What I’ve Learned About Retirement as a 20-Something

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.

Love Being Retired

As I write this week’s blog I sit on the deck on a rocking bench (like a rocking chair only a bench) looking out at the field of mature oak trees that fill the canyon behind our house. There is a slight chill in the morning air as a crystal blue sky peeks between majestic branches. The air is still with no hint of a breeze. Later in the day a predictable wind will whip through the canyon but for now all is calm. The peace and quiet is inspiring interrupted only by the buzz of a hovering hummingbird daintily feeding while flashing its amazing coat of iridescent ruby and emerald. And here am I doing what I enjoy.

I love being retired. Knowing that I am in control of how I choose to spend my days is empowering. The freedom to do what I want when I want for as long as I want is refreshing. And living where we do is ever inspiring. If sitting under the oak trees is a bit too cool I can venture to the other side of the house – the sunny side, where my wife can typically be found – and warm up a bit while watching the roses grow. We are situated in a valley that can get warm on summer days. But should the heat become too oppressive a mere 15 minute drive delivers us to the beautiful pacific coastline where the weather is more temperate and the waves ever breaking.

I love being able to be spontaneous. If something good comes along we have no problem acting on short notice. An unplanned dinner with friends we run into while walking or a quick escape to listen to a local musician playing down the road or an impulsive decision to catch the sunset on the beach – we can do whatever, whenever. And being retired allows us to take advantage of this spontaneity during the week. We are no longer forced to seek our entertainment on the weekend when everyone and their brother is doing the same. My wife and I find ourselves happily staying close to home on the weekends since our retired weekend is effectively five days long.

I love the smells of retirement. Now that my wife has retired the house is regularly filled with wonderful cooking aromas. I kid you not this morning while drinking my coffee I detected a heavenly scent that turned out to be freshly made Jamaican banana nut bread. An hour later the oven was sharing savory whiffs of an equally amazing blueberry coffee cake. It looks like I better pick up my exercise routine if I hope to maintain my waistline. I Swiss flag on Jungfrauyochlove the sweet scents of freshly cut roses, the rich aroma of newly brewed java, the earthy air after an infrequent rain (California you know…), and of course the salty tang of ocean breezes.

I love having time to exercise. Everyone knows the importance of trying to stay fit and for me working up a sweat is something I enjoy. The difference in retirement is you now have time throughout the day to do your thing rather than struggling to squeeze in an abbreviated workout somewhere in a busy schedule. I love getting outdoors whether to hike park trails or walk the neighborhood. My wife and I have a nice three mile loop that takes us downtown to our favorite coffee shop or local post office and then back up a workout worthy hill to the homestead. And should we find ourselves in need of a little fortification to make it back up the hill we can pause at one of numerous wine tasting rooms prior to heading home.

I love spending time with the people I want. We have only been in our new home for three months but have already been visited by most of the family. My best friend who I have not seen in many years visited us from Colorado taking advantage of his recent retired status. No more high power business meetings, no more company cocktail parties, we fortunate retirees get to spend time with those we want. We even have time to meet new people who share common interests and passions. Not too bad if you ask me.

I love trying new things. Whether learning a new piano piece or trying my hand at growing vegetables from a seed or cooking up a mouth-watering recipe or finding a new trail to hike. I can revisit passions from my past or seek out new ones. I can step outside my comfort zone or remain safely within its confines. And I have learned from those who have gone before me the time to do it is now. I will never be younger than I am today so am taking advantage of my relative youthfulness.

I love being retired. I realize how lucky I am to be where I am and do my best to never take for granted my fortunate situation. Retirement is a wonderful time to live, explore, experience, and enjoy. And we each get to make the most of it. Enjoy the journey.