we enjoy our life, and my marriage has become stronger by letting go of some money. The golden years are becoming so much better now that I’ve learned to spend some of our gold.

Ken Begley has worked for the IRS and as an accountant, a college director of student financial aid and a newspaper columnist, and he also spent 42 years on active and reserve service with the U.S. Navy and Army. Now retired, Ken likes to spend his time with his family, especially his grandchildren, and as a volunteer with Kentucky’s Marion County Veterans Honor Guard performing last rites at military funerals, including more than 350 during the past three years. Ken’s previous article was How I Got This Way.

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