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Tell Me What You Want, What You Really Really Want
I guess for a long time I was like a lot of young people. I was going along in life, working at a job that for the most part was enjoyable and rewarding enough. However, as the workweek wore on, like most people, I found myself humming the words to a familiar country-and-western song more and more often--you know, “Working for the Weekend.” That’s when I first started to think about retirement.
I was in my mid-twenties, married to Denise--the love of my life, whom I met my senior year in college--and working for a nonprofit organization in Washington, DC. I deeply supported (and still do) the mission of that organization, American Youth Hostels. It had helped shape my life since I was a teenager and taught me that travel is among the highest forms of education and one of the richest values in life.
I loved the people I worked with, and the work itself--planning bicycle and hiking trips all around the globe for groups of young people--was as fascinating as it was sometimes stressful.
There were midnight calls from frantic trip leaders to report lost group members, lost bicycles, lost passports, lost virginities, lost airline tickets, lost traveler’s checks, and--in more than one case--lost trip leaders. “You’re the leader. You can’t be lost,” I’d tell them. “Everyone else is lost. Now get on your bicycle and go find them!”
Then there were the ten angry calls from ten angry parents and their ten angry attorneys one sweaty Monday morning in July 1981. That was the day after their thirteen-and fourteen-year-old darlings had arrived home from one of our European bike tours, all sporting freshly minted tattoos and assorted body piercings, authorized by the trip leader as their temporary legal guardian. Apparently what happens in Amsterdam doesn’t stay in Amsterdam. Pass the Maalox, please.
After a few months in that job, my skin grew thicker as my stomach lining grew thinner. But the realization that I wasn’t getting any younger started to weigh more and more on my mind. I started paying much greater attention to my paycheck, what little was left of it after that FICA guy took his cut.
Working in the nonprofit sector had intangible rewards for sure. But when it came to more mundane affairs like salaries, benefits, and retirement plans, you had to swallow pretty hard every other Friday when Annette from the accounting department handed you your paycheck. As the sign I posted on the bulletin board in my office cubicle read, “Working here is like peeing your pants when you’re wearing a dark blue suit: You feel nice and warm all over, but nobody notices.”
That really wasn’t true though, and I knew it. I knew that the organization I was working for and the job I was doing were having a positive impact on the lives of thousands of young people, just as it had helped shape my own life. I knew that at least for some of them, it would truly be a life-changing experience, lasting far beyond the time it took for their tattoo removal scars to heal over.
But the thing I didn’t know was how I could continue to afford to do the type of low-paying work I was drawn to, while at the same time enjoying a comfortable-if-not-luxurious life and building enough financial security so that someday Denise and I could retire. At that point, I hadn’t even been able to free up enough extra funds to match my employer’s modest contribution to the organization’s 403(b) retirement plan, the nonprofit version of a 401(k).
One spring day I was sitting on a bench in Franklin Park across the street from the youth hostel where our offices were located. I had just chomped into the cold-cut sub I bought most every day for lunch at the New York–style deli across the street. A coworker, Bob Johnson, walked up and asked if he could join me.
I didn’t know Bob well, although in the short chats we’d had while waiting in line together to use the Xerox machine, he’d impressed me as a very smart man with a keen but understated sense of humor. He was a member of the senior management team, while I was so low on the corporate ladder that I was still holding the shoes of the guys who were still holding the ladder. Even though he was only about ten years older than me, his full but prematurely gray head of hair made him seem much older, in a distinguished, philosopher-sage type of way.
After some small talk, Bob unwrapped a turkey-on-rye sandwich he’d brought from home and asked me a few questions about how I was enjoying my job and life in Washington. Sitting on that park bench next to Bob, I found myself doing something entirely out of character for me. For whatever reason, I felt I could bare my soul--and specifically my growing financial angst--to this man whom I hardly knew.
I just started to talk, and talk, and talk. Occasionally, bits of assorted lunch meats flew out of my mouth, but I just kept talking. I talked about how much I loved the organization, and how, in many ways, I’d magically found my dream job in my very first job out of college. And then I started talking about money, and my increasing worries about not being able to survive--let alone plan for the future--on the level of financial compensation an organization like the one we both worked for could realistically provide.
Bob just listened. He let me do all the talking. He let me finish my sub, as well as the bag of chips and can of Coke I’d bought to go with it.
Posted December 8, 2013
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Posted July 19, 2013
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