Is Outliving Your Savings a Fate Worse Than Death?
When faced with the prospect of outliving their money, most people might toss and turn at night or obsess about where to slash their budgets.
Others have a more extreme reaction: wishing for early death.
"I can always put a bag over my head when the money runs out" was what Jeannine Hines' husband told her when she asked what he planned to do if their cash ran out before they died.
"He would rather die than be left penniless," says Hines, a 58-year-old piano teacher from Maryville, Tennessee.
Her husband has company. A new survey from Wells Fargo shows 22% of people say they would rather die early than not have enough cash to live comfortably in retirement.
Other surveys bear those numbers out. One by financial-services company Allianz of people in their late 40s found 77% worried more about outliving their money in retirement than death itself.
Of that survey's respondents, those who are married with dependents are even more terrified, with 82% saying that running out of cash is a more chilling prospect than death.
"These are pretty sobering statistics," says Joe Ready, director of Wells Fargo Institutional Retirement in Charlotte, North Carolina. "It speaks to the overwhelming stress people have about money."
Financial planners like Rose Swanger of Advise Finance in Knoxville, Tennessee, hear about these extreme money fears all the time.
But Swanger says she does not believe people have an actual death wish; they just do not know what they will do if they outlive their cash. "So they get scared, and freeze up, and become irrational," she says.
In one respect, collective despair is simply an acknowledgement of how much—or rather, how little—we are saving.
The Wells Fargo survey also discovered that 41% of those in their 50s are not putting anything aside for retirement, and 48% admit they will not have enough money to survive in their golden years.
Experts suggest taking a deep breath and refusing to let money fears overwhelm you. Social Security awaits in old age, and friends and family to help get you through lean times. And you can deploy multiple strategies to help prevent a penniless future.
Instead of throwing up your hands, set a goal that is actually achievable
"Save a small amount, then a little more, and once it starts to add up, you will see your levels of stress and worry start to lower," says Michael Norton, a Harvard Business School professor and co-author of the book "Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending."
There are other ways to gain control of the situation.
"You may have to delay retirement by a couple of years, you may have to find ways to supplement your income, and you may have to reduce your standard of living both now and in retirement," says Wells Fargo's Ready. "All of those are ways of focusing on the reality of where you're at, instead of just giving in to despair."
But is this death wish that emerges in surveys really about us? Dig a little deeper into people's anxieties about outliving their money, and you often find out it is all about the kids.
Parents feel like failures if they cannot leave an inheritance, and they certainly do not want to become financial burdens on their adult children.
"To a lot of people that's a fate worse than dying," says Norton.
So instead of worrying yourself into paralysis, let go of all that parental stress and anxiety.
You do not have to leave behind a huge estate; the kids will be fine. And if you have to lean on your family in old age? Hey, it is what humans have done for eons.
Our retirement challenges may be formidable, but they are certainly no reason to hope that death arrives any sooner than it has to.
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