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Aunt Ginny had the right path

Matthew Trivett, Community Voices • Oct 13, 2019 at 6:00 AM

I didn’t have a relationship with my Great Aunt Ginny, since she moved away from the area as a young girl in the 1950s, a good 30 years before I was born. My mom always told me that Ginny was her favorite aunt and how every summer, as a teenager, she would take a train from Southwest Virginia to spend a couple of weeks at Ginny’s home in Ohio.

Ginny died last year at the age of 97. So, as you do, my wife, Shawna, and I loaded up the car with our 3-year-old and made the two-hour trek to Lebanon, Virginia, to attend a celebration of life ceremony.

During the get-together, a slide show of old photos played, depicting various points of Ginny’s life. And what a life it was! There were photos of everything from riding camels in Egypt to sailing the Atlantic.

As the pictures scrolled through, it was difficult not to feel emotion while observing a life lived well. Sprinkled in the slide show were quotes that Ginny had said during her life.

Of greatest impression to me — almost certainly because of my career choice — was the quote: “Retire early enough to enjoy it. Go when you are young.”

That quote hung in my head well after the ceremony ended. What followed was a series of questions that probed the significance of my career’s worth of advice to clients. Why had my immutable retirement principles always been about saving for the magical age of sixty-five? Doesn’t it seem strange that, at best, your life is nearly two-thirds finished by then?

Many folks with whom I work simply have enough money to walk off in the sunset yet refuse to. But why?

Maybe it’s fear that was birthed during the developmental years, spawned from stories of their grandparents about times when no one had a job, and families didn’t have enough money to literally eat. It’s difficult to unlearn things we hear in childhood.

No matter the reason, you need to work through these mental blocks before it’s too late. Let’s look at a couple pragmatic solutions.

Retirement in early installments

Doesn’t it sound unfulfilling to sprint all-out until age 65, only to enter a state of immobility, while your mind and body march unrelentingly toward stagnation or, God forbid, regression? Sitting on a beach or playing golf everyday — albeit alluring when spoken — can’t foster a sense of fulfillment, can it?

Why not work hard in sections followed by small sabbaticals designed to enjoy other pursuits. In other words, maybe “10,000 RPM or neutral” is a false choice. Perhaps balance is the better plan.

Accelerated inheritance

How fulfilling it would be to watch your kids pay off some debt, so they can begin their journeys to living secure lives! They’re going to get their inheritance one day anyway, and the money is needed a lot more now than when they are older, why not accelerate the inevitable endowment?

Or you could watch, in real time, the good your church can do with a generous donation.

Final thoughts

Please do not take these financial musings as license to live irresponsibly. If your bank account only has $500, you probably shouldn’t turn in your resignation. If you are retired and living on a small fixed income, you shouldn’t be handing out early inheritances or making unscrupulous charitable gifts. If you’re young, carefully observe where your financial ship is aimed. If you have credit card debt, pay it off. Max out your 401k. Procure insurance so your family is protected.

But if all these boxes are checked, you should begin thinking differently about money. Because the day is coming when you can’t travel. The day is coming when your kids won’t be so eager to spend time with you. Be thinking about what is lasting and permanent. After a certain income level, the happiness factor is a sliding scale of diminishing returns — see Dr. Daniel Kahneman’s 2002 study of money and happiness. And in that light, the final quote I will share from Aunt Ginny is this: “Don’t take life too seriously. It will be over sooner than you think.” She was right. In the end only a few things really matter. Cultivate a willingness to exchange dollars for time, experiences, and impact — not merely more stuff. I think you’ll find this is the path to living richly. I know Aunt Ginny certainly did.

In Memory of Virginia MacLeod 1921-2018.

Matthew Trivett of Johnson City is an investment adviser.

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