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Retirement Savings Wake Up Call

choosing to save for retirement

I read an interesting article in response to a question about the need for a retirement savings wake up call. I’ve always enjoyed advice columns, even though I realize they should be viewed more as entertainment than fact. Just like with reality shows; boring and normal don’t make for great entertainment.

Anyhow, this letter was from a father nearing retirement age who was facing a financial conundrum because he knew he and his wife didn’t have adequate retirement savings, yet he wanted to help his pregnant daughter with her own financial crisis.

You can read the entire letter and response. I don’t think the semantics are that important, but what did strike me was the advice columnist’s take on why people can’t save for retirement, a thought many of us have probably had at one time or another.

“Man, we spend too much on stuff we don’t need. Oh well, as long as we figure this out by retirement, we’ll be OK. It’s not like it affects us right now.

Don’t Think It Can’t Happen to You

Bam! That’s exactly why, at one time, we couldn’t stop ourselves from spending too much to make retirement savings a priority. We hadn’t had our retirement wake up call!

Unfortunately, that call did come during the recession, not to us, but to some close family members. Years of spending too much and saving too little caused them to lose everything. All we could do was stand back and watch it happen, all while feeling shamefully relieved that it wasn’t us.

Americans are very much about the here and now.

  • YOLO!
  • You can’t take it with you!
  • I’ll work ’till I die!

That all sounds great until it doesn’t. Work is never a given, and most of us won’t be able to work until we die. That leaves an uncomfortable amount of time left to survive. I can’t imagine working for decades only to find myself with nothing to my name, wondering if I’ll be able to afford real food this week or if pasta and red sauce will have to do. I don’t want to imagine how bad it would feel to depend on my child to bail me out of a financial mess.

How Can I Find My Wake Up Call?

Odds are, you might have already found it. If you were a working adult for any period during the recession years of recent memory, you probably know what it’s like to lose a job or wonder if your income will be there next week. Even if it didn’t happen to you, I bet you know someone who got knocked down financial speaking.

If there hasn’t been a financial crisis in your life, go to My Social Security and figure out what your monthly benefit might be. Now try to plan a life based around this income. That’s what you’ll end up with if you don’t save for retirement.

My account says that I’ll get $1580 a month if I have to take Social Security at age 62. If that isn’t a wake up call, I don’t know what is.

Don’t Ignore Your Retirement Wake Up Call

I know many people who started saving and cutting expenses, maybe for the first time ever, only to fall right back into the paycheck to paycheck lifestyle as soon as life got a little better. Don’t put your wake up call on the back burner and think you have plenty of time to figure it out later.

  • Start tracking your expenses so you can stop wasting money on things that aren’t basic necessities or that don’t bring joy. That doesn’t mean you can never splurge on something wonderfully frivolous. Just don’t do it every week.
  • Take any money you’ve managed to cut and save it. Find ways to increase income. Build up an emergency fund first. Then, start putting money aside for retirement. Whether that means contributing more to a work retirement plan, opening a SEP IRA or solo 401(k), or contributing to a traditional or Roth IRA, it all goes to the same end goal.
  • Do that after you’ve set aside money for necessary expenses but before the end of the month. That way the money is as good as gone and you won’t be tempted to fall back into old overspending habits.

Take a Hard Look at Your Retirement Picture

I guess having some income from Social Security is better than nothing, but it’s not the retirement I want to have. I want to be able to travel, enjoy life, and give back to the community. If I live long enough to become elderly, I surely don’t want to be a burden to my family.

You probably do still have time to figure it all out, but procrastination has a funny way of making next month turn into next year and so on.

If you aren’t sure about your retirement path, I would encourage you to plug some numbers into the free retirement calculator at Personal Capital.

Because you can factor in real life events and expenses, I think it gives the most accurate retirement picture of any calculator I’ve tried. Even if the numbers are bleak, maybe that’s the retirement wake up call you need to take action today.

Have you ever experienced a financial wake up call? Would you ever seek answers from an advice column?




About Kim Parr

Kim Parr is a private practice optometrist, freelance writer, and personal financial blogger. You can follow her journey to 20/20 financial vision at Eyes on the Dollar.


