Ever notice the contrast between average folks and people who’ve found the path to retirement success? The former buy into conventional thinking about spending and saving. The latter are more likely to take a contrary approach right down the line.
Contrarians don’t spend more than they make. They stick to budgets. They use credit sparingly. They avoid marketing come-ons. They stay married for the long haul. “There are many roads to financial freedom, but all of them require a mindset to think long term, forgo immediate gratification and maintain discipline,” says Mark Chandik, president and chief investment officer, FDP Wealth Management in Irvine, California, and author of “10 Financial Strategies for the Smart Investor.”
“These individuals tend to live contrarian lives, but also seem happy and content. Perhaps that’s because they know they are on the way to financial independence. And that knowledge provides an amazing sense of security and peace of mind.”
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Don’t dillydally when it comes to saving
Talk to average middle-age people contemplating retirement, and they will show near unanimity on one issue: They should have started planning earlier. Those who reject conventional wisdom don’t wait to begin on the path to retirement success.
By engaging in sound money management strategies earlier, you can achieve more with less, says Margaret Paddock, Twin Cities market leader for the Private Client Reserve of U.S. Bank, in Minneapolis.
“Contrarian younger people might live at home longer,” she says. “You could share rent, share a mortgage and leverage relationships you have to lower expenses. You can use car sharing or ride public transportation as opposed to buying a car.”
If you invest $10 a day over 40 years, as opposed to starting 20 years before retirement, Paddock says, “you’re going to reap substantial rewards through the compounding value of time.”
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Use credit and credit cards mindfully
Contrarians don’t believe buying on credit should be the status quo. These future successful retirees look for ways to avoid big credit burdens on the costly cars and luxury vacations so many Americans consider their rightful entitlement.
Far before very successful people accumulated their wealth, they conscientiously sidestepped debt. So says Chris Alberta, CEO of Senior Benefits Group Retirement Advisors, and president of Alberta Enterprises, a Brighton, Michigan, wealth management firm.
“Real wealth can be attributed to peace of mind, and a feeling of control over one’s time and resources,” he says. “If every big purchase commands a long-term financial commitment to pay off, there can certainly be some drag on the enjoyment.”
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Eschew the latest technology
It’s something of a latter-day American tradition to rush through stores snapping up the very latest high-tech gadget or home electronics item. Contrarian thinkers have never bought into that pastime. “In a culture that has become a revolving door for the newest technology, many of my most successful clients are proactively cavemen,” Alberta says.
“One such man has a Chevy Suburban with almost 300,000 miles on it, and still takes time to wax it on weekends. Why? It’s not broke. Smartphone? Flip phone. It still makes calls. In their eyes, the temporary satisfaction of playing with that new gadget wears thin very fast, and especially so when the primary objective — in other words, driving or phoning — can still be done” with an existing possession.
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Steer around status symbol land
In many suburbs, the status-symbol automobile or golf course estate home is, well, par for the course. Contrarians detour around status symbols. They tend to nix these objects in favor of saving and investing, say father-and-son registered investment advisers Ken and Alex Sutherland of LifePlan Group in Raleigh, North Carolina.
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Financial freedom seekers use internal rather than external values as their compass. “Homes, cars, vacations — those are external items,” Alex Sutherland says.
“If you’re guided by other people and other influences, versus your own internal values, you can get into trouble.”
It’s known that people who win lotteries are often bankrupt in a few years. What is less understood is that their non-winning neighbors, seeking to keep up with the lotto-winning Joneses, also have higher bankruptcy rates. “It’s contrarian to live below your means and enjoy your life with less anxiety and less debt,” he says.
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Many folks say they know nothing about saving and investing — and don’t much care. These people aren’t contrarians. If they were, they’d be taking courses, reading books and attending seminars on retirement preparedness.
Adult education programs at local high schools and community colleges can start you on your way to being an educated saver. Buttress that education by perusing books and visiting websites that inform about saving, investing and retirement planning. As you become savvier, attend financial planning seminars.
“You are your own self advocate,” says Alex Sutherland, who with his father teaches a 2-session, 4-hour course at a local community college. “To make sure you’re informed at all stages of life, it’s prudent to do your own homework.
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Don’t give lip service to saving
Unlike so many Americans, truly well-off retirees didn’t simply promise themselves they would save, only to fritter away all their opportunities. They funded their 401(k)s and IRAs, and stashed some cash in case of an ill-timed emergency.
Lots of individuals approaching retirement “say they know they will need so much for retirement, but keep buying new $50,000 cars,” says Leah Miller, financial planner at Red Anchor Retirement Solutions in Charleston, South Carolina. “On the other hand, I have clients who say, ‘I’m already living on the money I currently make. If I get a raise it will go directly to retirement savings.’ I like to say, ‘Once a saver, always a saver.'”
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Fund retirement, not offspring
Many Americans spend too much on their young kids, sending a message that life’s about materialism. Contrarians skirt that temptation. They also know better than to finance the lifestyles of their adult sons and daughters, jeopardizing their own security.
A generation and more ago, folks hoped to leave a legacy for their children and grandchildren, Miller says. Today, escalating costs and stagnating incomes make that dream less doable. “With the cost of long-term care — and living in general — the legacy today may be just living out your life without relying on your kids for time or money,” Miller says. “The only way to do that is to stop giving it away.”
Besides, helping children too much financially keeps them from making it on their own. “If you teach them they don’t have to worry because you’ll take care of them, it’s a disaster after you’re gone,” she says.
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Realize eating out eats up savings
When Miller huddles with clients over cash-flow analyses of their spending, those clients are often stunned at how much they’re blowing on restaurant meals. “They work late, don’t feel like cooking and go grab something,” she says. “It’s not purposeful, it’s an afterthought — and a lot of food they’re eating isn’t good for them anyway.”
Miller turns culinary adviser and tells them to go buy a crockpot. Put some food on before leaving for work, and it will be ready for you when you get home, she says.
“It’s back to habit,” she adds. “They have a habitual thing about eating out. One day, they will wake up and say, ‘I just got downsized,’ and ‘how am I going to make life work?’ But you can plan ahead for dinner — and for retirement.”
And ultimately, planning ahead — a practice embraced by contrarians — is one of the best ways to achieve financial freedom.