It was All Hallows' Eve, and Ebenezer Splurge had settled down for a long autumn's nap, when up from his attic there arose such a clatter, that he sprang from his bed to see what was the matter.
"What are all these Christmas references doing in a Halloween story?" Ebenezer said aloud as he climbed the stairs to the attic.
"Because Christmas is the scariest time of year for you, Ebenezer Splurge -- an excuse to spend, spend, spend!" screeched the flowing, white apparition that hovered at the top of the stairs. "Not to mention the fact that this is really a ghost story."
The sudden appearance of the vision nearly sent Splurge spiraling backward. The spirit had the face of a child but the body of an old man, wrapped in a translucent robe adorned with hundreds of weightless price tags that billowed in all directions.
"What do you want with me, Spirit?" cried Ebenezer, trembling, but then added, "And where did you get that cool coat? Is that some sort of sheer silk or something? I'll give you a hundred bucks for it."
"Silence!" howled the spirit. "I am the ghost of purchases past, Ebenezer. Come see how much you've wasted on things you no longer value." The spirit beckoned Splurge to enter the attic. He obliged, and the specter's glow illuminated piles upon piles of baubles, trinkets, and folderol -- items that at one time seemed like a good use of resources, but now only gathered dust.
"So what?" said Ebenezer. "Who doesn't have a bunch of junk in their attic? I work hard for my money, and I deserve to use it however I want."
"Then work you will -- for the rest of your life," answered the spirit, "because you spend everything you make, and then some, never thinking about saving for retirement."
"Save for retirement? Now? Phooey! That's at least 20 years away," said Ebenezer, as he picked through his collection of Rubik's cubes, Atari game cartridges, and singing mounted fish.
"Fool!" yelled the ghost, saying it in such a way as to be clear that he was not implying that Ebenezer had any familiarity with The Motley Fool, but rather, that Ebenezer was an idiot. "Do you realize how much money you'd have if you invested your money instead of spent it? Why, you could've had thousands of dollars by the time you were 65 if you bought stocks instead of your complete collections of Michael Jackson and Boy George albums!"
"Um. they were gifts," protested Ebenezer.
"Don't lie to a ghost. I wasn't born yesterday, you know. Technically, I was never born."
"OK, OK," said Ebenezer. "So I've made some silly purchases in the past. But you remember how cool 'Thriller' was back then -- you look like you could've been in the video. And really, how much could someone have by just giving up a few purchases here and there?"
"I'll let the next ghost tell that story," said the spirit, as it headed for the ceiling. "Right now, I'm off to haunt M.C. Hammer again..."
"What?! I have to see another one of you? When will I get some sleep?" said Ebenezer, but the spirit vaporized through the walls, its faint voice singing "Can't Touch This" as it faded into the night.
Ebenezer departed the attic, and slid between his 1,000-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets. He had barely fallen asleep when he was startled awake by a creature standing by his bed. At first, he couldn't tell if it was a man, woman, neither, or both. But then he realized why: The apparition kept changing shape. At first, it looked like Orville Redenbacher, then it morphed into Jared the formerly fat Subway spokesperson, then it was the Joe Boxer dancing guy, and then Ronald McDonald, mumbling, "Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese."
Splurge sprung from his bed and ran for the door, but phantom, now in the shape of the Jolly Green Giant, blocked his way, saying, "I am the ghost of purchases present, and I will show you how you're wasting your retirement right now. Ho, ho, ho."
"Listen, I appreciate that you care about my future and all that," said Ebenezer, inching toward his window. "But I don't have any money to save right now. Come back when I get my tax refund."
"Wrong!" thundered the visitor, who transformed into a balding supermarket manger. "And don't squeeze the Charmin!"
"Really," said Ebenezer. "I have trouble paying off my credit card, let alone saving for retirement."
"Hogwash," yelled the ghost as it turned into a short old lady. "Take a look at all your recurring expenses: XM Satellite Radio, Netflix, TiVo, a cell phone from Verizon, cable and high-speed Internet from Comcast, sports packages from DirecTV. Where's the beef?"
"You know," said Ebenezer, slowing opening his window, "for a ghost from the present, you're channeling some pretty old commercials."
"Then see if this suits you," said the spirit, who took on the shape of David Spade. "Those expenses alone are costing you $3,000 a year. And that's after-tax money. You have to earn $4,000 in order to spend that much. What's in your wallet?"
"Not much, actually," admitted Ebenezer. "But what can saving a few grand do for my retirement?"
