The race to the finish line—the time between an empty nest and retirement—is tightening. A major generational shift has taken place, and it’s having a huge impact on when and how we save and plan.
Most older baby boomers like myself had children in their 20s and empty nests by age 50. They used that time to accumulate enough money to retire. When my children were in high school, their friends’ parents were in their late 30s or early 40s. It was unusual to run across 50-somethings at a PTA meeting or high school basketball game.
I don’t need a bunch of expensive research to confirm what I see with my own eyes: Couples are marrying later in life, having children later, and even spacing them out more. My own unscientific survey confirmed this. My oldest son just turned 50, and his two children are 14 and 12. My stepdaughter is 36, and she has a nine-year-old and four-year-old. They’re right in line with their peer group.
So, assuming our grandchildren go to college, my children could easily be in their early 60s before their kids are off their payroll. Even if they push retirement back to 68, the time allotted for their race to the finish line has been cut by about 50%. If they had followed in their parents’ footsteps and waited until the nest was empty to get serious about retirement, they’d damn sure have to be world-class sprinters.
On top of that, two-income households have become a virtual necessity just to make ends meet. Among folks my age, many mothers reentered the work force as their children went off to high school. The second income was a luxury, and the extra money could be used to jump-start capital accumulation for retirement. Today, a second income seems to be necessary just to meet current expenses.
Then there’s that pesky issue of debt. For many of us, there’s some lag time between both spouses committing to a debt-free life and wealth accumulation. It can easily take 3-5 years to pay off debt, and only then can one actually start socking away money. I remember wishing I had money to invest when I was younger. However, while I could have had $10,000 in my brokerage account, I would have also had a $10,000 credit-card balance with 18% annual interest. Simple math told me I was better off getting out of debt and staying that way.
So, let’s imagine a couple whose nest is finally empty at age 62. At that point, they get serious about paying off debt and accumulating wealth. If it takes three years to become debt-free, that leaves just three years to stockpile money for retirement, if they retire at 68. This couple could save 100% of their salary for those three years, and they still would not have nearly enough to retire.
The Long Jog to the Finish Line
You might be thinking something like, “Well, Dennis, I’m 50. There’s not much I can do about marrying and having had kids at 35 now.” And you’d be right. Frankly, there are many advantages to marrying and having children at a later age, and I certainly don’t want to harp on folks who made that decision. It does, however, mean you have to plan differently than the generation immediately before you.
So what can younger baby boomers do?