From time to time I see some in the media asking the question whether people are “giving up on saving.” This was the thesis of a Maclean’s cover story last year and a version came up this week in the Financial Post. It’s not a stance I sympathize with, which is why I wrote a version of today’s blog earlier this week at www.moneysense.ca.
Here, I’ve reproduced and expanded on that blog.
It’s a free world of course and everyone can choose to maximize consumption today, even if it means paying more tax because of foregoing contributions to tax-assisted retirement plans (RRSPs in Canada, or in the United States, contributions to IRAs or 401(k)s.)
But giving up on saving does have consequences. This choice means you’re also giving up on more consumption in the future, and giving up the chance for freedom (or financial independence) while you’re still young enough to enjoy it.
People are perfectly free to spend to the full extent of current income but leaving no margin for error for job loss or other emergencies is just plain foolish. Any financial planner will tell you that enough savings to last six to nine months without employment income is the minimum prudent emergency cushion—an amount that can now be well taken care of by the cumulative $25,500 in TFSA contribution room now available to any Canadian 18 years of age or older. (For the benefit of any American readers, the Tax Free Savings Account is the equivalent of Roth plans, although TFSAs were only introduced in 2009. Same idea but different rules. See also note at end of blog).
Alternative is working till you drop
Beyond the customary emergency savings, giving up on saving for longer-term goals like retirement really means resolving to stay in the workforce (employers and circumstances permitting) right until 65, or 67 in the case of younger people. Indeed, the November issue of MoneySense did show how people can retire in luxury merely by finding a low-cost place to live (most of them outside the country) and living off such government income sources as CPP, OAS and GIS (in Canada) or Social Security (in the US).
While such a strategy is theoretically possible, “luxury” is a relative term and relying only on government money in old age strikes me as dangerous from a diversification point of view. In the U.S. in particular, given the nation’s parlous finances, putting all your eggs into the basket of Social Security seems an overly optimistic gamble. Not for nothing do the financial gurus counsel a three-legged stool that also includes employer pensions and private savings and investments, not to mention part-time work, real estate income and other “multiple streams of income.”
Frenzy of Rationalization
In the end, taking a defeatist attitude to saving is just making excuses. Blaming low interest rates or volatile stock markets is what my wife and I dub “a frenzy of rationalization” or FOR. It’s true that young people today have far more financial temptations than did the baby boomers: we never had to budget for cell phone plans or Internet access, nor were we under pressure to constantly upgrade to newer and better smartphones and other technological gadgets.
But again, if your perceived “needs” exactly equal your income, then the best you can hope for is to break even financially as the years pass, and that assumes steady employment. Lose that source of income and the trouble soon begins. Saving and investing means ultimately benefiting from the magic of compound interest (or compounded reinvested dividends). Giving up on saving and falling into debt should unemployment strike means the reverse and negative outcome: being subject to the disaster of compounding debt—and unfortunately, the interest rates that seem so minuscule if you’re a creditor turn out to be very high if you’re a debtor.
Far better to be a net beneficiary of even modest interest and dividend income than a victim of it. And that’s why, even though I’m personally on the cusp of Findependence I’m still not giving up on saving.
US edition of Findependence Day nearing publication
If you’re reading this blog, you shouldn’t need an explanation of the word Findependence, since this entire web site is dedicated to the book, Findependence Day. The original novel described here can be considered North American in scope but it has a lot of Canadian content with just a sprinkling of U.S. material. This will be rectified in a few months time when I’ll be releasing a new all-U.S. second edition of the book. Watch this space for updates on that.