3 Money Lessons I Learned Hanging Out With 80-Year-Olds

by Dana George | Updated July 17, 2021 - First published on May 13, 2020

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An older couple laughing while riding bumper cars at a carnival.

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If you want advice from someone with experience, senior citizens are a great source. Here are three money lessons worth learning.

If you want advice from someone with experience, senior citizens are a great source. Here are three money lessons worth learning. 

My mother died on St. Patrick's Day, but this is not a sad story. She was a remarkable woman who lived a life of adventure. She was also a social creature who made friends easily.

I've spent a lot of time with my mother over the past two years, visiting her as she moved from an apartment to assisted living, and then from assisted living to a skilled nursing unit, all on the grounds of a posh retirement community. 

Listening to her and her friends, I've been awed by their tenacity and surprised by some of their experiences. My mom loved to hear them share stories, even if she'd heard them all before. I had months to absorb their conversations and learn from their experiences. It may take a few years to unpack them all, but here are a few financial takeaways.

1. Invest for tomorrow

My mother's community is made up of cute bungalows, sleek apartments, and surprisingly stylish assisted living units. There's a gym, indoor pool, full library, computer lab, art rooms, three dining areas (each with a different vibe), and activities every day of the week.

Among her friends are a former high school counselor, librarian, grocery store owner, and federal agent assigned to protect Jacqueline Kennedy in the early 1960s. Although they may secretly be millionaires, it's more likely that they're like my parents, folks who came up with a financial plan and stuck with it. 

I remember it driving me crazy that my parents refused to move into a nicer neighborhood when ours began to look rundown. And though I'm not proud of it, I was embarrassed by their lack of interest in things like home décor and insistence on driving an old VW van because it was "practical."

What I didn't realize when I was young is the wisdom of investing and how little it matters what other people think. My parents were investing while the people around them were spending. I can't tell you how many times I was grateful for that in my mother's final years. She was having a blast, in part because she could afford to.

The takeaway? Plan carefully and regularly put funds away while working. Once you have an emergency fund with enough money to pay three to six months' worth of living expenses, set aside a percentage of your income for retirement. The younger you start, the more options you will have later in life. That's because investing in an IRA or company-sponsored 401(k) plan puts compound interest to work for you from day one.

2. Learn what brings you pleasure

By the time someone moves into assisted living or skilled nursing, they have less space and fewer personal possessions on display. Although it may sound sad, it's not. Visits to Mom's community were filled with the same joy, laughter, and shocking doses of gossip as visits to friends in my own neighborhood.

The difference is, Mom and her friends seemed to have an enhanced sense of what's important. I never once heard one of them brag about the car they used to drive or the neighborhood they lived in. Their stories were about the people they loved and experiences they had. 

The takeaway? It's not "stuff" that matters. Before buying something new, ask yourself if it's going to bring you lasting pleasure. If not, save your money for something more important -- like an experience you'll never forget.

3. Don't be driven by fear 

One of the elderly men I met is named Lawrence. As a child of the Great Depression, one might think investing in stocks would have scared him, but Lawrence told me it never did. He laughed about the financial stumbles he's taken through the years, many tied to individual stocks he was sure would be winners. He talked about learning how to invest the hard way, by making every mistake in the book. Still, Lawrence never gave up. He'd fall off the financial horse, only to climb right back on again. Although he never earned much money as an office manager, Lawrence stayed the course during financial storms, retiring with enough money to live comfortably. 

The takeaway? Americans are always going to face something big, whether it's a pandemic, job loss, or recession. Wise money management means looking at the long-term picture and developing a tolerance for short-term losses. 

If we're fortunate, we're going to grow old. And from what I hear, it comes as a bit of a surprise. One day you're starting your first job and before you know it, you're retired. One of the best lessons we can learn from 80-year-olds is to start planning for that day now.

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