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In the early spring of 2004, I ended a five-year stint at a job I never could have imagined, in a part of the world that was never part of the plan. The unexpected detour started with a phone call on a cold winter afternoon. At that moment I was half in, half out of the workplace-downshifting, as it's called these days. My wife, Linda, our two young kids, and I were living a comfortable life in a pleasant New York suburb. A few days a week I worked on articles and a book. On the other days I hopped the Metro North line to Manhattan, where I had a consulting arrangement at Time Inc. My job there was to think up blue-sky projects for Time magazine. I spent my hours brainstorming ideas for special issues and new projects such as a newsweekly for grade school kids. But during those morning and evening commutes I secretly agonized over whether I had enough money socked away to be so casually employed.
I was worried about the Number.
The man on the phone was the vice chairman of Lands' End, at the time a public company with revenues approaching two billion dollars. Lands' End meant very little to me. Like many occasional customers, I viewed it as interchangeable with its archrival, L.L.Bean. Both sold sturdy preppy clothing, canvas tote bags, and goose-down everything else. But I did know that Lands' End was admired for its folksy phone operators, who dispensed friendly service from a little town in the Midwest.
The vice chairman wondered whether I'd have even a remote interest in flying to Madison, Wisconsin, then trekking out to company headquarters in Dodgeville, a tiny hamlet some forty miles west of the capital. Was he smoking prairie weed? The idea of me in the pajama game was surreal. The closest I'd ever come to the garment trade was back when I edited Esquire. I was obliged to take regular trips to Paris and Milan, where I schmoozed menswear designers from Armani to Zegna. Esquire depended on the men's clothing industry for much of its advertising. Fashion pages were its commercial lifeblood. Nonetheless, I regarded these trips as delightful boondoggles, days of wine and risotto. Once back at the office, and until I longed again for a steamy bowl of brodetto, the menswear pages dropped to the bottom of my priority list. I didn't know a placket from a mitered yoke.
As for Wisconsin, had you shown me a map, put a pistol to my head, and asked me to identify the state, I would have straightaway pointed to Minnesota…
When I told my wife about the Lands' End call, she put on her L.L.Bean barn coat and, without saying a word, took the dog for a walk. She was gone for so long I began to wonder if she'd left me. Wisconsin? Why not Uzbekistan? Iceland? At the time we believed we had just settled down for the long term. And the reasons to stay put were overwhelming.
We were, first of all, well into the middle of middle age. I was fifty-two, my wife a few years younger. We had kids who were just seven and nine; we felt strongly that they should grow up rooted to a place. We had chosen the place after much torturous thought and planning.
Second, all of our friends, as well as my wife's family, lived in and around New York. The only person in Wisconsin whose name I could immediately recall was Brett Favre, and my wife had never heard of him.
Third, we'd pretty much come to accept that our professional years were winding down. Why fight the clock? The graceful thing to do was exactly what we were doing-surrender to part-time, then no time, careers.
Fourth, we had just renovated a house barely thirty minutes from midtown, turning its ample garden into just one of the many things we loved about the place.
Fifth, like everyone else we knew, we had aging parents who'd doubtless need more care in the years ahead. Wisconsin would take us very far away. Why even think about turning our lives inside out at this stage?
This book is about money, but ultimately it's about the life you want, the life you don't, and the costs of each.
For tens of millions of middle-aged travelers, this is an odd moment, riddled with paradoxes. We are at once old and young, parents and kids, generally prosperous yet uneasy. For me, this moment evokes a memory-late afternoon, back when I watched the Phillies play in the final years of decrepit Connie Mack Stadium. I remember how the shadows sliced across the diamond, moving closer and closer to home plate until half the field was in bright sunlight, the other in gathering darkness. It was a really weird time of day.
By most standards we were certainly comfortable-not Bill Gates comfortable, but sufficiently flush that we'd never have to worry about setting up house in an empty Sub-Zero carton. But the question of whether we had achieved a sufficient Number, whether we had enough to shelter us from life's jolts, nagged at me more days than not.
