Retirement Lessons from Mom and Dad

Jackie Lam

By Jackie Lam
Jackie Lam is the creator of Cheapsters, where she helps freelancers get by in the gig economy. She lives in L.A., where she is on the perpetual hunt for the perfect breakfast burrito.
Posted on 04/20/2017

For those who would rather not work another day to pay the bills (i.e., 99.9 percent of people on Earth), the word “retirement” rolls sweetly off the tongue. I'm in my 30s and not wealthy by any means, so financial independence remains a far-off goal for me. However, it's something I fret about quite a bit. I know if I don't plan for it now, it won't ever turn into a reality.

Both of my parents are in their mid to late 60s; retirement is on their immediate horizon. My mom recently shifted from working two full-time jobs to just four days a week at one job, and my dad plans to retire at the end of next year. During my visits, they've expressed concerns and expectations about their golden years, and I've gained some insights on how I'd like to spend my own retirement.

Although realistically I won't be able to retire for another 30 years or so, here's what I've learned from my parents' experience, and what I'm doing now to prepare for my retirement in the far-off future:

Prioritizing Savings

While my mother's Social Security and Medicare benefits have kicked in, she'll probably be working part-time as a nurse for as long as she can. While she's worked very hard, she was not able to save as much as she would've liked for retirement. Remember: You can take on loans for a house, a car, or for your education, but retirement is the one thing you can't borrow for.

My mom's concerns have ignited a spark in me to save as much for retirement as I can. I've started to treat my retirement savings as a bill—just like making payments on my cell phone bill and credit cards each month. Since I became a full-time freelancer, I automate savings for my Roth IRA account, and can make a yearly contribution of $5,500 a year. I've also started automating savings into a health savings account (HSA), which I use as another means to invest. Another goal is to sock away money toward my SEP IRA, into which I've set an ideal amount I'd like to save each month. If I have a bit of extra money, I'll put it first into my retirement.

Having Hobbies

They say you want to have something to retire to, not just something to retire from. We live in a time when hobbies are undervalued. If you're not trying to turn a profit on your creative work, you run the risk of coming off as unambitious. However, doing things purely for fun is pretty awesome. And you'll definitely need activities to help you stay engaged when you stop working.

This can be a big transition. “If I don't work, I'll just be bored,” my mom has said. Hopefully, she'll be able to spend more time during retirement on her hobbies, which include swimming, volunteering, cooking, and floral arranging. My dad will be retiring from his job working for the county in environmental engineering. A voracious reader, he wants to catch up on reading, particularly American classics, and write a romance novel. (Yes, you read that correctly.)

It's made me think of how I would like to spend my retirement. I don't think there will be a shortage of things to do. Depending on my finances and health, I may partake in physical activities such as swimming, biking, hiking, volunteering, and also do some traveling. I hope to still be writing and involved with music in some way as well.

Taking a Semi-Retirement First

I think having an abundance of free time can be a bit scary, and it takes some getting used to. When my mom started working less, she was tempted to take on extra shifts at her job. As I've decided to reduce my workload for about a month, I've experienced firsthand just how difficult it is to transition to a slower pace.

The empty days spread out ahead of me, like a sprawl of vacant houses in a suburban neighborhood. That emptiness is exciting, but I also put pressure on myself to fill my time and make each day count. The options can feel paralyzing. Just like how I imagine someone would feel if they received a windfall of money, I'm afraid of squandering my free time. I've never been one for bucket lists, but felt compelled to create a list for making the most of my days off.

Maintaining a Robust Social Network

Because my mother is single, I worry she'll get too lonesome. I've encouraged her to partake in social activities at the senior center, join a dating site for the 50 and up crowd, and get serious about volunteering her time to local nonprofits. There's nothing I want more for her than to expand her social network, but she seems to have little interest in doing so.

I get it. It's much harder to make friends when you're older. I personally have experienced friends coupling off, getting hitched, and having kids, only to stay in touch by way of Facebook status updates. Having friends helps us stay happy, and having friends of different ages benefits everyone. I'd like to form relationships based on differing interests and have pals across multiple ages.

Ultimately, by the time I can retire, I want to live a life based on my values, to be of value to those around me, and to find wonder and awe every day. It's a tall order, right? But first, I've got to sock away those beans.