IT WAS JULY 2003. My wife and I were in our early 50s. We had jobs we liked and we lived comfortably. Our two children were about to go to college, and we had a plan for covering the cost. We had renewed our marriage vows on our 25th anniversary. We had no debt.
But I began thinking.
What would our financial situation be if we retired and our only income was Social Security? That was entirely possible. My employer’s pension plan had been woefully underfunded when I began working there. Future pension benefits were far from certain. Meanwhile, my wife’s employer had recently been sold, and the new owner had no pension plan.
Worse, we weren’t really savers. Somehow, we’d managed to set aside about nine months of gross income. But most of the time, the money that came in each month went out almost as fast. On top of that—despite having unhappy experiences with older family members who suddenly required long-term care—we hadn’t taken any steps to spare our children the financial and personal trouble we might cause.
In short, we simply weren’t preparing to pay for life after work, nor were we dealing with scary possibilities. We wouldn’t be able to maintain our lifestyle in retirement even if we waited until age 70 to claim Social Security. We also didn’t own a home. If our behavior didn’t change, we could end up—old, frail and broke—on our kids’ doorstep.
Neither of us knew what to do, but we knew what we didn’t want, which was to be a burden to our children. We had to make our own better future. Because we were starting late, we knew we’d have to save as though we were being chased by wild bears and angry hornets.
Reading about saving and investing wasn’t our usual fare. Still, we agreed to read a personal finance book together. The book we chose was Smart Couples Finish Rich by David Bach. The author stated bluntly that, while what we were reading might be entertaining and thought-provoking, it would be useless if we took no action. For us at that moment, those words were like a waiter prompting us to order from the menu we were staring at.
We set a goal of amassing a $1 million portfolio by age 70. We calculated that we needed to save 25% of our gross income, on top of our employers’ matching contribution, beginning the next workday—which we did. After all, if we’d been forced to take a big pay cut at work, we would have figured out how to carry on. By the same token, why not tighten our belts for the sake of our future selves?
We began investing in mutual funds offered through our workplaces—Vanguard Group for my wife, Fidelity Investments for me. Our formula was to save a lot, make appropriate asset allocation choices and then save even more. We accepted that we might not reach our $1 million. But we figured that even if we missed our moonshot goal, we’d still be among the stars. That’s bad astronomy, but it was good for our motivation.
My wife and I are very different people. She follows HGTV, while I’m in another room, watching the History Channel. On a nature walk, she’ll take 100 up-close photos, while I’ll be gazing off into the distance. I would happily eat chicken every day, she’d go for fish tacos forever. She loves to shop, while I’d rather have measles than wander through a mall. As you might imagine, with our new plan, we were constantly negotiating choices and tradeoffs.
Over the next four years, we settled into our new arrangement. We each had a monthly allowance. We bought a house in 2005. We made sure we saved by paying ourselves first through workplace withholding.
Those good times didn’t last. In 2007, I abruptly needed to find a new job. During the Great Recession, our investments imploded. The house we bought became a financial albatross, which we couldn’t unload until 2010. By the time we sold, we were so far underwater that we had to pay six figures above the selling price to clear our mortgage.
When the dust settled, we had lost our home and a lot of net worth. We also lost our daily life together when, in 2008, I finally found a new job—in another state.
When the house sold, we had a yard sale and downsized more. We were already living apart. For five years, we saw each other every other weekend and talked on the phone every day. A lot of people had it much worse, we knew, so we actually felt fortunate.
We also kept saving. Our brutal experience made us even more determined to become financially secure.
Eventually, things righted themselves. We were able to get under one roof again. Our investments recovered and the money we added during those bad times bought mutual fund shares that really blossomed as stock prices rose. We each retired when we reached age 70, holding off on Social Security until then.
Today, my wife receives a small annuity from a previous employer. My employer’s pension fund got better management and I receive benefits. We have enough money to enter a lifecare community we like.
Our success is due, in part, to luck and to not facing the discrimination suffered by those who are minorities, and we say so. But it wasn’t all luck. We also persisted with good practices during bad times, and we stuck to a “good enough” investing plan.
Tom Scott is a retired Episcopal priest. He and his wife live in Evanston, Illinois.