(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, October 7.)
I recently passed a personal milestone. I became a superannuitant.This entitles me to a Super Gold card and all the public transport perks that go with it.
A friend of mine, obviously with far too much time on his hands, worked out that I could travel from my home in the Wairarapa to Waiheke Island for $49.This would involve catching an off-peak train to Wellington, getting on a bus to Wellington Airport – all for nothing – then catching a cheap Jetstar flight to Auckland.
From Auckland Airport I could catch a bus free of charge to the downtown terminal, from where it would be a short walk to catch a ferry – again, at no cost – to Waiheke. The only cost to me would be the $49 Jetstar ticket.All very interesting (and thank you Winston Peters), but what my friend failed to explain is why I should want to go to Waiheke in the first place.
I’ve been there and while it’s very pretty, I got the distinct impression that the principal objective of Waiheke islanders is to relieve mainlanders of as much of their money as possible in the shortest time available, and often without so much as a smile. (Old Chinese proverb: If you find it difficult to smile, do not open a shop.)Putting all that aside, turning 65 does seem a life-changing event. A sum of money mysteriously turns up in my bank account every fortnight without my having done anything to earn it.
This a novel and strangely liberating experience. It means that for the first time in my life, if I were prepared to live frugally, I could possibly get by without working.I don't intend to dwell here on the affordability issue, but my view, for what it’s worth, has long been that the age of entitlement for national super should be progressively raised, given that people are living and working longer. Of course I would say that, having reached 65 myself.
I certainly intend to go on working while I can. But I also think there’s merit in the idea that people whose bodies are worn out after a lifetime of hard physical work should be allowed to retire earlier than 65 in return for a lower super payment.
As to whether superannuation should be means-tested, as it is in Australia, I’m not so sure.The problem with that idea is that it penalises people who have made provision for their retirement by saving. This usually means denying themselves things they might otherwise have enjoyed.
Conversely, means testing could have the perverse effect of incentivising people not to save or acquire assets, knowing that the state will look after them. So, on balance: no, it would send the wrong signals. Slackers could be rewarded and the diligent penalised. What sort of message is that?
But never mind the big policy questions. Having reached 65 myself, I face a far more immediate personal dilemma – one that confronts almost every person of my age.Do we carefully try to conserve whatever we’ve managed to save, keeping a tight rein on spending in the knowledge that we might need it to supplement national superannuation well into the future, or do we make the best of whatever time we’ve got?
Put more bluntly, should we scrimp or live it up?The complicating factor is that none of us know how much time we have left. Over the past few years I have seen too many friends and relations – people of roughly my own age – get sick and die.
Only recently a friend and former colleague went into hospital for what should have been routine surgery. Unforeseen complications developed, as a result of which she died weeks later.She and her recently retired husband were still active and looking toward to a full and rewarding life together. Almost overnight, everything changed.
Such stories are all too common. Inevitably, they encourage a fatalistic belief that we should live for today because we don’t know how many tomorrows we’ve got.Certainly, friends of mine who have survived life-threatening illnesses are in no doubt that we should make the most of life while we can.
It doesn’t help when we read “expert” assessments of how much we need to live comfortably in retirement. The sums I often see quoted are wildly unrealistic for most people. They can be hardly be blamed if they give a helpless shrug and ask themselves why they should bother even trying.At the other end of the scale I see anxious letters to financial advice columns from people who have accumulated very substantial savings and are plainly terrified that they might end their lives in penury.
This tends to confirm my long-held view that the more money you’ve got, the more you’re likely to fret that it isn’t enough.Fortunately we’re not presented with a stark choice between living a monastic existence of self-denial or going on a mad spending spree for fear that we might fall under a bus tomorrow. As with so many things in life, it’s a matter of balance and moderation.
There’s a sensible middle course and that’s the one I intend to take, if I’m allowed to by whatever mysterious forces control my life. It may mean forgoing a visit to Waiheke Island, but I can live with that.