The Consequences of Not Saving for Retirement: A Wake-Up Call

I ignored my retirement and now time is running out. I hope you learn from my mistakes.

Clay Ratliff
8 min readMay 14, 2023
Man staring at a forest. Image by Gencraft

I’m yet another average guy in the tech industry. I’m 55 years old. I was born in a tiny town in the middle of Arkansas at a time when, if you were extremely lucky, your middle school might have had a Tandy TRS-80 in the “Gifted and Talented” program that a handful of kids could use. When I became a senior in high school, our math class got about 8 IBM PCjr’s that were used to give an introduction to computer science.

I was extremely fortunate. I had great parents who worked their asses off to provide for my sister and me. I wish I’d known how lucky I was back then. I was fascinated by computers. I ranted and raved until at the ripe old age of 15, I found a Commodore 64 under the Christmas tree.

I was ECSTATIC! Forget those Trash-80s! PCjr? Screw that! I had my own computer and I was going to be a king!

Fast Forward a Few Decades

I did a lot of random stuff for a long time including trying to go to college, working in various emergency services, working at Yellowstone National Park, going into the military, and eventually, I stumbled into programming. While I was in the military my friends and I were avid fans of a MUD whose name has been lost to history.

I made a number of friends playing, including some of the Game Masters, while playing, although I’d never met them in real life. After I separated from the military, I‘d been talking to one of the GMs about the scripting language they used to create game events and he mentioned that the programmer working on the game was leaving and they had an opening.

Next thing you know, I interviewed for the job, took the offer, and moved to Massachusetts. It’s been around 30 years since I had that job, and although most of the details have long faded there are still a few things that I vividly remember.

  1. It was the beginning of my love affair with Linux
  2. My first experience as a white-collar office worker
  3. The feeling of standing in the bank, looking at that first check, and being stunned at how big it was

I think that check was around $1200.00. I wasn’t about to set the world on fire, obviously. The thing that I really remember was the feeling that someone like me had made so much money in two weeks. I was just some hick nerd from nowhere Arkansas. I’d never come close to seeing a check this large in my entire life. The thought that I could make that much money was life-altering.

The Birth of a Career

I dove into learning everything I could about creating and maintaining software. The company I started working for went under shortly after I started but I was off. I started taking contract work for 3, 6, 12 months at a time. I enjoyed the constant change, learning something entirely new all the time. I moved into consulting work where I got the best of both worlds, I was still changing projects fast enough to avoid boredom but had a salary and benefits.

I explored other areas of interest, sometimes I was a developer, sometimes an architect, a lead, networking, security, hopping from one thing to another. I eventually branched out into what I think of as “tech-adjacent” work. My primary roles began revolving around user relationships. User education, creating demos. Working in professional services, or as a solutions architect, these became my new normal.

Remember The Title of the Article?

This went on for decades. Then one day I woke up and realized that while I’d been busy bouncing from place to place, learning some new thing, that I’d never even considered there would be a time when I wouldn’t be doing that.

My wife had stopped working 10 years ago. I made plenty for the two of us and our unassuming lifestyle and her boss was a sleazy dirtbag who we both hated with a passion. She’d worked her entire life, raising 3 kids as a single mom. She deserved a break. She could always go back to work someplace else if she really wanted.

I had run around as my version of Peter Pan for decades until I grew up, and by the time I did, I was 52 years old and wondering what would life after work look like. I looked around to see how my wife and I would support ourselves and realized that I didn’t know.

Oh, I’d put some money away in various 401(k)’s here and there but I’d largely forgotten about them. When I tracked them all down and rolled them up into a single IRA I realized that we had nowhere near enough money to support ourselves in a post-corporate life.

I Was Living in Denial

The first thing I did was try to figure out how much we needed to survive without an income. We don’t live an extravagant lifestyle. We don’t travel for vacations, we don’t spend more than we make- we never even thought of buying a new car, we already had one, it had been paid off for many years, and the insurance was cheap. Why would we take on a new car payment? We didn’t carry credit card debt and both of us hate the idea of borrowing money from anyone for any reason. In short, we were already doing everything we were supposed to do to be financially secure. Yet somehow we weren’t nearly as secure as I thought we were.

