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Just the Two of Us

Laura E. Kelly

HOW MUCH OF YOUR retirement planning revolves around your kids and grandkids? Your estate planning goals probably include bequeathing a meaningful sum. Perhaps moving closer to your kids and grandkids is part of your plan. Whether you consciously think about it or not, you may be counting on your children to help out if needed during your final years. That seemed to be my father’s plan.

But what if you don’t have kids? How different would your retirement plan look?

When my husband Warren and I made the decision not to have children, retirement was in the distant future, although never forgotten. We were frugal types who always saved for retirement.

But now, in our 60s, the future is here. On some recent road trips, Warren and I spent our “windshield time” discussing how not having children might—or might not—affect our life’s third act. We’ve landed on three basic retirement rules tailor-made for a couple without kids. It seems to me, however, that our guidelines are relevant to anyone, kids or not.

Enjoy what you’ve earned. Even before hearing about “die with zero,” we were looking to spend down what we’ve sweated to amass. That could be considered a no-brainer if you have no kids to leave money to. But even if you have kids and grandkids, it’s worth asking yourself, “Am I overly concerned with leaving a large inheritance?”

Most of our friends’ children are doing just fine in their careers. Maybe an inheritance for those kids, who may not get it until they’re age 50 or 60, means they’ll be able to splurge on a boat. Is that what you’ve worked, saved and invested all those years for? Or can you think of better things you could do with your money?

If you opt to spend down your wealth, there’s the question of how to do it. Yes, lifelong savers like Warren and me actually need to figure out how to spend. A first stab at this is a 25-year self-pension plan we devised this year.

It starts with our estimated annual expenses multiplied by 25. We carved out that sum from our net worth. That’ll cover our basic spending money. What about our remaining net worth? We divided that into three buckets designed to be emptied over 25 years.

One bucket is a “travel account,” which we expect to empty faster in our retirement’s early years. The second bucket is the “house-plus account,” which will be used to either fix up our aging house or find and furnish a new place. Finally, there’s a “shortfall account” bucket that stands by to replenish the other buckets as needed over the next quarter-century. There’s nothing unique about this “self-pension” bucket concept—except that my husband came up with it, so he feels ownership of it.

Another way we could spend down to zero is by annuitizing part of our savings. I’ve read a lot about annuitizing savings on HumbleDollar. As someone who used to get a steady paycheck and doesn’t have a pension, I can see the appeal of income-on-autopilot, especially a decade or two from now when financial simplicity becomes a priority.

Finally, since we don’t have to worry about “robbing the kids,” I could imagine doing a reverse mortgage if we still own a house at age 80 and aren’t keen on moving. The house, however, may be long gone by then.

Focus on community and independence. When kids-as-caregivers isn’t an option, you’re forced to think about community and support systems. But here again, I wonder if this kind of thinking isn’t almost as necessary for people with kids. After all, even if your kids are willing to be your support system, is that what you want for them? Extended caretaking can take a real toll on a loved one’s life and happiness.

With care and community on our minds, we’ve been taking close looks at the following:

  • A long-term-care (LTC) insurance policy seems an obvious purchase for folks without kids. But the more I found out, the less sure I was. My friends seemed to be the ones supervising long-term care for their ailing parents. Who would supervise my care? I also wondered who would be there to help us in the long, fraught waiting period before LTC coverage kicks in. These issues, along with the long-term-care industry’s ever-rising expenses and viability, made me wonder if there was a better way.
  • Continuing care retirement communities, or CCRCs, where community and care are baked into the model, caught my eye this past year. This summer, I’ve already sat through two Zoom marketing pitches for new “life plan” communities being built in my Northeast region, and I’ve gotten a sense for how expensive they are to buy into. The answer: very. I’ve also learned that the earlier you move into one of these communities, the more you benefit from the active lifestyle they offer those in their “independent living” years.

Ideally, before settling on a CCRC, you should sample a place—meaning actually stay there a few days—to get a real sense of the community, rather than just taking a tour and studying the brochures. Sorry, Warren, but there go the beach trips. I foresee more than a few of our future vacations devoted to checking out communities in less expensive parts of the country. The waiting lists are apparently long and getting longer, as the boomers queue up for these places, so I guess we shouldn’t procrastinate.

  • We’re starting to discuss finding a professional to manage our health and financial affairs when we’re not capable. I asked a few friends for ideas or referrals, but nobody my age had given the topic any thought. My guess is “my busy kids will do that” is the plan. While this “not capable” time seems far off, I suppose it would be smart to find a much younger professional in the near-ish future, whom we can then get to know and trust.
  • Finally, we’ve had a few conversations about when one of us dies and the other is alone. That situation creates daily challenges that seem to me could only be partly solved by helpful children. We’re putting thought into how best to develop and maintain independent abilities and interests now that would help keep us emotionally afloat when we’re on our own. For instance, for 2024, we’re both deliberately scheduling independent trips without the other. We’re also ramping up the time and money we invest in our individual interests and hobbies.

Look to leave your mark. On a vacation in our 50s, we had dinner with a younger cousin of mine who lives in London. He listened to Warren talk about the books he’d written and said, “Okay, I get it. Your books are sort of like your children—what you’re leaving behind in the world.”

It was an interesting “aha” moment about this human need to leave a mark on this world we travel through. For some, the mere fact of having offspring is a great legacy. But there are other ways to derive purpose and fulfillment—ways that reflect who you are as an individual, not just as a paterfamilias or matriarch.

For years, Warren and I have had the time and freedom to explore those ways. It’s included activities like mentoring, giving back to the community via time and expertise, donating to organizations that matter to us, putting art out into the world, and spreading ideas through the written word.

I believe that everybody—with or without kids—should have a plan for how they’ll leave their mark. Wealthy individuals might start a foundation or endow college scholarships. Others may use sweat equity to build something or volunteer in their community as a tutor or mentor. I know folks who’ve variously started a local chorale, a company for driving elders, and a rescue operation for hard-to-place older dogs.

Embarking on a creative endeavor can be an especially fulfilling way to share a bit of yourself with the world. Perhaps start up a sketchbook journal chronicling a trip or your daily life—even if you can’t draw at the beginning. Create a blog that publishes a photo each day and describe what it means to you. Design a perennial garden. Build quirky birdhouses and give them to friends. Gather your favorite BBQ or ethnic recipes into a keepsake scrapbook.

As writers, Warren and I believe in composing a long letter or manuscript, or even just a simple list of details about your life, aspirations and interests. That might include the story of your financial journey, like those found in HumbleDollar’s book, My Money Journey. It could take months or years to put together this document, but you’ll be amazed how all the threads tie together and give meaning and shape to your life.

You may wonder who such a document is for.

It’s for you.

Laura E. Kelly is a web designer and book editor living in Mount Kisco, New York, with her husband, author Warren Berger. As Laura contemplates retirement and relocating, all of those things could change (well, probably not the husband). Her previous article was Dying at Home.

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