Upon entering the workforce in the early 2000s, I started to scratch my head over the idea of the American Dream and realized that things were not adding up. The theory goes that if you work hard, you can earn a living, buy a home, educate your children, and have a comfortable retirement when you hit your 60’s. What I had observed of my parents’ decades of work, financial choices and habits, and the benefits that accrued therefrom, were not and would not be what I would be able to access in my own life. While they saved their own money for retirement, as career school teachers, they also received comfortable retirement benefit packages from the state. I saw that my mother had to work several more years to be eligible to access those top-tier benefits, due to having taken time off to be at home with me and then my sister when we were born. There were periods when we went to daycare (which happened to be on a working dairy farm – how cool is that?!), but my mother never earned as much as my father, even as they both taught in the same school district.
Here we see the gender disparities in yes, income, but more importantly, wealth building. In America, women are penalized financially for taking time to raise the next generation by needing to work longer to achieve the same benefits offered to men, who are rewarded for their consistent years of service. Or at least they were. As my father was retiring, he was offered a benefit package that, he realized, made it more advantageous for him to stop working than to continue. The state school system was in transition. They were hiring teachers at lower salaries and benefit packages and wanted to get those with tenure off the books as soon as possible. We saw this phenomena happen across the country, in one industry after another. Middle class (and generally white male, if we’re being honest) career workers who were committed to one company were rewarded. Yet, starting in the 1970s, companies began shifting the responsibility of providing retirement savings from the institution to the worker – without providing the extra income to shoulder this new responsibility. (Now we’re seeing the same shifts in the burden for paying for health insurance.) I realized that my parents were beneficiaries of a system which would not be benefiting me in the same way. It was a slow and quiet realization… but what to do? Save $5,000 a year in an IRA? At best, that would only get me a quarter of the way to a decently funded $80,000/year life-style in retirement. As I said, it wasn’t adding up. For the time being, I tried not to think too much about it, as it gnawed away in the back of my mind.
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