Myth #14: Fund Your 401(k) No Matter What! (part 2)

When my clients establish a list of financial goals, they often minimize or under-prioritize the elements that would most contribute to their enjoyment of life. The things they feel they are supposed to do are always on the top of the list. The things they want to do are on the bottom—if listed at all.

Jeri and Bill told me that fully funding their retirement was one of their financial goals. “And we want to pay for our kids’ college education,” Jeri said.

“And we want to pay off our home mortgage.”

After a brief pause, Bill sheepishly added, “. . . and go to Europe.”

Under her breath, Jeri responded, “That’ll never happen.”

In this short conversation, Jeri and Bill had laid their cards on the table, and I was not about to pass up the opportunity to call their hand.

“What did you say?” I blurted out.

They proceeded to tell me their story. After they had married and the kids were still young, they took off to Europe for three months. They lived in a VW van and traveled through France, Spain, Portugal, and Germany. They had a wonderful, magical, and unforgettable time. They remember the trip as romantic and adventurous—they were together, and they were free. On that trip, they committed to each other that they would come back to Europe when their kids were old enough to enjoy it fully.

For years, they told their kids about this commitment to take them on a European adventure. But it never happened. Something else always got in the way, living expenses continuously increased, and college turned out to be a more expensive proposition than they had thought.

Now their son was turning fifteen, and as any parent who has had a fifteen-year-old knows, their time was running out. Not too many kids older than fifteen want to go on an extended vacation with their parents.

Jeri and Bill were worried that if they didn’t go next summer, it would never happen. But they didn’t see how it was possible financially.

“Go to Europe!” I said.

“But we can’t afford it. We don’t have any left-over money. We don’t have enough saved.”

“How much would it cost?” I asked.

We talked to a travel agent and came up with an estimate of $10,000.

“Okay,” I said. “Reduce your 401(k) contribution enough, just this once, so that you can save the $10,000 you need to go to Europe by next summer.”

They were stunned. “You’re a financial planner! You’re telling us not to fund our retirement?”

“Absolutely,” I said. “In fact, I’m telling you that you have to go! The opportunity is right in front of you, right here, right now. If you don’t go, you will regret it for the rest of your lives. Do you think you are going to get to retirement and be glad you didn’t take the trip you two promised yourselves and your kids? I seriously doubt it. Life’s too short. Go!”

They stared at me a moment, glanced at each other and then lit up. You would have thought they had just won the lottery! They were like excited children. Before leaving my office, they had committed to a date for the trip.

The following year, Jeri and Bill came in for their annual review. They wouldn’t let the meeting begin without thanking me.

“We have memories of that trip,” Jeri said, “that will be with us all our lives. We will never forget the time we had together. It was the highlight of our lives and our kids’ lives. Who cares that we didn’t put that money toward retirement? So what if we have to work a little longer. It won’t make that much difference. It won’t make as much difference in our lives as taking that trip did.”

We need to give consideration to those things that create real meaning in our lives and include them in our plans. If we fail to figure them into our financial plans in a real and tangible way, then life has a way of just slipping by.

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