Saving for the future is storing energy for later

“Why hire it done when you can do it yourself?” This is a common money belief for frugal people, who often spend weekends doing home maintenance chores. Or, in my case, haunting the neighborhood with my sprayer in search of noxious weeds, like thistles and hound’s tongue.

One of my friends, a frugal do-it-yourselfer who is now in his 70s, was heading out of town to visit some friends. His wife reminded him that the gutters desperately needed cleaning. He considered delaying his trip, getting out the ladder, crawling up on the roof, and perching over the gutters to sweep the pine needles out with one hand while supporting his body weight and maintaining his balance with the other. “You know, maybe I’ll just ask you to call someone to do that.”

Not eager to see him crawling around on the roof herself, she quickly agreed. “Should I run the price by you?”

“No, just go ahead and hire someone.” Then, true to a lifetime of frugality, he added, “Unless it’s exorbitantly expensive?”

“Then what would you like me to do?”

He pondered for a moment, imagining returning home with the task still facing him. “On second thought, just go ahead and pay whatever it costs. At this point in my life, I have more money than energy.”

The late Dick Wagner once asked a group of us, “What is money?” I answered, “Energy.” “That’s a function of money, not a definition.” He went on to explain that money is a social agreement. Money is what society and governments say it is.

Still, I rather like the notion of money functioning as energy. Seen this way, saving money is similar to charging a battery, where energy is stored until it’s needed. When we’re young adults, we generally have less money but plenty of  time and energy to keep up with home maintenance and other life chores. As we have families, start businesses, care for loved ones, and grow older, it’s normal to have less time and energy to accomplish those mundane but essential tasks.

If you’re in your 20s and start investing routinely in a 401(k) plan, being able to afford to hire someone to do home maintenance chores probably is not one of your goals for the future. It isn’t something a financial advisor is likely to use as a motivator to persuade you to save 20% of your income. Typically, savings goals are much grander, like becoming financially independent, buying a second home, or traveling around the world.

Yet in many ways, having money to take care of everyday responsibilities is the most important reason to save for retirement. At some point, as you get older, you will start running low on energy. If you don’t have extra cash, your choices may be limited. Either you’ll be up there on the roof, risking your health to clean out the gutters yourself, or you simply won’t get it done.

If you do have money saved, you have the financial energy to replace your decreased physical energy. You can tap into the energy you have stored in the form of money. You can still take care of all those essential life tasks; you just do it by writing a check for someone else to do the work.

If you’re young and energetic, you might think you’re investing to accumulate the financial means for future world cruises or a vacation home in the Bahamas. If you’re in your seventies, you may very well enjoy those rewards. Or you might be more grateful to your younger self because you have the funds to pay someone to clean out the gutters.

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