EDITOR’S PAGE How to Retire at 55, or 65, or Sometime

Plus: The Awesome Power of the Mentioners

One day a few weeks ago I was supposed to meet my wife and daughter at NorthPark. I got there late and couldn’t find them at the appointed place. Looking for a telephone, I asked a passing shopper if he had the time.

The guy didn’t even stop walking. “I’m retired,” he beamed. “Don’t wear a watch. Don’t give a damn what time it is.”

And off he went, oozing confidence, strolling serenely into his future. For somerea-son I recalled a New Yorker cartoon in which one smiling commuter tells his worried-looking companion: “I’d love to empathize with your tale of grief, Bob, but I just took a mood elevator! “

If you’re not already following a sound, intelligent savings and investment plan of your own, “How to Retire at 55” by Mary Candace Evans (page 62) is chockfull of good advice. And if you’re already well on your way to that endless weekend without clocks, you may get a small frisson of self-satisfaction from reading about all the ways you haven’t screwed up. The story certainly caused me to reflect on my own family’s investment decisions, which I can’t say were arrived at with anything like the discipline and study that experts urge.

For almost a year, our action plan for investment success went like this: Every few days we would get a shipment of junk mail from various financial savants, investment gurus, and mutual fund companies, announcing that millions of real people like us had entrusted their money to them and had gone on to financial bliss. The companies all wore solid, dependable, almost patriotic names; their literature was studded with allusions to liberty and trust and other good things.

Staring at the junk mail, one of us would say that it was really time to get that money out of the bank and invest it in something. Then we would leave the brochures and letters on the kitchen table for a few days. Then we’d add them to the already sizable stack on the living room table, each secretly hoping that the other one would break down and actually read the blasted things, which are not exactly written in the style of John Updike.

The good news is we never had to read any of them. As it turned out, we discovered that an acquaintance of my wife’s sold mutual funds. He came to the house one evening with his own brochures and charts and a laptop computer. He explained all we could stand to hear. When our eyes began to glaze over we wrote him a check, and for the last couple of years our money has “performed” (love that word) nicely, building up the nest egg better than any basic bank savings account would have done.

Alas. Evans’ story reminds me that we haven’t done enough. And today in the mail comes another cold shot: An investment newsletter declares that anyone hoping to embark on a “dignified retirement” at age 65 should put away at least $500,000. (I’ve seen other figures as high as $1.5 million). The real enemy, of course, is procrastination. Start saving at age 35, and you can reach the half-mill mark by saving a mere $510.59 per month {assuming a 6 percent net annual rate of return compounded monthly). Wait until 40 to get started, and you’ll have to put away $735.75 a month to reach that dignified retirement. And if you’ve been a grasshopper rather than an ant until age 50-well, take a deep breath; You’ll need to save a whopping $1,097.34 per month to reach Happy Valley with a half-million in the bank. This dignity is expensive stuff.

DURING THE HOLIDAY SEASON, IN A MOOD of bipartisan cooperation, I attended parties given by members of opposing political faiths. The two parties took place on the same evening, which threw into sharp relief the very different moods prevalent at each. At one bash, confident wine-sippers brandished fried artichokes as they made emphatic points: “No way we’re gonna lose that seat. No way.” At the other, a more subdued affair, the morose figure of Defeat could be seen nibbling uncertainly at a chicken-based hors d’oeuvre, a spot of mustard on his tie: “We could sweep the entire West Coast and still lose,” he said between bites.

The party parties drew elected officials, former elected officials, political consultants, media people, and candidates-“Hopefuls,” in headline talk-who would soon become either elected officials or, worst case scenario, losers. Also present at both parties were a number of as-yet-undeclared candidates. During the evening they clustered around a small scale such as you might see in a jewelry store, weighing their options. Festive red and green trial balloons floated over the crowd, though some were quickly shot down.

As always, hovering near these almost-Hopefuls were the Mentioners, those invaluable yet shadowy operatives whose job it is to push, while never seeming to push, possible candidates whose names can then be “bandied about” by the media. (Among other vital tasks, the Mentioners, in conjunction with political reporters, make sure that words like “bandied” and “hustings” and “war chest” don’t pass into oblivion,)

The Mentioners’ main function, however, is to preserve the hierarchy of importance among the political tribes. At the top of the heap, of course, are those who have run for office and won. Next in honor, you might think, would be the Noble Losers, those voices crying in the wilderness who fought the good fight and carried the banner and kept the faith. Not so. Second place (forgive the inside baseball) belongs to the Mentioned. Veteran politicos will tell you, after insisting on anonymity, that the Mentioned are the luckiest of all.

“There are people in this town,” one longtime Mentioner told me, “who don’t even want to run. They just want to be Mentioned. I mean, running is a hassle, It’s expensive, you get dragged through the mud.you have todeal with the media. And even if you win, not that much changes. The important thing is to be Mentioned as somebody who might run. Then you’ve got it all. You’re golden.”


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