5 ways saving for retirement is like a marathon.

Paula Radcliff © by eviltomthai

Recently ING Direct did a survey asking about saving for retirement vs. training for a marathon. (The company sponsors the New York City Marathon.)

More than half the respondents think retirement is harder. I disagree, mostly because I do not choose to run.

Actually, I hate running. Walking is fine. Walking fast is OK. I even plan to learn cross-country skiing when enough snow falls to permit it. (Which could happen any minute: The sky is fluffy and gray and the temperature is inching into the high 20s.)

I’ve automated my retirement, living carefully so that I can save as much as possible. My work history does include an 18-year stretch of full-time employment, but I’ve spent about 14 years working only part-time (and earning very little indeed during five of those years).

But frugal living is a lot easier for me than running. I just don’t have the inclination. The only way I could ensure that I would run for health would be to hire someone to chase me.

Marathons? Not likely. I will, however, concede at least five ways that a marathon is like saving for retirement.

1. It’s a long-term commitment. You can’t sit around eating Double-Stuf Oreos and playing video games and then decide one day you’re going to run 26.2 miles. An intelligent program of physical fitness is necessary for success.

Similarly, most of us can’t indulge ourselves for decades and then suddenly say, “Hey, I think I’ll retire.” An intelligent program of fiscal fitness will keep us from having to say “Welcome to Wal-Mart” while leaning on our oxygen tanks.


Pains small and large

2. Blisters. Your feet might not like you very much at the beginning of your training, or when you’re breaking in a new pair of shoes. These little owies are similar to the small sacrifices you may need to make in order to fund retirement fully while still keeping all your other obligations.

Recognize them for what they are, i.e., minor inconveniences, and look for ways to stretch your dollars. (May I suggest the Money Talks News site? It’s full of frugal hacks.)

3. Sometimes it hurts a lot. Even the most toned of recreational runners will find himself unaccountably sore. The everyday route just bugs you sometimes.

You can tool along fairly well until there’s something you want right now but will have to save up for because retirement is a priority. Usually you get over it. (And if you don’t? Find another way to get what you want. Don’t stint on or, worse, tap into retirement.)

4. You need to push yourself. It’s not enough to run five miles a day. If you want to do a marathon you have to ask more of your body.

Financially, this is like having all the books balanced and then getting hit with rising food and fuel prices: You have to ask more of your budget. (Hint: That money should come from anywhere but your retirement funding.)


One foot in front of the other

5. You may hit the wall. Toward the end of the race many people’s bodies start screaming, “I want to go home!” Well, sometimes your long-term money plan slams up against the brick facade of the I-want list. (I want a cooler car/those gorgeous shoes/whatever.)

Intellectually, you know you need to keep putting one foot in the front of the other for the reward at the finish line. Emotionally? You want that hot sports car.

Keep this in the forefront: The finish line isn’t the end, i.e., retirement could last for years. Will my money last that long?

The day-to-day reward isn’t a trophy or a T-shirt. It’s the knowledge that you’re doing what you can to make your retirement pleasant rather than penurious. (In my case, it’s also that I will be able to take care of myself rather than having to ask my daughter for help.)

That old proverb about the longest journey beginning with a single step? Very apt here. Every step you take – or don’t take – is going to make a difference later on.

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  1. Vicky Fox

    it’s not just a marathon, it’s a treadmill. More fees and ways to charge retrement accounts are now to the point of being ridiculous. No more point A to point B. I stepped off that treadmill permanently:)

    • mysticaltyger

      I don’t get this comment at all. It’s cheaper than ever to invest in retirement accounts. Mutual fund expense ratios have been slowly and steadily coming down for 20 years now. Same deal with 401K plan fees. Many plans are still a rip off, but most of them have steadily reduced their fees. Same deal with brokerage commissions. Dodge & Cox, where I have one of my IRAs, discontinued their $12.50 annual IRA fee starting this year (and they still send me paper statements in the mail if I want).

  2. I’m not going to comment on saving for retirement as this all makes sense – and I’m nearing the finish line.

    But you should definitely learn to cross-country ski. It’s something you can do at your own pace for a modest cost. It gets you out into the great outdoors and after you’ve been skiing for a little you are nice and toasty. I learned to cross-country ski when I lived in Minnesota and it saved me from the winter blahs. You’ll love it!

  3. I can automate my retirement savings. I’ll run a marathon the day I can automate my training regimen. In the meantime, you can find me on the couch, eating Double-Stuf Oreos.

  4. I would prefer retirement savings any day over training for a marathon. I’ve never been a big fan of sweating and burning lungs.

  5. I run marathons (though I have a friend who says that she cannot understand why do I run if no one is chasing me :)). There doesn’t have to be pain or blisters, for that matter – vaseline is a long distance runner best friend. Retirement and long distance running are similar, I find in two ways: a) success demands persistence; and b) they are a mind-game.

  6. I LOVE THIS! Love it! I especially like #4. Learning to be frugal is like a marathon too.
    Ohhhhh, I’m so inspired. Got my frugal fix for the day!

  7. Marcia.B

    So Donna when you said The only way I could ensure that I would run for health would be to hire someone to chase me,I’m hoping this someone will be a vey atractive young person that will be able to catch you.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Marcia B: Ha! But I don’t want a young dude. I’d feel more like babysitting him than romancing him.

  8. Vicky Fox

    After the stock market fall this week, my heart goes out to all those who have their retirements in stocks. That’s money that never seems to come back. Back in 2008, my (deceased) husband knew a friend that lost 1.6 million dollars from investing. He has never recovered from it, and there went a lifetime of working and saving.

    • mysticaltyger

      This is not the whole story. Anyone who didn’t sell in 2008 and had a broadly diversified portfolio of stocks has seen it come back. Most people blame the stock market when it’s really their own poor decisions that are to blame.

  9. subscribed via email and FB 🙂


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