I think it is common knowledge that many people are going to have a hard time affording a comfortable retirement, and we all know people who plan to work until they drop because they feel they have no other choice. Joel came across an article recently – Middle-Class Americans Living With Regret About Retirement Savings One line jumped out at me
In a new survey question added this year, 22 percent said they would rather “die early” than live without enough money for a comfortable retirement.
More than one in five people are afraid they will be so poor that the time will come when life isn’t worth living. What a sad statement.
I can quote more statistics and link to more articles but I don’t think we need convincing that many people are going to retire with less than they think they need, or won’t retire at all. What does this mean in terms of quality of life?
Quality of life is much more than a financial thing, and I’m afraid that in the US we are going about it all wrong. It wasn’t until I left that I fully realized how much we are brainwashed to buy more, to have better stuff, a better job, house, spouse, car, clothes, jewelry… on and on and all this will make you happy. Work hard, get an education, get the great job, work very hard, and you too can succeed. But, succeed at what? Being happy? Not necessarily.
Then, I come to Central America and meet a lot of very happy people. Many of them live in conditions we would find totally unacceptable. There are financially poor people here in David, and even more in the more rural areas. There are terribly poor people in Nicaragua with dirt floor houses. But, if you define success as happiness they are very successful and very rich.
The Gallup Poll on happiness that came out recently that says Panama is #1! The US didn’t make the top 10. The article states “Panama had the highest scores in the world in four of the five well-being elements — purpose, social, community, and physical well-being. Sixty-one percent of Panamanians were thriving in three or more elements, the survey found.” Notice they didn’t score well in the 5th element – feeling financially secure.
What does this have to do with all of us? I’m not sure, but it is pretty clear that most of us at or near retirement aren’t going to increase our financial net worth enough to make a bit of difference. Besides working until we drop, it seems there are two things we can do though – decrease expenses and lower expectations.
Many of us are looking at other countries as a way to decrease expenses. For some of us it is working wonderfully. For others it doesn’t work, especially those who don’t love the experience but feel forced into it by finances. There are also ways to cut expenses in the US – live in a cheaper place, give up various things, etc. But, does this help if we are filled with resentment?
I think the biggest thing we can do is change expectations. Of course this is terribly difficult to do in the US where we are bombarded with expectations every day on all fronts, from TV to newspapers and other media to the attitudes of those around us. But when you think about it, we experience our world and our happiness in our heads, in our minds. If you want to change your world, change your mind (so say the Buddhist teachers). Turn off the TV. Throw away the magazines. Cultivate friends who are happy. Be grateful for what you have. Try to help others. Get outdoors and enjoy what nature provides.
I know we are very lucky to be surrounded by happy people who generally have their priorities straight. If you ask a Panamanian what is most important you will probably hear – family, friends, enjoying life. They work hard but they are less driven and more relaxed about work. There isn’t the constant striving and stress that is so familiar in the US. Days off are for enjoying family and friends and having fun. There is no stigma about lying around in a hammock, even if you don’t have money to put paint on your house.
I have learned so much from these happy people and it has made it a lot easier for me to keep my head on straight. I really feel for the people who feel trapped in the US, unable or unwilling to leave, dealing with retirement on little money, feeling forced to continue working, feeling forced to make changes they don’t want, feeling they deserve better after a lifetime of work. I hope that somehow they can manage to make some really nice lemonade from the sour lemons.