Written by Holly Whitman
I’ve learned a lot in my 20s. Some of the lessons were important, some weren’t, and some were simply designed to make sure I didn’t make the same mistake twice. Throughout all of it, I’ve had one person whose advice was constant, even if it wasn’t always heeded: my mom. She taught me tons of things I never knew I needed, like how to cook a full meal with what seems like an empty fridge, how to change a flat tire without flagging down a cop and, of course, how to retire.
My mother has lived a very different life from me. She grew up with a classic ‘50s mom, a dad that led her to the state championship for rifle hunting and a single-income household. I, on the other hand, had two parents that worked, didn’t shoot a gun until I was 19 and had a mother who provided a strong leadership model.
She never settled for anything, never took the backseat to anyone for her own work and made sure her kids knew how to do the same.
Getting to Work
My mom was always a teacher. You probably know that teaching isn’t the most lucrative business to be in, but it was important for my mom to do. Honestly, the first lesson I had about retirement was that you shouldn’t base your life’s work on getting to an end destination. My mom would take me to Goodwill every year and buy shoes, socks, mittens and coats for kids at the inner city school where she taught.
Every year, she’d give them out to the ones who walked in with no coat in 20-degree weather. I got lucky with my mom. She knew the value of money, without overvaluing it. Come college, that was something that was always on my mind.
I also know that Mom and Dad created a plan early on. Once they were able to stop living paycheck to paycheck, they sat down and made decisions about how they would spend their money. They made a plan for retirement, and actually stuck to it. There was no winging it or floundering about — they set goals well in advance and they evaluated how they would reach them.
My mom still does that, asking me about setting retirement savings goals. She wants me to start saving earlier than she and my dad did, which makes sense. The earlier you can start saving, the easier it is, and the less you have to save each year. We do have some savings that are accruing interest for us, but we’re not looking at early retirement yet!
Keep What Matters
My grandparents both survived the Great Depression. As a result, my mom knew how to keep things running, long past their expected death dates. So, when she bought a car in the ‘60s, she was able to keep it running, and running and running.
It’s a 1966 Chevrolet Camaro, which she could now sell for about $40,000 if she ever needed to. For a long time, especially when my siblings and I were teens, the car went to live with my grandparents, specifically to keep it safe. It’s the one thing my mom has allowed herself to have, no matter how poor they were, and she has become extremely protective of it.
She could sell it, of course, but it’s a throwback to her wild, pre-motherhood days. I think the memories in it are more important than the car itself. Now she has the time to enjoy it again and I love nothing more than seeing her pull into the driveway in the summer, with all the windows down and a huge smile on her face.
Trouble Comes Along
I’ve talked with my parents a lot. I know that, being the youngest, I pretty much got the best of what they had to offer, monetarily speaking. When my oldest brother was born, my mom was working part-time as a substitute teacher and my dad was working at a grocery store and finishing college at night. It took them another decade to establish themselves and get the ground solidly under their feet.
Neither of my parents saw the bubble of 2008 coming. When it did come, they used a large portion of their savings to pay off the rest of their house in under a year. My mom told me “We don’t know how far this will fall, but they won’t be able to take our home.” She had a plan in case things went wrong. They were caught off-guard, but not unprepared. Their rainy day savings were a lifeline in a very scary time.
That lesson was to plan for the unexpected. You never know when you’ll need it.
Save Room for Joy
My mom had a serious job that often involved confrontations with parents, children, the police and Child Protective Services. With all that going on, she sometimes needed to let off a little steam. So, she decided on another savings goal, in addition to retirement: a dream home. For that, she had to get a little creative. Literally. My mom sold paintings to help pay for her retirement dream home.
That was an easy lesson. If you want something, sometimes you have to have more than one job. My mom painted because that’s what she loved. She taught because that’s what she loved. She did things for joy, and found ways to make money while doing it. It was hard work, it was sometimes dirty and sad and scary, but it was important to her. And in the end, she said it was all worth it.
My mom hasn’t made my life a satin-smooth ride, but she did give me the life skills I needed to be successful. She taught me joy, gratefulness, gratitude and tenacity. She taught me about retirement, yes, but more than that, she taught me to live without waiting. Retirement will come, and I need to be ready, but not at the expense of now.