Please, Go Ahead and Spend It

When my Uncle Ernie, a life-long bachelor, was in his 80’s and in declining health, he moved into an assisted living facility. He complained to my mother that living there was going to use up all his savings. Her answer was, “What do you think that money is for?”

A close friend’s elderly mother is currently in a similar situation. Nearing 90, she has enough money to provide comfortably for her needs—including assisted living or nursing home care, if necessary—for the rest of her life. Yet she frets about spending it. She tells her two sons, “That money is supposed to be for you.”

No, it isn’t. That money is supposed to be for her.

All sorts of investment options, from IRAs to 401(k) plans, are described as “retirement funds.” We talk routinely about “saving for retirement.” Providing for our needs in old age is one of the most important reasons for saving in the first place.

Yet, when retirement comes, it’s not easy to start spending that money. Such reluctance is understandable. When you’ve been in the habit all your life of saving and putting money away, it’s hard to make a 180-degree turn and start spending it instead. It may feel like jeopardizing the security you have from knowing that money is there. In addition, many people want to leave a legacy to their children or to charity.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to leave money to your children. But the money you’ve saved for your retirement is yours. It’s there to provide for you. Your children aren’t automatically entitled to it, and you don’t owe it to anyone.

Speaking as a middle-aged daughter of elderly parents, what sort of legacy do I want from them? When it comes to material things, all I really care about are the family keepsakes which are valued for what they mean rather than what they are—such things as my mother’s handmade quilts and my father’s books. What I want most, though, is to have my parents in my life for as long as possible. I want them to be comfortable, able to have more than they need and to do things they enjoy. I want them to use their resources for themselves so they can be an active presence in my life and the lives of my children.

If it’s hard for you to think about spending your life savings on yourself, you might consider this: Taking care of yourself is not taking anything away from your children. Instead, it’s a way of giving to them. When you have—and use—the resources to provide for your own needs, your children don’t have to take care of you. That leaves them free to build their own savings.

So please, when you get to a point where it’s time to start using what you’ve saved, go ahead and use it. After all, as my mother would remind you, what else is it for?

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