Talking about Retirement

A conversation with Jason Arias on the importance of talking more about retirement in our communities.

Paweł Czerwiński

Jason Arias has lived in Portland for thirty years and recently relocated to the coast. He has worked as a food courier, bus cleaner, DMV records consolidator, lithography product deliveryman, photo developer, cashier, warehouse worker, UPS loader, EMT, paramedic, firefighter, Lyft driver, specimen collector, and writer. For Oregon Humanities, he has written about family, aging, and his work as an EMT. We asked him what people don’t talk about enough when it comes to work and money. Here’s what he had to say.

Oregon Humanities: When you think about work and money, what’s one thing that people don’t talk about enough?

Jason Arias: I’m painfully aware that the answer I’ll give is highly influenced by where I’m currently at in my life and the changing realities of retirement within the American workforce. So, I’m going to preface my answer with some brief perspective.

I’ll be forty-two years old this January and I’ve been working since I was sixteen. Over those twenty-six years I’ve held more than ten different jobs. My hope is to retire from my current job in about fifteen years (that’s if PERS—the Public Employees Retirement System—is still around), and probably do some part-time jobbing to compensate for medical expenses into my mid-sixties (that’s if Medicare and Social Security are still around).

Now, contrast that with my grandfather, who worked the last thirty-five years of his work life at City Market (a grocery store in Colorado) as a clerk and stocker and retired in his sixties with Social Security, Medicare, and a pension. Yeah, I know! He received a pension from stocking shelves at a supermarket. Today, unless you work for a government entity, a comprehensive retirement plan is almost unheard of. And with the current attacks on PERS systems nationwide, who knows how long even that will be around. The bottom line is that people are already finding it harder to retire and it’s forecasted to continue to trend that direction.

So, the one thing I think we need to talk more about, early on and throughout our work life, is retirement planning.

Trust me, I know how boring that sounds.

The last couple of years I’ve been asking everybody who’s coming close to retirement at my work two questions: “What should I be doing?” and “What would you have done differently?”

I know there are three things you’re not supposed to talk about at work, and money is one of them. But, here’s the thing, I didn’t start truly taking advantage of things like 401K matches until well into my thirties, because we didn’t talk about money at home growing up and we didn’t talk about money at work. And, yeah, better late than never. But where compound interest is concerned, it’s always best to be in early. Always.

So, in the spirit of others learning from my mistakes, and at the risk of boring the living hell out of my kids, I did talk to them about my basic understanding of benefit savings and retirement plans. Now they’re contributing to their futures in ways I didn’t early on. 

What initially helped you get over the hurdle of asking about what you feel you’re not supposed to? What's been the reaction from your coworkers and kids to these conversations?

Yeah, actually, other people piggy-backed me over those hurdles. There were some coworkers who were coming up on retirement who wanted the younger generation to know about the opportunities and benefits that our union had worked hard to obtain for us. These were near-retirees who had met with their PERS advisors and now had clearer pictures of how it would all play out at the end of their careers. They found out what they’d done right and what they’d missed out on, sometimes because they weren’t aware of it, sometimes because they put it on the back burner for too long and they wanted to make sure we had a clear understanding of the things we could do. Some of these people had always had a great grasp on savings and just wanted to pass that information on. We also have strong union leadership and shop stewards  disseminating this kind of information down to us at my job. So really, all these other people pushed that hurdle clean over and left the door open for me.

What they taught me was that your fellow coworkers and union leaders (if you’re lucky enough to have a union) usually have the best grasp on opportunities that you might not know about, but probably should. Every workplace has a different benefits package that’s afforded to them. And so long as you’re not asking people how much they make, their personal finances, or specifics about how much they put away, most people are pretty open to discussing retirement avenues you might not know about. It’s amazing just how much some people know.

I’ve told my sons all of the above, but we’ve mostly kept it pretty simple. I don’t want to get their eyes glazing over. I remember being younger and thinking I had forever to get things situated. And that’s true, to a degree. Live a little, you know? But we’ve always talked about how debt can be an albatross since they were young, so if you’re going to incur it, make sure it’s important.

When each of our boys got their first jobs, in their teen years, we sat down and went over their benefits with them. Since a lot of that’s pretty dry, and a picture can speak a thousand words, I’d find one of those compound interest graphs on the internet that shows “Suzy” investing for only the first ten years of her career and ending up with more money in retirement than “Bob” who started late and saved for the entire last thirty years of his career. And they’d nod accommodatingly, and my mind would still be blown. I still wish I’d started earlier.

I’d tell the boys, while trying to help them understand their benefits, “As soon as you’re able to contribute to a money match account with your employer, make sure to do it. That’s free money, man!”