PART ONE: CHASING IT
Most of us were told at an early age that it isn't nice to talk about money, period. It isn't nice to brag about having money, and it's wrong to envy those who have more than we do. The Number is also hard to talk about because it holds a different value for each of us. What's a big Number to me is not to you. The Number can be a hundred thousand. A million. Ten million. Or infinity, if you're an investment banker.
Number chasers fall into four basic personality types. Most people are procrastinators. These are men and women who have reached their forties, even fifties, without any sort of financial plan in hand. Avoidance is the name of their game, fear of lifestyle relapse notwithstanding. Why the sloth? Well, some people don't want to think about old age. Others don't understand how they should invest. All are in limbo, concerned lest they discover they don't have enough to see them through their dotage, or because they can't discuss it with their spouses for fear of starting world war III.
We feel discontented about tomorrow. It isn't so much future shock as future denial. There are a half dozen good explanations for why people aren't planning for the next few decades. Call these the Eisenberg Uncertainty Principles, which will guide the twists of the story to come.
Debt Warp holds that our whip-it-out credit card culture makes it so easy to buy stuff that people delude themselves into thinking they're more affluent, better set for the future, than they are. Debt Warp reshapes reality and turns age-old precepts about frugality upside down.
Some people stay in the Lost Years Club forever. Some just accept it, others develop a chip on their shoulder when it comes to money. I know quite a few people who carry these chips. They believe that if there was any justice in the world there would be a direct correlation between the size of one's number and one's ability to be funny, original, and charming at dinner parties.
The impulse to get out the calculator and start planning is most often triggered by the daydream of an early retirement. This reverie, however, is frequently disturbed by all those nasty questions about how much is enough. So here you are, pushing fifty, your doubles partner is dead, and nobody makes eye contact with you anymore. Suddenly, the bottom falls out of your determined resolve. What time does the game come on?
A show of hands, please: how many of you are ready to devote next weekend and many thereafter to arriving at the conclusion that your number may be inadequate and that you're fundamentally clueless as to how to spend your next thirty years in a meaningful way? Maybe it's your employer's fault.
PART TWO: FIGURING IT
Until these four strangers showed up, everyone in this book has been real, their names withheld to protect the anxious and uncertain. But these four case studies, and a few others to follow, are members of a fictional family. Think of them as crash dummies, here to do you a favor. They put their futures on the line - to keep you from driving into a wall.
The fact that life used to end quite abruptly but now has us crying out "are we there yet?" is one reason a discipline known as financial gerontology has emerged. The pioneer in this field is a social scientist named Neal E. Cutler, who believes that financial advisers need to be retrained to have a better grasp on clients' ever-extending life spans.
The Number is a delicate web of risks, some of which are within your control, some not, and some sort of are. The risks that are sort of within your control are how long you live and whether you live healthfully. Have you flossed your teeth today?
The Number keeps many people awake nights, with only the tree frogs to provide solace, yet most of them refuse to seek professional help. They think they can work it out themselves. Are they kidding themselves?
There's a giant and unruly industry out there ready to provide you with support and counsel. While this country may have a shortage of nurses, special ed teachers, and tool and die makers, it certainly does not lack for asset managers, financial advisers, accountants, insurance agents, securities brokers, bankers, and trust officers, all eager to make your acquaintance.
PART THREE: FINDING IT
Is the Number about money, or is the number about meaning, fulfillment, and life's true calling?
Del Webb was to the American way of retirement what Ray Kroc was to the hamburger patty. He was the one who, for better or worse, hammered together a new American Dream designed expressly, as it turned out, for midlife downshifters.
Is the Number about downshifting, or is the Number about something more profound? Are places like Sun City the true destination or just a step in the right direction? Is the Number about where we want to be, or who we want to be?
Just because you may know how to ladder a bond portfolio doesn't mean you can now skip happily out of Number darkness into bright Number sunshine.
Even if there are no universal truths about the Number, there are some bottom lines. A bottom line doesn't reach as far or as wide as a universal truth; think of it as a universal truth you get on sale.
APPENDIX: THE NUMBER, QUICK AND DIRTY
Here's a formula you can use to calculate what your Number really is - especially if you know what truly matters.
Posted November 11, 2009
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