“You have choices, Mr. Schafer,” our financial advisor Craig Shaver said almost every time we’ve talked these last couple of years.
Shaver, of RBC Wealth Management, would sometimes add “within reason.” Buying a villa in the south of France lies well beyond reason, but we could rent one on Vrbo — you know, maybe one of those cute little ones.
He was right, of course, and I have chosen to make a change. This week is my last at the Star Tribune and you are reading my last column.
I’m so thankful for the readers who kept coming back. Somehow this job became easier for me when, a couple of years in, I started picturing real people holding the printed paper or an iPad in their hands.
I suspect my first couple of columns about personal finance came from deadline panic and having no new ideas about Medtronic or Target. Personal finance got more interesting, though, when I heard back from readers and finally realized what people needed.
They didn’t need to see more stories on picking exchange-traded funds or how to save money on their taxes. They might not even have clicked on a tax tips article if they weren’t a little worried they were doing something wrong.
That’s what so much of this form of finance writing suggests — that if someone’s personal finances aren’t going well, it’s all their fault.
That’s what the readers were telling me. Saving and investing for retirement is an American do-it-yourself project that’s stressful and hard to get right. So is paying for a kid’s college education.
Does it have to be this hard?
Those readers who e-mailed didn’t want to be rich, exactly, just worry a lot less. They were tired of being mad, too, like when watching the neighbors who’d saved nothing for their kids’ college get a lot of grants while their scraped-together college savings still left their children buried under student loans.
They could sure use hearing that they shouldn’t just blame themselves if a feeling of financial security never arrives. They could be reassured that however it’s turned out, they still had good choices.
So my recurring lesson — maybe only in one or two columns a year, and I hope in a way that didn’t feel like preaching — was that we earn and invest money not to end up rich but to have a good life.
And you don’t need to have a lot of money, or a lot of the stuff money buys, to have a good life.
Of the things that seem most important for the next chapter of our lives, most of them won’t cost much money.
Some ideas for retirement that do cost a lot of money, like buying a big house in another state, we’re not doing.
I will grant you that moving across the country could make people happier, although it seems far more likely that they’ll carry most of their problems with them. And I know from years of looking into human biases in decision-making that people are generally terrible at predicting what will make them happy.
Any interest I had in moving to the sunny state of Florida, a perennially popular spot for Minnesotans, didn’t survive my last business trip there. The Floridians were fine. It was the tax avoidance-obsessed Minnesotans who were annoying.
One genial Minnesotan argued that just the savings on state income taxes can pay for the condo of a Minnesota couple formally residing in Florida.
Well, maybe, depending on the size of the condo and their taxable income. But they then have to actually live in it, for at least half the year, anyway. They’d be trading away their places in the Minnesota communities that nurtured them for the chance to pay less in taxes.
Our tradition here of getting involved in our communities is one reason we get ranked pretty high by measures like the health of our seniors. It can help explain why Minnesota edged out Hawaii for the top spot in a state ranking of how many years people can be expected to live independently and in good health, as of the 2018 study I found while cleaning out files last week.
One benefit of getting out in the community and helping others with their problems is getting a break from thinking about your own. A CEO once told me that it had never occurred to him, driving home after volunteering to fish household garbage out of a construction dumpster at a nonprofit’s building site, that he really needed to buy a new boat.
I’ve volunteered a lot, and I’m not even the most active volunteer in my house. By now it must be at least a dozen things I’ve done for my little church in St. Paul, too, including working with our teenagers.
It was one of them, a ninth-grader, who told me that he planned to become an active part of the church because someday he’ll really need a supportive community. When he does, this one would be there for him.
That beat whatever got said from the pulpit that week.
If you reach retirement age with choices, choose as many communities as will take you in. When you need one, it’ll be there for you.
One surprise when I came to the Star Tribune in 2012 was finding an important community in the newsroom. Writing a column looks like what HR calls an “individual contributor” job, with no staff or budget but important work to do.
Yet it didn’t really work that way. Simply put, the business news at the Star Tribune gets produced by a team, and if my work was good, I had a lot of help.
When asked what my plans are, I say the highest priority is rebuilding a sense of purpose around something other than writing for the Star Tribune. It might mean a book project, gig work, volunteering or even playing a care-giving role for a family member.
Just talking about a life’s purpose seems to annoy some people, but it’s really nothing more than something that drives you to get things done. It doesn’t have to be about a paid job.
I’m not suggesting that these things are enough and folks needn’t work hard at saving for retirement. I’m not sure I can even say how much is enough, other than to suggest that getting there might feel like a race with a moving finish line.
Those with $1 million in net assets will respond on a survey that they’ll feel secure with $2 million. Those with $5 million believe they need $10 million. People with $10 million don’t think that’s enough.
What none of these people realize is that far less can make a big difference as you get older, something I’ve learned this year helping an 82-year-old family member get ready for assisted living.
Medicaid will help pay for a bed in a dorm-style double room. Down the hall, though, is a brightly lit and much more comfortable studio. The additional rent for this private apartment comes to about $2,000 a month.
After a lifetime of work, this family member has a monthly Social Security check and that’s about it for any money. Qualifying for Medicaid is no trick at all. Yet he’s also got a little house someone will want to buy. There is enough equity in this house to fund maybe three years of that private room.
And like most everyone, he’s got people and groups he really cares about, like the church where he’s been so well supported.
It might even turn out that he gets his needs met and still nears the end with one more choice to make: what to do with any money left over.
Even deciding where a couple hundred dollars should go can lead to a realization that we didn’t just have enough. We had more than enough.
You know, that doesn’t seem like a bad way to describe being rich.