Lessons in saving for retirement

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(MoneyWatch) When I first moved to Boston, I worked for a company (now defunct) that made personal finance software. We interviewed a lot of money gurus, one of whom came out with the immortal line "you don't want to spend your golden years working at the golden arches." It was hokey but it stuck in my mind. And it bugged me for years. It especially bothered me when I took my toddler to McDonald's and noted the age of many people working there: 65, 70, maybe even older. One woman in particular, with flame red dyed hair, must have been in her mid to late seventies. She haunted my imagination.

I remembered her again when I read this piece about a 77 year old former vice president of Oral-B who is now flipping burgers. His is a chastening story about the vicissitudes of saving for retirement. Stocks go up and down. Costs go, mostly, up. Houses go from being assets to liabilities. Self-employment is freedom one moment and unemployment the next. Spending is urgent and saving persistently postponed.

I'd love to say that I'd always understood this, but I didn't. Whatever retirement security I have is more by luck than judgment. But I've come to understand something I still find counter-intuitive: The more you make, the more you should save. The less you make, the more you want to spend. Why? Because it's easy to save when you're making money; earning is its own reward. It's when I've been poorly paid that I needed treats and consolation prizes, not when I was on a roll.

I have a fantasy that one day I'll go back to the McDonald's in Boston, accost the red-headed server who will still be there, give her a big hug and fill her fist with hundred dollar bills. I probably won't, but I should. More than any guru, more than all the rational advice ever written, she inspired me to create wealth -- and hang on to it. Like everyone else I know, I have no desire to retire. But if I do, I'd like to think it will be a time when my anxiety levels go down, not up.

  • Margaret Heffernan On Twitter»

    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.

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