Who knows how much information actually makes it into your kids psyche? Sometimes they have more going on than I do. But I feel like that’s how life osmosis is: the more you’re exposed to something, the more it seeps in, the easier it becomes for you to grasp. And both boys started their 401K matches. That has to be a good sign. Our younger son is moving to a different job, so he’ll have to transfer his, but he knows what to look for and ask about at the next job. Our older boy is six years into his match, he can’t believe how much money is already in there. He bought a condo out in Gresham and just narrowly escaped the recent rent hikes.

My wife and me, our boys, we’ll probably never be rich. But it’s not about that. I only hope we can be comfortable enough to enjoy our time here, and that when my sons have families, they’ll be comfortable, and so on and so forth. I just hope they’ll never have to be stressed about something as stupid as money. That’s my whole goal. 

You were helped by others along the way to get a better understanding of retirement planning, and you're doing the same for your children. Where did the people you learned from learn their knowledge from? How do you see class interacting with knowledge about retirement savings and investments? What resources should exist for people who don't have elders in their lives who are knowledgeable about retirement?

Good question. And really, this is getting to the crux of it all.

I work in a field that draws from a variety of socioeconomic pools. I personally come from a poverty background, like some of my coworkers, while other coworkers come from middle- to upper-middle class families, and possibly beyond. I think there are two ways to acquire skill and knowledge—through self-study and apprenticeship. Either way is beneficial, but the combination is probably the best. And often the apprentice trumps the autodidact.

There’s something to being raised around people handling anything with trained hands. I suspect there is a similar osmotic factor in play with the majority of people I know who understand money the most fluidly. I think this proximity factor attributes to the class gap when it comes to understanding investment opportunities.

I’m going to address that gap anecdotally, as a poor person who found himself in middle-class shoes and is still trying to learn how to dance in them. Anybody can spend (or save) their money unwisely. But I have this theory that the tighter money was when you were growing up, the more apt you are to fall into what I think of as the feast or famine mentality around money.

An example of feast mentality is getting a small windfall of money and hosting a party for family and friends with all of it. (There is also something to be said for the great amount of altruism that is found in poor communities, but that’s for another discussion.)

An example of the famine side is holding on to your money so tightly that it doesn’t end up working for you and can even become a liability. Sometimes the famine mentality looks like money buried in backyard Mason jars or hidden in walls and furniture. Insurance companies only cover so much cash lost in a fire (and it’s not much), none of this money is accumulating interest, and how are your loved ones going to find that money if something happens to you?

I think both the feast and the famine mentalities toward money come from a belief that money is naturally elusive, so you either have to covet and trap it or you need to use it up quickly on tangibles before it disappears.

Earlier in life I was probably more of a Feaster. I had no idea about investing in anything.

When we were in our twenties, my wife had to talk me into buying our first house. My family had always rented. Her family had always owned. In my mind, buying a house was just throwing money away that we could use on other things. Signing the paperwork for that $90,000 home off 92nd felt like the hardest, most stressful thing I’d done up to that point. Today you can’t buy any abode (including a studio) in Portland for that amount of money.

I’ve struggled with trusting money. I have friends and family who struggle with trusting money. I think it’s a balance between playing it safe and taking calculated risk.

It would be great if there was some kind of government-funded education for everybody on responsible ways to invest. It would be amazing if it was part of every student’s curriculum. Let’s keep pushing for these things, but let’s not wait for someone else to finally decide to bring it to our communities.

A couple months ago we were talking at the dining room table when my Lieutenant said, “There are some people around us that really understand money. Why aren’t we all talking more about money?”

And he’s right. Why aren’t we all talking more about this? I think the best resources we have are each other. You can’t necessarily take everyone at their word, because some people think they have more knowledge than they actually do, and others are trying to sell you something. But having open conversations about money is a great jumping-off point. Let’s leave all the salaries and personal information out of it, and not get involved in any pyramid schemes, but let’s talk as a community about how we can become more comfortable with finances, and about what options are out there and how to teach our kids about them.

You’ve brought up leaving “the salaries and personal information out” of these conversations about retirement and investment a few times—it sounds like that makes starting these conversations about money easier. But wealth and debt can often play a large part in what people are able to invest towards their retirement, even with similar salaries. What does it mean when we leave this personal information out of conversations about money and retirement? Do you see a way to have these conversations that is inclusive of personal information and salaries?

You bring up a good point. I should probably clarify—I’m not against people going into more financial details with anybody they trust; that’s definitely the more comprehensive and personally applicable way to approach it, but I think that the word “trust” is key here. You’re more apt to talk about what you do or don’t have, financially, the more confident you are that other’s judgement won’t be a factor. I think group discussions with in-depth levels of debt and financial detail can be off-putting to many people. It was for me. And I’m sure that held me back. Earlier in this conversation we talked about how money can be intrinsically tied up with emotion, but it can also have heavy ties to virtue and ton of other things.

