Saturday, August 9, 2014

Debt, the 'consumer economy', and retirement

I've written several articles about the danger of excessive debt (the most recent is here).  Now Tim Iacono points out, with tongue in cheek, that refusing to live in slavery to debt in order to save for one's retirement is actually 'un-American'.

It wasn’t immediately clear that the usage of the word “Un-American” in the title above was appropriate, that is, until reading this definition at Wikipedia:

Un-American is a pejorative term of U.S. political discourse which is applied to people or institutions in the United States seen as deviating from what are widely perceived to be fundamental American cultural and political values

Now, there are clearly no politics involved here. Rather, it is the deviation from well established cultural values, namely, ratcheting up your lifestyle at least as fast as your income rises, that makes those who choose to spend much less than they earn during their working years a candidate for retiring early ...

. . .

Living “well below” your means really is un-American – it goes against the fundamental American cultural values of consumerism and debt.

I’ve often said that a large part of the U.S. economy is driven by people buying things they don’t need with money they don’t have and, while some may point to that as being a great post-World War II success story, it results in millions upon millions of people who might never be able to call it quits as part of the traditional work force.

There's more at the link.

Mr. Iacono may be writing satirically, but unfortunately his words are all too true for a great many Americans today.  If we're living at the edge of our incomes, spending as much as (if not more than) we make every month, there's very little chance we'll ever be able to retire into anything other than a life of extreme simplicity, if not actual poverty.  That's the trap into which the 'consumer society' has led us.  For too many people, "you are what you own" has become a golden cage.

If we try, many of us should be able to reduce our expenditure (and debt load), and begin socking away at least some of our income for future needs.  I think the first priority should be to cater for emergencies - have at least six months' income in the bank, ready for use if and when needed, and provide a basic store of supplies to cater for economic emergencies as well as natural disasters.  (If you have a couple of months' food in store, you can eat that when you're short of money, not just after an earthquake or hurricane.)  As for longer-term investments, I'm hesitant to trust the stock market or any traditional investment channels with my money right now.  I think, in the present economic environment, I'd look to a reliable store of value such as precious metals - but that's just my opinion.  YMMV.



Old NFO said...

Good points Peter, and I'm actually looking at staples... Salt, sugar, coffee too...

The Old Man said...

Troof. I retired 2 years ago with no debts (other than taxes) and having lived below my means FOR YEARS the Bosslady and I can afford to live comfortably as well as help out our kids.
I made it a point to bank any COLA increases and maximize the matching return on the 401K.
Over the last 43 years we have bought exactly two new cars and moved once (from a 320 sq ft trailer to a house).
It has been done successfully - but that may not be possible shortly. You and your family are your best asset. Maximize it.