Reality Strikes

Clearly, we hadn’t been doing everything that we should have. We lived within our means, we didn’t hold credit card debt, and we even saved and invested. So why weren’t we more prepared?

After puzzling over this for a bit we realized what we were doing wrong. In our minds, our house was our largest debt and our biggest asset. Stuffing that extra money into a savings account made no sense, but putting it into the house, both reduced our debt and increased the value of our largest asset. This was a colossal mistake.

We Failed to Think Critically

Yes, your home can be the largest single asset that most people own but it is not cash. More importantly, we viewed houses as an investment. I house may be an asset but it is absolutely not an investment. A house is only an investment if you plan to see it. If you have no definite plans to sell it, it’s not an investment. A bit of applied critical thinking would have let us see this.

Culturally and historically, we tend to equate home ownership with wealth. This is reflected in everything from tax policies that treat it as a primary means of growing wealth, to data that shows that homeowners have more in savings. While this can certainly be a means to build wealth, it’s primarily a byproduct of having more control over your expenses. Yes, it’s an asset, and therefore your equity counts as part of your wealth. It certainly makes it easier to save money because you aren’t worried about your rent increasing every time your lease is up. But unless you’re planning on selling it, you’re never going to make money from it. It’s not an investment.

We threw enough money into extra mortgage payments to cut the term of our loan in half. If we had ingested that extra money instead, we would have generated more money than the contents of my current feeble IRA.

The Greatest Error

Throwing money at the mortgage wasn’t my biggest error though. The greatest error that I committed isn’t complicated. It’s just common.

I simply didn’t realize the importance of planning ahead. I have a ton of different excuses. All of them stupid, some of them dizzyingly stupid. Let’s look at some examples.

When I was young I took stupidly took risks and lived a crazy lifestyle and just didn’t expect to live this long. Why plan for it? Even if I live that long, I have decades to figure it out. My parents found a way to do it and I’m much smarter than they are, how hard can it be? If it had been that big a deal they would have said something (not that I would have listened, I’m much smarter than them, remember?).

And then there’s always human behavior. Technically it’s called “present bias” but what it really means is, if it’s not in my face, it’s not important. And it can sound pretty good at that moment. Here’s an example.

Getting my engine tuned extends its life, which saves me money in the long run. I can make up for not putting that money into a savings account or investment account later on down the road.

Except that’s not true. What’s missing from that calculation is time. Time is an all-important part of the equation that most people never notice. Investing $10 now is not the equivalent of investing $10 10 years from now. Going back to the tune-up example, assuming you’re getting a tune-up every 30k miles as commonly recommended, Those $500 dollars you spend on the tune-ups to extend the life of your engine by a few years is actually the equivalent of more like $4,400 with a return rate of 7% after 10 years, a reasonable expectation for the life of the vehicle.

I don’t think anyone expects a 7% return rate from the market anytime soon, but that’s not the point. It’s the anytime soon part that’s important. Barring a total government collapse, the market will bounce back, even if it takes 10 years to do it, and that’s OK. You’d be the recipient of insane growth if you invested during that 10-year fire sale.

Don’t Make My Mistake

When I was a kid, you had to talk to a broker to open an investment account. You also had to have money. I know because I briefly thought about investing when I was in my early teens and called a broker to ask how much it would take to invest. That conversation lasted about 5 minutes and convinced me that only rich people could ever invest. To his credit, the broker was sympathetic to my plight and answered all my questions but that was the end of any actual idea I had of investing.

That excuse doesn’t exist today. Schwab, Fidelity, JP Morgan, Merril, ETrade, Robinhood, and a ton more offer accounts with a minimum of $0. Acorns allow you to open an account and invest based on rounding up the price of your normal purchases. The amount is so tiny you’ll never even miss it. Investing has never been easier and if investing is the route you want to go, you’re an idiot if you don’t start now. If you don’t want to invest, find another way to put your spare money to work growing. Just don’t be me. Don’t make my mistakes.

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Clay Ratliff

Looking for our dreams in the second half of our lives as a novice sailors as we learn to live on our floating home SV Fearless