  1. The recession hit us hard. We were too heavily invested in real estate and everything collapsed. It took several years to rebuild our finances.

  2. I would say half of my retired neighbors are back to work. Some would like to go back to work but are too old and have found that social security is not enough even at current levels so I wouldn’t plan on it in the future. Easier to put yourself in a position now to take care of the future because once the future is here it is too late. Most of the successful retired folks I have seen still live in their first home or have down sized, have a lot saved along with side investments, and have active hobbies that fill their time. Saving early saves so much time and effort later on.

  3. I spoke too far too many people in very similar situations in my former day job. They were in their 50s or 60s and had nothing to show for their decades of hard work. That was a stark reminder to me of what I wanted to avoid. That being said, my personal wake up call towards spending and earning more came while paying off debt. I saw if I didn’t change I would be stuck in a never ending cycle.

  4. I consider myself extremely fortunate that we didn’t need a wake up call to start saving – we just did. I only wish I had met my husband sooner so we could have started building toward financial independence at an even earlier age to really take advantage of compounding interest.

    Despite that, we are on the right track, although I’m not sure we’ll be able to retire early which we’d both love to do. We consider Social Security bonus money; we continue to save under the assumption it may not be there (although in all reality what will likely happen is we’ll receive about 75% of the projected monthly payments). The last thing we want is to spend our golden years eating ramen, so we try our best to achieve balance between enjoying ourselves now yet not going overboard so we can also save for our future.

    No matter how well we’re doing I’ll always stress about it, though, because I’m a worrier and that’s what I do best.

  5. I talk to many people who are ill-prepared for retirement. Like you said, they just figured it would work itself out or when retirement got closer they would make the necessary changes. Of course, those things never happened and many pre-retirees today are in a very tough spot. Many have underfunded their own retirement, and are in the position where their parents need assistance, sometimes financially, and their adult children are also struggling too. They are getting pulled in all directions.

  6. Unfortunately, we’re quite far behind, but that’s just how it is. I’m going to do my best (despite an impending income decrease) to max out the Roth this year. Yep, we’re 37 and still not putting in $5,500 to the retirement accounts. And no 401(k) and… We’ll do our best to catch up, but not before we get Tim’s disability sorted out, lower some of the expenses we’re stuck with for awhile.

    It’s frustrating, and we should have made this more of a priority in the last couple of years. But that’s literally the soonest we could have managed it. We’re just pummeled with too many medical issues, and a single income (plus SSA) doesn’t help the situation.

  7. I hated it but I had a number of clients where I had to be their wake up call and the sad thing is that many of them still didn’t change their ways. I had one couple in particular who knew that they would have about $4,000 of social security to live off of and when I asked to see their revised budget, the bottom like was $6,000 a month. They knew they were spending more than they would make and still couldn’t “figure out” how to change. It’s hard to break spending habits you’ve had for decades.

  8. I’m sort of still living my wakeup call because I still haven’t been putting enough in retirement as a freelancer, and it scares me for sure! I have a lot of catching up to do, but at least I’m not doing it by mindless spending. I just need to earn more. Believe me it’s not lost of me!

    • I don’t equate you to the fellow in the letter at all. There is a difference between taking time to build a business, pay off debt, save for a goal etc while you are working on increasing income. To have income and blow it all during a whole career is another thing altogether.

  9. Wonderful post, Kim. It’s the thought of not being able to help our children if they need help that keeps us on the track to debt freedom every single day. I sincerely hope the guy in this story is able to pull it together and help both his daughter and himself.

  10. This post is a good wake up for anyone looking to improve financially. I enjoyed the way you describe the need to change without being to harsh or judgmental. Good Post and I think I’ve always had it in me to save for the future, even though I spent in my younger days, I always managed to save in conjunction with spending. As time passes we all should learn from mistakes and the past to really do more financially.

  11. It’s important to at least start sometime in your 20s or early 30s. You really don’t have to sock away a ridiculous amount of money right away, but contributing something is better than nothing. I think it’s important for people to also realize that socking away some money in your retirement account is better than paying down low-interest debt. With that being said, I think it’s typically people who have high interest debt who don’t save.

    • People in their 20’s really don’t have to put away that much because time is on your side. It’s so much easier when you start early.

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