Why Retirees Are So Scared Of Financial Planners

Don't underestimate the fear that comes from the realization you will outlive your retirement savings.

My husband and I did something this week that we should have done 30 or 40 years ago. We met with a financial planner about retirement. I am 65 and still work full-time; Vic, at 80, has been retired for almost 20 years.

"What took you so long?" was the first thing our new financial planner asked. Actually, he spent a few minutes first on the pre-requisite small talk; he's a happy Mets fan and we remain downtrodden Cubbies -- kind of a metaphor for our roles in this conversation. But then he got right down to business -- the business of keeping me out of the cat-food aisle when I'm older.

"Seriously, what took you so long to talk to a financial advisor?" he wanted to know. The answer, to me at least, is obvious and not all that unique: We were terrified. We didn't want to face the music and at this point, we are hoping to salvage our retirement through some kind of magical course correction.

Vic and I have been married forever and always have been on the same page about disposable income: We spend it. We are spenders, not savers. We have lived our lives fully, enjoying -- sometimes indulging -- ourselves, and never looking too far around the corner at the future.

We have reminders all around us of the choices we made -- photo albums from our multiple vacations taken each year; walls of trophies my kids won at clubs and camps. We even have some photos of the old Winnebago I bought on a whim with an unexpected work bonus. I think I momentarily forgot how I hate camping and can't parallel park anything bigger than a mini-Cooper. Winnie sat parked in our driveway for years until mice claimed it as their own and we unloaded it. Just last month, I found photos in the garage of my husband's dalliance with owning thoroughbred racehorses. An expensive mid-life crisis, that one.

I was late to the 401k game and took savings breaks whenever I switched jobs and again when we started and added to our family. Like dieting, getting started again was always hard for us. We told ourselves that we were investing in our kids, making sure they had the best preschools, the best tutors, the best of whatever they needed. 

The financial planner knew our type. He even quoted me from a recent column in which I wrote: The ground squirrels are going to win the retirement game and I'm not a ground squirrel. We didn't save enough acorns -- and now what will happen?

We opened our finances to him and begged for mercy; was there a magic stock we could buy that would provide us with enough for retirement? If we never so much as order another pizza out, will we be OK? We will cancel cable, carpool more often, switch the dog off organic food -- anything, just tell us what we need to do and we will do it, we told our financial planner. Please, please, don't let us starve.

Don't ever underestimate the fear and loathing that comes from the realization that you will outlive your savings.

The good news is, our financial planner said, we are not as bad off as many others. But I better plan to work for several more years and start socking away every quarter found in the couch cushions. Fully fund my 401k. Our college-bound teenagers need to find summer jobs. No more Winnebagos or racehorses in our future. And as a just-in-case measure, we're going to reconsider long-term care policies.

I feel like someone ought to tell our favorite restaurants that we won't likely be coming in anymore. Credit cards are being destroyed as I type this and vacations, if there are any, will mean house-swaps or staying with friends. Once the kids are gone, we will downsize our house and replace it with something smaller that has an income-producing unit. 

I am relieved and chastened. I actually feel like a missionary at the moment, dispensing the wisdom of this hard-to-swallow reality: Had we had this conversation 30 or 40 years ago, I likely could be picking up a pizza on my way home.

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