Retirement planning

Technically, none of us outlives our resources.

My maternal grandfather, who lived in the same structure as my family unit from the time I was four until he died when I was 33, was employed by the State of New Hampshire as a Fish & Game Department dispatcher for most of his working life. He retired in or around 1983, when I was in eighth grade, and was fond of talking about all of the things he was going to do in his retirement, few of which involved going anywhere farther than the hardware store. As a Grand Exalted Kleagle or Shimmering Cyclops or otherwise a high poobah in the local Masonic Lodge regiment, and as someone who enjoyed acquiring and repeatedly misusing electronic equipment so that my father could wander next door and stoically fix it, the one grandfather I ever knew was never going to be bored after he stopped sending State Police into the woods after deer-poachers and the like.

But I noticed even at this innocent stage of my own life that one of Grampy Blake’s chief concerns was whether he would outlive his own resources, despite whatever pension he got along with the standard medical benefits the U.S. gives oldsters. I remember him saying the thought he had 20 to 25 years to “finish,” whatever that meant — mostly stacking wood and rotating his satellite dish toward World War II films — and recall being struck by how making at least a ballpark estimate of your own expiration date was as apparently necessary as an aging adult as it was morbid. (My grandmother has at least as good a job as he did, working for the N.H. State Library — we’re a bookish people — but somehow this was never brought into any of the analyses I heard my grandfather offer, usually to other middle-aged people who worked for the state while I incidentally listened in as I read old issues of National Geographic in the next room.)

For what it’s worth, my grandfather called it about right; he was 85, after being miserable for years, when he died in 2003, twenty-plus trips around the sun after he pulled the plug on his work life. After he retired, he remained his usual energetic, wood-stacking, ham-radio-happy self until my grandmother died of cancer nine years later in 1992. Men of my grandfather’s era were not supposed to outlive their spouses; they were supposed to provide, then drop dead sometime before the wife, evidently to prove some kind of martyr-ific, macho point. Whatever the case, all of us in the family were sad, because my grandmother was a kickass human. But Grampy Blake felt wronged. After my grandmother was gone, he would spend the next 11 years condemning doctors, blathering about how evolution was a hoax — he’d never been religious, but a few of the old fundamentalist fart-splotches in his Lodge chapter convinced him to hop aboard that bullshit carousel, on which he became hooked from the start — and complaining that people were after what little money he had. That last part was true; he was giving as much cash away as he could to religious scammers who’d wisely put them on their lists, despite my mother eventually coming to intercept as much of his mail without his knowledge as she could get away with.

In his retirement, my grandfather spend a lot of time regarding his ample, ever-growing stash of prescription drugs, which occupied most of an armoire off his kitchen, with something like pride: One for every system, each with a magnificent array of powerful side effects he knew by heart. I didn’t realize at the time that a lot of older people fixate on the inevitabilities of age more than they actually complain about their effects, as if marveling at the sheer nerve of the body to continue failing in obvious ways would either counteract the damage or make it seem tolerable. He never really got to a peaceful point, though he did try, and died in hospice, technically of COPD but at least as much of bitterness and despair. He went from a generationally laconic pipe-smoker in a Tom Landry hat to a defensive-minded miser overnight when he lost my grandmother. I mean, that was hard on everyone and of course most of all on the man who’d been married to her for over 50 years, but the rest of the family expected him to achieve some kind of resolution with it, and I don’t think he ever did.

And in case you were wondering, according to sources, my grandmother and grandfather never got back together.

When a person with a career decides to stop formally working for good, this must mean determining, in at least a half-assed way, when he expects to die. Folks take stock of their savings and any anticipated or assured retirement income, and basically hope that the life-clock runs out at just the right time, or many a little in advance so that relatives can enjoy some of the pie. I have a friend whose belief in the afterlife is as absent as my own and whose interest in living to be old just for the sake of maintaining a physical dungheap to mobilize into painful, constipated, grousing action every morning is no stronger than my own, but even he laments the idea of having to work at McDonald’s when he’s in his eighties just to have enough to sustain the misery for a while longer.

I’ve noticed that once people are actually elderly rather than contemplating the experience, many of them become far more accepting of it as another phase of life to appreciate. My grandfather was never such a person, at least not after losing the wife he apparently cheated on as a younger man, but continued tolerating his burgeoning frailties anyway. And I’m not such a person, either. The idea of fighting to stay alive, other than concerning an in-the-moment mortal struggle, is so laughably stupid to me that it almost makes having put myself through a great deal of optional misery worth it — if nothing else, I’m not afraid to die and keep hoping for something like cancer or a highway accident to strike so that I don’t have to take responsibility for it. (I admit to occasionally mulling over the question of whether the proneness to depression of natural isolators like me predominates over the effects of depression on inevitably become more dickish and avoidant; in the end, the result seems the same.)

I know little about economics — although more, I’m sure, than at least 90 percent of the dumbasses populating this ponderous, stupid nation — but I can produce and interpret basic supply-and-demand graphs, and it occurs to me that people tend to start with the wrong premise: That their bodies and minds will live for some unknown, but for practical purposes static, number of years Y after they retire and will require x dollars per year to do this, meaning that they need a nest-egg in the amount of Y⋅ x to make it there. Approximately. At least this is what I imagine I would do if I had some combination of a career, dependents, happiness, and a consistent well-defined concern for existing.

