On a recent visit to New York City, my son and I strolled the streets of SoHo and happened upon the campus of NYU. As we took in Washington Square Park and the hustle and bustle of the city, my son, 13, remarked that he’d love to attend college in a big city. With his interests heavily focused on filmmaking and sound design, he smiled at me and said, “I might even wind up here, at NYU, Ma.” I remember looking at his gangly frame as he ambled in and out of the swanky stores and thinking that I had plenty of time to worry about having to pay for college.
Out of curiosity, though, I went home and did a little research on what it would cost to send him to NYU. As my jaw dropped to the floor and sweat beads collected on my forehead and low back, I jolted my husband out of his TV coma and announced that we had a problem on our hands. All this time, I’ve been blissfully unaware of the costs of a college education and it started to dawn on me that, ready or not, retirement and the end of our careers are right around the corner.
We only have a few more years before we have to actually start behaving like grown-ups! We have kids to send to college, and retirement parties to plan, and trips to take with other octogenarians who have scrimped and saved to have the privilege of riding a bus through Tuscany or right up to the Blarney Stone. My plans of living the life of a beach bum with no other care in the world other than when my next margarita is coming could be a reality in the not so distant future.
And it occurred to me that we need to have a solid exit strategy because those margaritas on the beach aren’t going to pour themselves. Fortunately, my husband is used to my panic level freak-outs and is more than willing to indulge me when it comes to future financial planning because he’s the grown-up in this relationship. This is the plan we’ve come up with so far:
1. Have a real conversation about your retirement goals, and be honest.
After my sticker shock about college costs abated a bit, my husband and I had a heart-to-heart about what we really envisioned for our retirement. Interestingly, our goals, while similar, were slightly different and it was eye-opening to hear what the other expected out of retirement.
For instance, he envisioned us working late into our 70s (not necessarily jobs in our current fields, but working all the same), while I envisioned clocking out the day we turned 55.
We realized we had a bridge to gap and have had many conversations since then about how we can make both our dreams realities. Opening this dialogue now will allow us to really plan what’s best for both of us and get those margaritas flowing sooner than later.
2. Take a hard look at your finances, and be really, really honest about your spending.
When you are raising kids with a busy work schedule, it’s easy to fall back onto convenience spending: dinners out, dry cleaning and other services that make your life easier in the here and now. But flash forward 10 years, and that money might have been better spent padding your IRA accounts or your 410K plan.
Taking a look at your expendable income and where it goes every month can be tough to swallow, but think about that beach house that you’ve always wanted to buy. A few extra dinners in and a decrease in how many times the cleaning lady comes will add up to real returns on your money and your toes will be in the sand a lot more quickly if you are careful with your spending.
3. Shore up your marriage so that you’ll still want to retire together.
Admittedly, this seems like a no-brainer, but when you really start to think about retirement, you realize that your kids and the day-to-day distractions of sports, activities, and child-rearing will no longer be the background noise of your lives.
Recognizing now that you both have developed separate interests over the years or that you might not be spending as much quality time together as you should, will help you plan for what your relationship looks like when you are taking those beach walks and trekking around the world. Do the hard work now so that when you finally get to toast your retirement, there are no surprises.
4. Estate planning is a real thing and you should do it, especially if you have kids.
No one wants to talk about the inevitability of death, and it’s especially hard to wrap your brain around not being around to watch grandkids crawl around at your feet. But death happens, and talking about it now while you are healthy will help you feel more in control of your assets. And deciding who gets your kids or who you will bequeath your grandmother’s dining room table to doesn’t have to be written in stone. You can make changes as your family grows or as you realize that maybe your second cousin isn’t the best person to inherit your Friends DVDs and your entire collection of vintage tea cups.
Yes, paying for college and retirement is still a few years off for a lot of us, but the fact is that it’s coming sooner than we expect. When I think about how it feels like I’ve blinked and my kids are going to college, I know these next years will fly by just as quickly. And on those days when the dog is barking, dinner is late, and someone just announced they have a project due tomorrow, it helps to remember that I’m doing what it takes now to be able to sip margaritas by the beach in retirement — because, dammit, I’ll have earned it.