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The Dangerous Lies You Tell Yourself About Saving for Retirement


Financial health isn't just about crunching numbers. It's also about personal vigilance and facing sometimes difficult truths. Watch out for these self-deceptions.

The new start that can come with the turn of the calendar can be refreshing. All too often, however, we begin rather quickly to fall back onto the same patterns. I’ve written previously on the psychology of saving for retirement. It’s a topic I return to often, however, because how we think has a lot to do with how we save—or don’t save.

One of the behaviors we engage in when we don’t save is making excuses or developing rationalizations. These excuses come easily even to physicians, who generally earn well. There is no foolproof way to eliminate this excuse-making, but just being aware of the most common lies we tell ourselves can make us less likely to use them.

“I’ll save more when I earn more.” Perhaps you will, indeed. A typical earnings curve for physicians sees them earning the most in their late 40s and early 50s. While you can take advantage of catch-up contributions to a 401(k) or 403(b) plan in your 50s, the simple truth is that when you start saving—and how much—are the two biggest factors that will determine how much you have to retire on.

The trap is that as our income improves, so, generally, does our lifestyle. The mortgage and car payment may get larger as well. Our choices of goods and services may lean towards premium brands. Earning more doesn’t always equate to having “extra” funds to set aside. So don’t tell this lie. Start saving what you can now.

“I’ll save more as soon as I get out of debt.” This excuse is among the more interesting ones, because there is some logical basis for it, particularly for physicians carrying a large load of medical school debt. This can be an excuse, though, that’s too easy to tell ourselves.

The key is to differentiate your “good debt” from “bad debt.” Keep making payments against good debt, but not at the price of your retirement savings. Address bad debt now.

Mortgage debt that is less than a quarter of your gross income is unlikely to be “bad” debt, unless you are paying an out-of-market interest rate for some reason. But credit cards in the tens of thousands of dollars should be paid off as soon as possible, because they are likely to carry high interest rates that will cost you in the long run.

“I don’t have time to devote to an investment strategy.” This is a bad lie. This is akin to saying your current self doesn’t have time to plan for your own future. It’s also an excuse that is really simple to overcome. Consider working with an advisor, or consider an investment vehicle designed for its ease of use, such as a mutual fund or lifecyle fund. Today’s retirement plan providers

including Fidelity, Vanguard, TIAA-CREF, and many others


ave made huge strides in making investing easier, such as providing online and in-person advice, self-management tools, easily available education, and many other resources that will enable you to put the investment basics in place with every little investment of time or requirement for expertise.

“It’s too late to get started now.” I saved the worst lie of all for last. It’s true that the later you start saving for retirement, the less you will ultimately have to live on, and the longer you may need to practice. But every dollar you invest counts, and you can’t let past sins dictate future decisions. With compounding interest and catch-up contributions allowed for older earners, it’s never too late to start an aggressive savings strategy.

Excuses abound, and they can be easier than making the sacrifices needed now to secure a better retirement. Your future self is counting on you right now.

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Victor J. Dzau, MD, gives expert advice
Victor J. Dzau, MD, gives expert advice