Often being suicidally depressed — or, probably worse from the standpoint of longevity, convinced that human civilization is a sometimes-amusing bust mostly disgusting carnival of blood, mucus, stench, selfishness, lies and warfare — carries a few notable benefits, among them not fretting about running out of money. The notion of poverty to me is, instead, one more powerful and useful motivator for taking myself out; I’ve been dead broke before, and on some days I’m almost tempted to give everything I now have away so that I more quickly choose a Denver skyscraper to swan-dive from (I know, I know, it’s never as easy to get on the roof or kick out a 40th-floor hotel-room window as it is on television). But most of the time, I am content with knowing almost exactly how much time I have left, barring an accident or a hit job. All I need to do at any time is divide my savings by how much money I need to spend a year to have living be worth it, and that’s my answer.

The mistake I think most people make is not allowing for elasticity in their demand for years of life. If you decide at 50 that you’ll make it to 90 but want to retire at 65, right there you’re being a jerk by pretending this is remotely necessary to anyone besides yourself. You have to come up with a way to ensure having, in another 15 years, at least 25 times what you spend in a year. The lack of attention given in these analyses to ways to take yourself out shows that people spend too much time thinking about themselves and their problems, and too little imagining how the world could be a warmer, more welcoming place for future generations if more mirthless noncontributors like me stepped out of the game

I’m not sure if this is best envisioned as a shift to the left in the entire demand-for-life curve, which takes into account factors other than savings, or merely a move to a different point on the same curve (a change in the quantity of life demanded). But I know about how long I have to come up with a satisfactory answer.

Right now, if I quit earning income altogether, I could support myself and my dog with no change to my habits for something like another two years, almost entirely on the strength of busting my ass over a three-year period ending in April. Right now, that seems like at least 20 months too many, but I do occasionally and against my will imagine being 60 someday. So, I expect at this point to die a natural death when I’m around 53. If I happen to make enough money in the meantime to push this back, then I will. And if I wind up spending more than I anticipate, the death-clock moves closer to the present day. In any case, though I lack and never intended to have a “career” after I withdrew from medical school my mid-twenties, I know I’m capable of sustaining myself for as long as health allows as well as, more importantly, de-sustaining myself in a veritable instant once the sights, sounds and odors associated with consciousness become mostly infuriating rather than mostly irritating.

Obviously, I would have to scrutinize the morality of this scheme if I had children or anyone else who actually needed me around. But for those like me who are just drifting along, possessed of the skills but not the drive to pursue more than the bare minimum of human engagement, never in any acute crisis but growing ever more weary of the cycle of shoving of carbon-containing matter into a face-anus just to force it out the ass-anus in a more gruesome form while staring at a screen, it seems unassailable. It also comes more naturally to those of us who have come fairly close to dying a number of times and now honestly wondered why we or anyone would bother; I resent the instincts that still have me resisting any of these ideas, and have managed to pry loose and dissolved most of them from my shit-caked head.

And as you can probably tell, this kind of thesis is far more a source of unsavory amusement than acute unrest[1] or bona fide advice. I’m sure all sorts of people declare that they’ll swallow a bunch of pills or remove the annoying lump atop their necks with a firearm once the impecunious reality of senescence hits, only to find themselves curiously eager to survive anyway. If nothing else, I’m confident I won’t be one of them. I doubt I will outlive my dog by more than a week or so, though I am not enough of a masochist to obsess over this at the moment. But if nothing else, it feels like something of a relief to have accepted that controversies such as the delivery of healthcare in the U.S., or basically worrying about the future in a visceral way, are not a part of my outlook and most likely never will be. I say “most likely” because I’ve also come to accept that sticking around usually brings some kind of interesting surprise before long, one that throws a monkey-wrench into my well-entrenched fuck-its.

Even if you don’t hate yourself, I suggest giving it a try: Determine your annual expenses (if you haven’t done this part already, you’re kind of a fuckup) an divide this figure into your savings, and presto! Add the result to your age in years, then schedule some fun activities for yourself, have a loaded gun or a potent combination of sedatives someplace handy, and most of all maintain the kind positive outlook than makes people want to be around you and someday reach their own human potential. It really does work out nicely for everyone who has faith in the overall system.


1. would suggest not losing or destroying a cell phone, tempting as that is for almost everyone I know at some point. I decided after this happened to me six days ago, on Christmas, that I would stubbornly do without for as long as I could and rely on e-mail to interface with the world. Already, I’m being asked to call a bank because of a USPS mistake, and, much less important, I’m locked out of Twitter because I can’t complete the sporadically required account verification via text, leading visitors to get a message telling then my account is under watch or something. I also overslept and missed an appointment to replace my lost driver’s license today because my PC alarm evidently isn’t as reliable as the one on my Android was. Rather than address all of this by shooting to the store 10 minutes away and picking up another Android pre-loaded with noisome apps, I’m going to do my daily couple of jogs and see how much more life-fraying ensues.