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If I Go Like Anne Bancroft...

As we've all heard by now, actress Anne Bancroft -- the fantasy of male college grads for a generation -- died on Monday at the age of 73.

Wow, 73. That's not very old. I know that's not James Dean-young, but it's still below the life expectancy of 80 for American women. And the average gal who makes it to 73 can expect to live another 13.28 years, according to the Social Security Administration.

One thought occurs to me when I hear about someone dying in their early 70s or younger. I thought it when Ray Charles died at 73 last year, and when Fred "Mister" Rogers died at age 74 two years ago. Here's that thought: It sure would be a bummer to save for retirement -- to delay all that gratification for decades -- and enjoy only a few years of it.

Of course, the aforementioned celebrities earned enough to enjoy good lives and build good-sized portfolios. (If you saw the movie Ray, you know that Ray Charles indulged in plenty of instant gratification.) And I don't know whether Anne Bancroft considered herself retired. But I know that Fred Rogers retired from his "Neighborhood" in 2001 and died just two years later. He barely had time to crack his nest egg.

Which leads to the other thought I have when I hear of someone dying in their 70s: That might be me. Longevity does not run in my family. My maternal grandfather died in his 70s, my paternal grandfather died in his 60s, and my 68-year-old dad has already had two heart attacks. His only brother died at age 71 after two heart attacks and a stroke. In my Rule Your Retirement newsletter service, I recommend that people plan for a 30-year retirement -- but my genealogy suggests I may not make it that far.

That's the bad news. But here's the good news: If I plan on dying in my early 70s -- if I go like Bancroft or Charles or Rogers or the other Brokamp men -- I don't have to save anymore for retirement. I can quit work in my 60s, and my current savings, growing over the next few decades, will be enough to support my short retirement. Goodbye, additional 401(k) contributions. Hello, Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy Camp!

Enjoy life now, or possibly later?
OK, so that's silly and irresponsible (the part about halting 401(k) contributions, not the fantasy camp). You can't plan your death -- unless you're like Hunter S. Thompson, the "gonzo journalist" who recently shot himself.

But speaking of Thompson, many people don't think it's worthwhile to give up "living life to the fullest" today in order to retire tomorrow. In response to my article "Do You Want to WorkForever?" one reader wrote, "I want to go out Hunter S. Thompson style!" He quoted a 60-year-old friend who said, "The way I live, I won't make it to retirement. I'll have fun and let the world catch up." Many other readers expressed similar sentiments: Life's too short to save for a future that may never come.

Hey, I hear ya. We can't live just for tomorrow. In 2003, Brancroft told an interviewer, "Film critics said I gave a voice to the fear we all have: that we'll reach a certain point in our lives, look around, and realize that all the things we said we'd do and become will never come to be -- and that we're ordinary." I certainly recognize that fear, and I'm sure I'm not alone. Sometimes, we have to spend a little today to do and become what we want. An extraordinary life isn't always cheap.

But a little thrift (the horror!) can lead to a better tomorrow, even if you don't plan on retiring or living beyond your 70s. Here are just some of the reasons:

  • You may not be able to work forever. I regularly hear stories from readers about how a disability wrecked their financial plans. Besides being a reminder that everyone should look into disability insurance, it doesn't hurt to have money set aside to help pay the bills.

  • You may be able to do things better and longer. If you're choosing grown-up toys or exotic vacations over saving for retirement, delaying the expense and saving the money instead might allow you to buy even better toys or pay for a longer (if not permanent) vacation.

  • You'll have resources for opportunities. Whether it's a suddenly cheap stock, a business opportunity, a later-in-life desire to get a college degree (to change professions or just for the heck of it), or the home of your dreams, having money set aside will give you much, much more freedom and flexibility.

  • You may change your mind. You might think you'll never retire, but you may feel differently once you reach your 60s. But by then, it may be too late.

Still planning on living long
As for me, I'm still saving for a 30-year retirement, though I'm not sure I'll ever want to fully retire, and I'm not sure how long I'll be among the living. But life expectancies are getting longer, and you just don't know whether you'll beat the odds. Around the same time Ray Charles passed on, Ronald Reagan died. He was 93 and needed home nursing help for years because of Alzheimer's disease. A long life and medical expenses can add up to an expensive retirement. (Speaking of long lives, keep this in mind: Anne Bancroft is survived by her husband, two sisters, a son, a grandson -- and her mom.)

So to those who don't save because they want to live and die like Hunter S. Thompson, or don't expect to live longer than Anne Bancroft, I say that retirement planning (or toy planning or vacation planning or freedom planning -- whatever you want to call it) is still a very, very smart thing to do.

Want concise, relevant, objective, and entertaining advice on your own retirement? Give The Motley Fool's Rule Your Retirement service a30-day free trial.

Robert Brokamp hopes to one day "retire" to a Ph.D. program in World War II history. His 401(k) will probably be footing the bill. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.


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