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Prophet Motive

Ken Cutler

LARRY BURKETT WAS one of my early financial influences. Burkett, who passed away from cancer in 2003 at age 64, had a daily program called Money Matters on our local Christian radio station. For years, it came on during my commute home from work, and I’d faithfully tune in.

Burkett was a prolific author, publishing more than 70 books. His final book, Wealth to Last, co-authored with Ron Blue, has been in my financial library for two decades. The subtitle is Money Essentials for the Second Half of Life and is targeted at those age 50 and older.

Burkett’s Christian faith and understanding of biblical principles informed everything he wrote and said about money. Two quotes from the introduction of Wealth to Last set the stage:

  • “You should have two financial goals in life: to make a little money first, and then to make a little money last.”—Unknown
  • “Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed.” —I Timothy 6:17-19

Many of Burkett’s themes—diversify your portfolio, be careful with debt, spend less than you make—should resonate with most HumbleDollar readers regardless of whether they share his Christian faith. What are some distinctive nuggets from Wealth to Last? Here are some that I think will be of most interest to the HumbleDollar community.

Chapter 4 is entitled Retiring Conventional Wisdom About Retirement. It’s subtitled A Retirement Is a Terrible Thing to Waste. It opens by contrasting the productive later years of S. Truett Cathy, the founder of Chick-fil-A who retired at age 92, with the life of a power plant retiree of the same age named Mr. Darton.

Darton kept a 10-year calendar in which he crossed off the days until his much-anticipated retirement at age 60. After retiring, he declined various service opportunities in his church, saying, “I’m retired now. I have a lot of things I want to do. Besides, we hope to do some traveling.”

The story continues: “After five years of retirement, Mr. Darton had seen all the TV he wanted, read all the books he wanted, kept his yard perfect, and was very bored. Still healthy and mentally sharp, he had considered ‘doing some consulting’ to increase his income and help his budget. But he was a bit proud that he was retired and didn’t want it to appear that he couldn’t make it on his own. Besides, no consulting opportunities came along.”

The book goes on: “Turning seventy, his ten years of retirement had evolved into a routine of reading the paper for an hour, having coffee with old coworkers, and griping with them about his pension and the cost of prescription drugs. The highlight of his day was getting the mail; the highlight of his week was mowing the lawn.”

When Darton turned 80, his doctor told him at his annual physical that he was in great shape and would likely live several more years. Darton’s response? “Ho-hum. I can’t imagine several more years like the last twenty years.” He tended to daydream about his career days while riding his lawn mower. Missing the feeling of contributing and the camaraderie from those days, he wondered why he had so looked forward to retirement.

The contrast between productive Truett Cathy and bored Darton is designed to support the authors’ prescription for a fulfilling retirement: “What’s our solution? It is a four-letter word: W-O-R-K. Keep working. Change careers and begin another. Work as a volunteer or work for pay. Work part-time. Work full-time intermittently at various jobs. Work in the winter, play golf and fish in the summer. Get attuned to the idea of continuing to work.”

One of the reasons continuing to work in our later years can be an attractive option is that most service and knowledge jobs these days don’t require as much physical stamina as they once did. Another reason is the increased longevity we enjoy. From the book: “After hearing of an acquaintance dying suddenly at age sixty, haven’t you said something like, ‘My! That’s young!’ Your great-grandparents would rarely have uttered such a remark.” A longer lifespan translates to increased financial needs for retirement. Working a bit can help with that.

Wealth to Last was written for a Christian audience. It addresses the question, “Is retirement scriptural?” The authors list three reasons Americans think they’re entitled to retirement:

  • Leisure is more valuable than work.
  • Older people are less useful and less productive.
  • At an arbitrary age, we can withdraw from responsibilities to enjoy the comfortable rewards from past labors.

The authors’ conclusion, supported by Bible passages, is that these premises are not biblical. In contrast to what they see as the typical American retirement dream, the authors present numerous examples of both secular and religious people who stayed engaged, accomplishing much in their later years.

The authors are careful to say that their message is not that all retirement is wrong or bad. Many retire because of health issues or disabilities. Others retire to take care of aging parents, an ill spouse or grandchildren. Some people are forced to retire because of the nature of their work or industry.

They also take pains to say they don’t want to imply that work is the most important activity in life: “We do not advocate a workaholic approach. We are simply saying that if a Christian has a good, full life and enjoys what he does, he will be useful throughout his entire life, not just in his early years.”

In the Q&A section at the end of the chapter, Burkett answers a question about saving for retirement with some thoughts that might seem jarring to readers: “I do have a concern though. Some in America have developed a mania about retirement savings and the necessity for storing large amounts of assets. People often save 10 to 15 percent of their income in a retirement plan but then say that they cannot afford to give 10 percent to God’s work.”

He goes on: “Some think they need to retire with a vast amount of assets and then spend much more than they did during their working years. That is not true. Once you set a pattern for living, it will not change substantially after retirement, except in many cases it may go down. If you have learned to adjust your standard of living during the working years, then retirement will be a comfortable adjustment. The Christian who hoards money to be used for retirement is being deceived.”

Burkett continues: “There is nothing wrong with saving in moderation for retirement. But there is something wrong with storing unnecessarily, believing that is the only way to provide for later years. Whatever its guise, living for retirement and hoarding is the wrong approach…. This pressure to have enough resources to begin and sustain retirement lifestyles results in stress, worry, and an earthly focus rather than a Kingdom focus.”

The key to understanding Burkett: His faith was fundamental to his being. His views on money reflected that paradigm. Unlike some these days who “peddle the word of God for profit,” Burkett was in the game to spread the message, not to enrich himself.

Ken Cutler lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and has worked as an electrical engineer in the nuclear power industry for more than 38 years. There, he has become an informal financial advisor for many of his coworkers. Ken is involved in his church, enjoys traveling and hiking with his wife Lisa, is a shortwave radio hobbyist, and has a soft spot for cats and dogs. Check out Ken’s earlier articles.

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