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How to find a retirement saving plan that works for you

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Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File

(Read caption) In this file photo, a couple strolls past shop windows in downtown Portsmouth, England. Your retirement saving plan should vary, depending on what you see yourself doing later in life.

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My parents and Sarah’s parents are roughly the same age. Their retirement-age experieces are much different than each other.

My parents are both retired in the traditional sense. They have a limited fixed income made up of Social Security and some pension money. Their house and vehicles are long since paid for, and since their house is relatively small and older, insurance and property taxes are low.

Sarah’s parents are a completely different story. Her father will probably work until he can’t, partially for income reasons and partially because I think he deeply enjoys his work on many levels. Her mother had a “pseudo-retirement” but couldn’t stand it, so she returned to work. Thus, their income level is significantly higher, but their expenses are higher, too. They have nicer cars and travel regularly.

My own “retirement” plans involve a mixture of working on my own side projects and doing volunteer work. Much like my in-laws, I don’t feel happy unless I’m working on large projects. When I find myself without such large projects, I tend to drift and feel depressed.

As for Sarah, I expect her to very oriented toward volunteerism and any grandchildren we might have to take care of.

It’s pretty clear from just a simple survey of my own life that everyone has a different life plan for their 60s and 70s. Some people intend to enjoy leisure and volunteer work. Other people are wired to be productive in various ways.

Think about it for a minute. What do you plan to be doing in your 60s and 70s? Is it the same thing that you expect all the people around you to be doing?

Given how varied the plans people have for their later life are, why is it reasonable to think that everyone should plan for retirement in the exact same way? 

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For example, let’s say my dream is to switch to a career path as a novel writer as soon as I possibly can, living off of my investment income starting at the youngest possible age. This means that I’d be choosing to live very lean in my 40s and 50s while I get some novels published, then enjoy more income from the combination of investments and book income in my 60s and 70s.

In that scenario, traditional retirement savings would serve a relatively small role. I might want to fund a Roth IRA or something to guarantee a bit more late-in-life income if needed, but most of my saving for the future wouldn’t be in retirement investments. I would focus instead on investing outside of retirement accounts to fund my dream.

On the other hand, a person like my father-in-law, who fully intends to work until he’s unable to do so, won’t need to live for twenty five years off of his retirement accounts. Much like my earlier scenario, the “traditional” use of a retirement saving plan doesn’t really fit his plans. It’s worthwhile for him to have some money in his retirement savings, but does he need to save for twenty five years of retirement?

I don’t have the ultimate answer as to how the people in the two above scenarios should be saving for retirement. However, it’s pretty clear that these scenarios don’t simply follow the “save 15% for retirement each year” plans that are often simply prescribed for people.

So, what does this mean for you?

First of all, thinking about your plan for your whole life pays off. We don’t always know exactly where our life is going to lead, but I’ll say that the general idea I had for my life when I was in my early twenties is more or less coming to pass. I envisioned having children and having a career that I had creative control over.

Naturally, big unexpected things can always derail those plans. I could get sick. Something else unforeseen could happen. In the vast majority of those scenarios, though, I’m not helped by having a lot of retirement savings, though I am helped by having assets on hand.

Second, understanding how to translate those plans into a financial plan is key. This might involve the aid of a financial planner, but at the very least, it involves some significant time studying investing options and knowing in what situations they’re most useful.

Finally, and this is key, just because you’re not saving for retirement doesn’t mean you’re not saving. If you have a future, it’s valuable to spend less than you earn and save for that future. No matter what your future self will be doing, he or she will be better off if he or she has money in the bank.

Retirement savings, in the form of a 401(k) or a Roth IRA, has certain advantages. However, those advantages only really matter if the direction of your life allows you to take advantage of them. Your life is not dictated by your retirement investment plans. Your retirement investment plans, if they’re needed at all, are dictated by how you live your life.

Spend less than you earn. Use retirement plans to help you for whatever you’ve got planned for your 60s, 70s, and later. Don’t assume that’s enough, particularly if you have a plan for your future.

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