Rethinking Restraint

James E. Mitchell

I’D PLANNED CAREFULLY. All I needed was to get from the Oslo airport to an Airbnb about eight miles away. It was 12 minutes by bus, the host firmly proclaimed.

I’d disembarked from a ship early that morning in Kirkenes, near the Russian border. I’d paid about $20 for a bus ride to the nearest airport, and then flown 850 miles to Oslo. Now, I was ready for the local bus and that 12-minute ride to the Airbnb. But I was also tired, and my two pieces of carry-on were dragging.

A taxi or an Uber would have been far easier, but I didn’t want to pay the extra $10. I’d determined that I was going to take the bus—I like public transportation—and so I would. But when the bus pulled up, it wouldn’t take my credit card and I had no Norwegian kroner.

I missed that first bus while traipsing back through the airport, and incurred a hefty fee to exchange dollars for kroner. Then, I waited for the next bus, which seemed as if it would never come. Finally, I paid $4 to ride the 12 minutes to a delightful suburban apartment—two hours later than planned.

I had stuck by my values when I should have changed. No harm came of it, except the blow to my self-image as a sensible, value-guided decision-maker.

The experience, which occurred this past spring, led me to reexamine my values. I’ve been fortunate to live well by sticking with four fundamentals: family, professional passion, planning and restraint. These basics still serve me well, for the most part. But I’ve been transformed as I recognize that, at age 81, I have only a few years left.

Family has always been my first priority. It led to a 59-year marriage. I lost my wife last fall. It also led to us providing for our daughter. In anticipation of our deaths, my wife and I had set up a charitable remainder unitrust (CRUT) for our daughter’s lifetime benefit. She appreciates the financial freedom that it gives her. Family values also made me decide that my next trip will be to visit relatives, who are dispersed across the U.S.

Meanwhile, professional passion—along with luck—led me to an academic career where I achieved a full professorship and various administrative positions. These allowed me to devote my career to helping students and staff. In retirement, my professional responsibilities morphed into leadership at my condominium development, then undergoing an $18 million renovation. I employed the skills I’d learned in my career in a new, somewhat more relaxed setting.

Planning has pervaded my life, both professionally and personally. I always detailed our trips in Excel and purchased tickets months in advance, at competitive prices and after much research. We wisely waited to have our daughter until we knew we were ready for a baby.

Still, my experience in Oslo wasn’t the first time I’ve been too rigid. Now that I no longer have the same physical capabilities, I need to bend to the unexpected—and be more graceful about it, unlike when I fumed on the bus platform in Oslo.

Most significantly, I’ve had to rethink my value of restraint. During my working years, restraint meant saving. I put large sums in investment accounts that I didn’t touch, leaving the money to grow through the magic of compounding.

Having retired at 78, I’m able to live on my retirement accounts’ required minimum distributions, with money to spare. It no longer makes sense to equate restraint with saving, but it’s a habit I find difficult to change.

My problem in Oslo arose partly because I didn’t want to pay an extra $10 for a taxi—on a $7,000 trip. That was foolishness, not restraint.

Similarly, but on a much larger scale, I’m struggling with switching from saving to spending those savings. For me, spending first meant helping our daughter. That accomplished, it now means deciding how to use my surplus income wisely.

I’ve written long lists of what I might buy: a fancy car, a second home, a boat, travel, art and so on. The only item on my list that I’ve accepted as worthwhile is more travel. I’ve stepped up from flying economy to premium economy, but my restraint still won’t let me book business class.

My updated version of restraint is holding onto enough money to ensure my care should I have a long illness, such as Parkinson’s, the disease that took my wife. I’m determined not to hold onto money for no good reason.

I’m looking actively for ways to give away money, both income and capital, that will make a difference. I’m interested in local and global causes. I pay close attention to debates on topics such as effective altruism—ways of doing good that are proven to work.

And perhaps I won’t be quite so silly the next time I embark on a trip. I’ll be willing to hail an Uber for convenience, rather than suffering while I wait for a bus.

James E. Mitchell is a professor emeritus of architectural engineering. He spent 32 years at Drexel University. Before that, Jim was a principal in the architecture firm Jordan-Mitchell, Inc., in Philadelphia. He’s currently the unpaid president of The Philadelphian Owners Association. Jim’s previous article was Two Decades to Yes.

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