Hey, retirees: Go and spend some money

  • Financial life planning should aim to limit end-of-life regrets, so spending in retirement can be as important as saving.
  • Research suggests American retirees are not spending enough to live out their lifelong dreams.
  • Retirees should balance quality life for themselves now with a large inheritance for heirs later.

Meeting with our clients is one of the best parts of my job. Many of our clients have been with us for several years, and our meetings are like conversations with old friends.

While we spend a good amount of time in our meetings reviewing portfolios and discussing financial issues that are affecting them, most of our time is spent catching up on what has occurred in their lives since our last meeting and making sure we are all prepared for whatever might happen in their future.

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Every client is different, and therefore every conversation is different, but there are also a number of similarities. A couple of meetings I had last week demonstrate how similar our conversations can be at times. In two separate meetings with two separate longtime clients, I had the same piece of advice: "Go spend some money" was my message to both.

That advice might sound funny coming from someone who makes a living by trying to get clients to save and invest for their future. But in these two cases, the advice was certainly appropriate. And based upon the report "Living Too Frugally? Economic Sentiment & Spending Among Older Americans," by Matt Fellowes, CEO of United Income, it's probably appropriate for a lot more people.

Both meetings I am referring to involved at least one spouse who is more than 80 years old. They are both still healthy, although both admit to starting to slow down a bit. The other thing they have in common is, both couples were very good savers through their working years and are very comfortable financially. Not rich, but comfortable. Both couples have nice-sized individual retirement accounts. And both are taking just enough from each to barely satisfy their required minimum distributions.

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My advice to go spend some money is based on my philosophy that because we get to go around only once in this life, we should limit the "I wish we would have …" thoughts before it's too late. A financial life-planning approach should aim to limit the regrets they may have at the end of life. "I wish we would have taken more family vacations," "I wish we would have traveled more," and "I wish we would have given more" are all examples of regrets.

I certainly understand the desire to keep a healthy level of funds available in the event of a long-term-care need. In fact, I support it. The time bomb ticking inside of anyone's financial plan is the potential for a long stay in a nursing home. So I'm not advocating they go on some wild spending spree. But I don't want them so concerned about a potential need that they miss out on what life has to offer.

The research report I mentioned earlier confirms that my clients are not unique in this regard. It suggests retirees are not spending enough in retirement to live out their lifelong dreams. The report indicates that, for a lot of seniors, a lack of confidence in future economic growth and their own financial well-being keeps them sitting on large portfolios.

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A study done by the University of Michigan for the Social Security Administration and the U.S. Commerce Department found that adults become less optimistic about future economic growth and financial health as they age. So they are less likely to spend their nest egg. The study also found wealth and investments generally grow as people age — so they are leaving behind large amounts of wealth when they pass away.

While leaving behind some wealth for your heirs is certainly not a bad thing, I would guess (or at least hope) most kids would prefer to see Mom and Dad live life in such a way as to have few regrets. So do some long-term-care planning and make sure you will be able to afford whatever care you may need as you grow older. Then go spend some money.

(Editor's note: This guest column originally appeared on Investopedia.)

— By Bob Rall, principal at Rall Capital Management

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