I’m My Own Knight in Shining Armor

By Mariette

(Every Monday, Mariette will share what she’s learning about retirement. Enjoy!)

I’d never thought about saving for retirement before, it just wasn’t on my radar. I also figured the chances are that I won’t retire – that was my retirement vision, I would just work until the end and since I’m an artist it didn’t seem too onerous a task. I woke up when I was diagnosed with Uterine Cancer last year, I’m 39. My prognosis is excellent, the chances that I will die from this are very slim, less then 10%, but it has certainly made me re-evaluate my life and my choices. Fortunately I had health insurance.

I had no real sense of what growing old can mean, what having a serious illness can mean and how debt can really be crippling. I think that is fairly common for people of my generation (Gen X) and younger. It isn’t until most people are in their late 30’s (there are exceptions to this of course,) when they start to get a sense of their mortality and what that might mean for them – then they start scrambling. I’m now reading all kinds of finance self-help books and every personal finance blog out there to try to sort it all out!

I’ve managed to live my life debt-free, albeit paycheck-to-paycheck until a couple of years ago when I lived in New York City. I was trying to survive (all the stories about the expense of living in Manhattan are true) and still have money to make my video shorts and travel a bit while working in arts administration jobs, which didn’t pay very well. In short I was living beyond my means and new it. I wasn’t extravagant by any means, and managed to resist the consumerist culture of that city to an admirable degree, but I wasn’t living anywhere near as frugal as I could have been, and as I have done in the past. I was extremely resistant to living any differently, even though I was miserable and knew better, so I didn’t budget myself or scrimp as much as I needed. I had a bad case of denial.

I couldn’t keep on like that though, it was wearing me down too much, so eventually I bit the bullet and got a high paying Executive Assistant job at a Private Equity firm to start paying down my debt, and conveniently the company had a matching 401K plan. Despite my lack of retirement planning enthusiasm I enrolled in the 401K anyway – hey free money – it seemed like a no-brainer.

When I was presented with the paperwork and investment options I was overwhelmed. I didn’t understand any of it, which funds would be best to enroll in, how to interpret the prospectuses and statements, and the retirement calculator seemed simplistic and mostly useless. It didn’t seem relevant to my life since it didn’t account for change. And if there is one thing I have learned it’s that everything changes – it’s the one thing absolutely inevitable in this life. So I ignored the calculator and just saved the maximum percent of my income that that my company would match (6%.) I didn’t really take it that seriously though, apart from the free money. I certainly didn’t look at it as the start of a serious approach to saving for retirement.

I also think that deep down I still didn’t think I’d need to worry about retirement or financial planning. I figured a windfall would come my way somehow (I was rather vague on the how,) or my handsome and rich savior was just around the corner and that my financial worries about debt and my future would be whisked away. There was no real reason for me to think that, I certainly didn’t have a history of rich boyfriends. I’ve been independent all my life and I’ve never been a serial dater who depends on a man to solve my problems for me. Most of the women I know aren’t like that; in fact I’m not sure how many women think like that these days, I’d be interested to know. So consciously I knew that I would have to figure this out myself, but that damsel in distress awaiting rescue archetype sure is powerful and she still was lurking back there in my subconscious whether I wanted her to or not. After all cultural archetypes have nothing to do with rationality. Like I said, getting sick changed all of that. The Cancer is gone now (yeah surgery) and I’m doing well.

Fortunately I had saved money at my job so I could move back to California to be closer to my family and concentrate on healing. But true healing involves more than the body, it’s also about the mind and part of that involves changing my attitudes about finances. Moving out of New York City is a good start, I also have to finish paying off my credit cards and school loans, replenish my emergency fund, think seriously about my retirement vision and learn more about how to save for retirement. I want to have options when I get older and I don’t want to be stuck financially if I get sick again. I’m actually looking forward to doing this. Change is good. First though I need to get a new job.

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