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The Choices of a Lifetime

It was 10 years ago last week – a Saturday morning as I recall. I had just wrapped up my weekly column when I got a call from my sister. My father, at the age of 76, suffered a series of heart attacks. We scrambled to make preparations for the trip home to Chicago, but by the end of the day, he had passed.

As the family converged, my siblings and I tried as best as we could, together with Mom, to deal with the tasks that required our attention, and divvied up the ones that seemed to call out for individual attention. Having spent my entire professional career in financial services, and having picked up a law degree along the way, my “job” was to organize the will and assets.

The estate wasn’t complicated. My parents each chose careers of service to others: Dad as a minister, and then a director of missions where he helped other ministers until his “official” retirement, though far as I could tell, Dad’s only retirement was from the receipt of a regular paycheck. Mom was by then a retired school teacher – a teacher who took a fairly significant (and unpaid) “sabbatical” so that she could stay at home with her four kids until the youngest was ready to head off to school. They both loved what they did, but those aren’t professions that tend to make one wealthy (in a monetary sense, anyway).

Despite that, my Depression-era reared parents saved what they could. On top of the expenses of rearing four kids, Dad, considered self-employed for most of his working life, funded both the employer and employee portions of Social Security withholding and yet still found a way to set aside money in a tax-sheltered account (he also tithed “biblically,” for those who can appreciate that financial impact). There were no “catch-up” contributions for Mom, who nonetheless, covered by a state pension plan, saved diligently to buy back the service credits she had forgone during the years she worked in our home without a paycheck, while also setting aside money in her 403(b) account. Somehow, despite all those draws on their modest incomes, they managed to accumulate a respectable nest egg (don’t tell me those of modest incomes can’t and won’t save).

Today, 10 years later, and cruising toward 86, Mom is still self-sufficient (though nervous about what the politicians in her state may yet do to her pension, into which she, as many teachers do, contributed mightily over the years), thanks to the choices they made along the way over the course of a lifetime.

I’ve always been proud of my parents, who sacrificed so much along the way to give us the best they could. I’m also proud – and more than a little impressed – of how committed they were to saving what they could, when they could, long after pundits would likely have told them it was “too late” – and the results of that commitment.

We often couch savings decisions in simple terms: foregoing that trip to Starbucks or bringing your lunch to work rather than going out. So often – perhaps too often – I think we are inclined to excuse inadequate savings rates as the product of strained finances, a tight economy, or the simple human inclination to indulge in short-term pleasures. All are realities, of course, as they were for my parents.

On this, the anniversary of my Dad’s passing, my parents’ example still reminds me – and hopefully you – that the decision to save is just that – a decision, a choice.

Here’s hoping more of us make the right ones – while we still can.