Personally, I felt a lot of shame as a poor kid; it was hard to accept any kind of charity. I still have a hard time asking for help in general. I was ashamed of the complete lack of savings and the amount of debt I had for a good portion of my adulthood. The flip side of that coin is that once my wife and I were able to become more financially stable, I felt guilty that I couldn’t pull all my people out of their financial struggles. And those are just the class issues I had around money.

Now, couple all of that with the thought of sharing an in-depth analysis of my debt and spending habits. I just wasn’t ready to have conversations on that many levels with anyone except my wife. But the details often hold the keys to your shackles. So, together my wife and I did it the hard way, we didn’t share specifics or get advice from others about how to do this. We collected some generalities, fumbled through found ideas (like having money envelopes) and took a hard look at how the money we had coming in was being spent. We made mistakes together, and did some things right, and curbed our spending so that we were eventually able to make bigger cuts to our debt while still being able to put some kind of money toward retirement. It took patience and commitment and would have probably been easier with outside input. It might not have been the best way to do it, but I’m glad we did something. Without taking the time to cultivate a plan there is no way we’d have naturally made the changes that were necessary to even think about saving. We still work off an allowance system when it comes to our spending.

That journey out of debt is almost always more than just about money. It’s about understanding how you ended up there, the sacrifice it takes to get out, and realizing that we are creatures of habit, comfort, and dreams—things that are rarely free in America.

If you’re like me and aren’t ready to go into that level of detail with people outside of their immediate family, there are books about spending within your means and, I think, even financial counselors. If you have someone personal in your life you can confide in, then do. 

Another alternative to sharing your debt versus income information with your work or social circle is to sit down with a financial advisor. I used to think that kind of thing was just for rich people. But if you have any kind of retirement fund (IRA, 401K, etc.) you probably have access to a trained financial advisor that you should be able to sit with for free. The caveat is that even these people might try to sell you on something that’s not right for you at this time, but you can at least get a better grasp on options available to your specific situation.

Thinking about the trust needed to have these conversations and the desire to pass on this knowledge to others, how would you recommend folks start this conversation about retirement with their communities?

I think the key to establishing trust in any potentially difficult conversation is to approach the subject at hand with humility and compassion. This is just as much a kindness to yourself as it is to others. In the theme of our conversation, that means taking the time to understand where your biases and assumptions may lie surrounding the idea of money before you start that conversation.

You have to make space within your own definition of “money” for new understanding. It’s helpful if you can open yourself up to the possibility that you could have gotten it wrong. For example, it took me until later in life to realize how much of an impact the phrase “Money is the root of all evil,” had on me subconsciously. I didn’t have a good relationship with money or, for that matter, people who I assumed had money. I figured “rich people” didn’t care about “poor people.” If money was the root of all evil, then what did that make those who had reserves of it? So, I had to wrap my head around the fact that money wasn’t necessarily the problem. That money, like a hammer or a screwdriver, was just a substance that could either be used as a weapon or a tool. I had to admit that money wasn’t inherently evil. 

I know that all sounds kind of silly, but there is power in the things we hear and the things we tell each other that sinks to a level we aren’t always consciously aware of. So, be open to the idea that you don’t have the full story. That you may never know the full story. Be hungry to fill in some of the blanks in that story as a way to improve the financial realities of yourself and the people around you.

That self-work may be the hardest part about these conversations. Because after you’ve dealt with your own biases and assumptions, it just comes down to being honest about where you are and where you want to be. Start asking people how you can achieve that. What kinds of things did they do, are they doing, do they hope to do? Share what you learn in these conversations with your kids and friends and neighbors. Ask follow-up questions or look up terms you’re unfamiliar with—what is a mutual fund? When you have information to share with others, be mindful of the words you use. It’s usually better to suggest what someone “could” do, rather than tell them what they “should” do. That word “should” can be one of the most off-putting words in the English language. Realize that no matter how much you learn, there’s a high likelihood you’ll never know it all. And that’s okay, we’re all just trying to do the best we can with the resources at hand.

Comments

2 comments have been posted.

Yes, retirement is an important topic, especially if you are still young enough to do something about it. I am 74 and women in my generation were generally relegated to clerking type jobs that had no retirement potential. We actually thought Social Security was our retirement and had no idea about how the disparity between men's and women's wages could affect a woman at retirement. We were encouraged to marry and plan on our husband's success being our retirement, but the high divorce rage in my generation changed that for many of us. Most of us did not think about our retirement, nor were we encouraged to do so. Government jobs were the best for retirement, but not achieved by many of us. I hope all young men and women plan in some way or another to have a decent retirement during their aging process. It is not a time to try and find the energy to continue working, assuming anyone will even hire you.

Josephine Cooper | February 2020 | Portland, OR

I can really relate to this experience and perspective. My eyes didn’t glaze over one bit. This is an important conversation to be having and I’m grateful for the information and the prompt!

Lucia | February 2020 | Portland by way of eastern Oregon

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