"Sock away $4,000 a year in a tax-advantaged retirement account, and in 20 years you could have almost $200,000, assuming an 8% annual return," replied the spook, who was now was in the shape of another young blond guy. "Dude, you could get a Dell!"
"OK, I got the point. I'll, um, get rid of a few movie channels or something."
"You clearly are not getting the point, but I must be leaving now. Perhaps the next spirit will change your mind," said the ghost. "And pardon me, but would you have any Grey Poupon?"
"Sorry, man. I'm fresh out. And I don't have any Palmolive, either, so you can keep Madge to yourself."
"Suit yourself, Ebenezer," said the ghost, transforming into a Chihuahua and bounding through the open window, yelping "Yo quiero Taco Bell!" on the way out.
Flustered, Ebenezer closed his window and collapsed on his bed. He fell asleep mightily disturbed by the spirit's visit, yet also thankful the creature didn't transform into a pitchman for a product that can cause gas with oily discharge.
But he wasn't asleep for long. When he awoke, he wasn't in his bed, but standing at the entrance of a gargantuan store, wearing a blue, red, and orange vest, and standing beneath a banner that read, "Welcome to General-Wal-Target-K-Mart-Depot-Electric!" Except this was like no store he had ever seen. The ceiling was a hundred yards above him, with aisles stacked just as high with products. The shoppers zipped up and down the store on floating carts. Ebenezer found himself using a machine to scan the eyeballs of the shoppers as they entered. Then, with horror, it struck Ebenezer: He was a greeter at a discount warehouse store in the future.
Just as the weight of the realization fell upon him, a shopper dressed in a black robe and hood entered. Ebenezer instinctively brought the scanning device toward the shopper's head, but then realized the visitor did not have a face.
"Are you the ghost of purchases yet to come?" he asked. The faceless head said not a word (what would you expect from something without a mouth?), but Ebenezer took from its nodding that this was so.
"How can this be possible? Can all my past purchases lead me to this job, where I must help other people with their future purchases? What about Social Security?" Ebenezer protested frantically.
The figure in black began to shake, and though it made no sound, Ebenezer could tell it was laughing as if Ebenezer had just said he saw Santa Claus dancing with the Tooth Fairy.
"Tell me, Spirit," Ebenezer Splurge pleaded, "are these the shadows of the things that will be, or are they shadows of things that may be, only?''
The phantom then handed a card to Ebenezer. As he looked at it, the spirit, the store, the natty vest all dissolved. Splurge found himself back in his bed -- but the card was still in his hand. It read, "Past visions are not necessarily indicative of future results."
Splurge looked out his window. It was morning. He ran to the window, opened it, and looked out. A young boy was walking by below.
"What's today, my fine fellow?" Ebenezer called down.
"Why, it's the first of November," the boy replied. "Have any leftover Halloween candy you want to give me?"
"November first! I'm not too late to open a retirement plan for my business, and maybe contribute to an IRA!" said Splurge to himself, and then called to the boy, "Do you know the Safeway at the corner? Do you know whether they've sold the prize Turkey that was hanging up there? Not the little prize Turkey; the big one?''
"What, the one as big as me? It's still there. Do you want me to go and tell them you want to buy it, and have it brought here, and you'll pay me a shilling, or half-a-crown if I'm back in five minutes?"
"No, I'm not going to buy it. Even though I know it's there, and even though I have credit cards, and even though I love to make extravagant purchases, I am not going to buy it. I'm going to save for retirement!" yelled Scrooge triumphantly.
"Freak," mumbled the boy, looking for any leftover pumpkins to hurl at Splurge's house.
Ebenezer dressed quickly and headed toward the home of his only employee, Bob Scratchless. Splurge brought over all his gadgets that he no longer needed and gave them to Bob's children. And he told Bob he was going to start a retirement plan for the business, and match all contributions dollar for dollar.
The Scratchlesses were overcome with joy. They invited Splurge to stay over for dinner, and Mrs. Scratchless was about to leave and fetch some takeout. But Ebenezer insisted that leftovers would be fine. Afterward, Bob's son, Tubby Tim (who was not known for keeping his holiday stories straight), exclaimed, "Happy investing to all, and to all a good retirement."
Robert Brokamp subscribes to Netflix and has cell phone service with Verizon; he enjoys the former but regrets the latter. He's also the editor of the Rule Your Retirement service, which features the "8 Ways to Supercharge Your Retirement" and "Perfect Your Portfolio With Asset Allocation" special reports. Give it a free30-day free trial. Dell, Netflix, and TiVo are all recommendations of the Motley Fool Stock Advisor newsletter.