happy retirement

To Be Happy in Retirement, Don’t Be Afraid to Use Your ‘Nuts’

Forage, dig, bury, repeat. That’s what squirrels do with nuts, and it’s basically what retirement savers do too. However, while squirrels dip into their stash of nuts when needed, many retirees are too scared to do the same. Don’t hoard your nuts: Enjoy them! Here’s how.

There’s been a lot of chatter these past few weeks coming from a group of New Englanders eager to shed their loneliness, begin eating out again and look for new dating opportunities (this one really gets them talking).

The group I’m referring to enjoys one of the elevated lifestyles in New England; not uncommon for individuals working in specialized markets like they do. Not that it doesn’t come with costs. The work they do is highly competitive and fast-moving, where workplace accidents are all too common.

I’m talking about New England squirrels, and with the winter behind us, they have plenty to be excited about.

Humans and Squirrels Share the Same Nut-Storing Behaviors

I’ve recently learned a few interesting things about the Eastern gray squirrel, like that it’s a misconception they hibernate. In fact, they’re active all winter long except for days with the most inclement weather. They also don’t store their nuts at home. Instead, they bury their nuts in the effort to deter would-be thieves. A University of California at Berkeley study found that squirrels bury their nuts according to size, type and taste. Every nut has a place and purpose.

Humans exhibit their own squirrel-like behavior. But instead of nuts, we save dollars in anticipation of retirement. We save so our tomorrow can look like our today.

But We Differ When It’s Time to Dip into Our Stash

In the middle of winter, squirrels have no qualms digging into their nut cache. But people are far less instinctual. Some of us will go to great lengths, doing everything BUT touch that nest egg. 

I frequently witness people working jobs they hate, delaying dream vacations or sticking with a less-than-ideal status quo even when there’s enough savings to justify big changes. Many will even die with more money than they have presently because of their aversion to spending. A good problem to be sure, but trust that no squirrel ever finishes winter with more nuts in reserve than they started with.

Why isn’t it easier to spend our retirement savings? The Family Circus has been a staple of America’s funny pages for over 60 years. There’s a recurring imaginary character named “Not Me” who is conveniently blamed by the children whenever a scapegoat is needed. Similarly, there is an imaginary character that plagues us as adults. I’ve dubbed this character the “What If,” a peddler in fear – both real and exaggerated.

There’s nothing wrong with a little paranoia. Many of the first dollars we save are motivated by “What If” questions:

  • What if I lose my job?
  • What if my car dies?
  • What if there’s an unexpected, expensive emergency?

But as we approach retirement, the questions “What If” poses become more consequential, because the stakes are now higher:

  • What if the market crashes?
  • What if taxes are increased?
  • What if I have a health emergency?
  • What if I outlive my money?

These aren’t unreasonable questions, but left unanswered, they can leave a retiree frozen like a squirrel in headlights.

Why Do Squirrels (and People, Too) Get Frozen in Headlights?

Despite what the copious amount of roadkill implies, squirrels are not suicidal. It’s a familiar scene for many drivers: You see a squirrel in the road. It sees you back. It first darts for the shoulder, but then abruptly turns back toward the center yellow line. It reverses yet again, narrowly avoiding your tires, and somehow miraculously scurries back to the opposite shoulder. Was it trying to get hit?

You can chalk up the erratic behavior to misplaced instinct. Turns out all the bobbing and weaving is exceptionally good for confusing hawks — not so much with cars. The squirrel has the right idea, but for the wrong situation.

Similarly, is it possible that our own instinctual fear is misapplied? Sure, but how can we know for sure when the future is so uncertain? We can’t. But we can get close.

How to Feel Confident, Rather Than Frozen: A Stress Test

The solution can be found in combining technology and stress to turn all your “What Ifs” around. With technology, we can project our future by making assumptions about our spending, market performance, inflation, tax rates, longevity and more. But we can be unkind. Stress that projection! Skew it to show what happens when you crash the market. Live past 100. Raise your taxes. Simulate a health event. The meaner you get, the more confidence you can potentially gain.

Confidence? You bet! My belief is that retirement confidence is born out of worst-case planning. What do you want? To retire early? Travel more? Have a second home? Be more generous with charity or to relatives?

Whatever your goals, imagine how you’d feel if your projection indicates they can still be accomplished even IF the market crashes or IF inflation, tax or spending increases, as well as IF you have a health event or IF you live well past average life expectancy. Might it be easier to spend your savings when you’re confident your plans hold up under scrutiny?

We can never have absolute certainty. But we can’t take the money to squirrel heaven either. You get one crack at retirement. Make the most of it. Don’t let your hard-earned nuts go to waste.

About the Author

Michael R. Panico, CFP®

Founder and CEO, Arcadia Financial Group LLC

Michael R. Panico, CFP®, is the founder and CEO of Arcadia Financial Group LLC, based in Manchester, N.H. Michael works with investments and insurance products to help clients reach their financial goals.

The appearances in Kiplinger were obtained through a PR program. The columnist received assistance from a public relations firm in preparing this piece for submission to Kiplinger.com. Kiplinger was not compensated in any way.

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