I’m the world’s best procrastinator. I can find all sorts of justifiable reasons for not doing something and seem to have a never-ending list of excuses to legitimise my decisions. But some things cannot be put off any longer.
Back in 2001, a co-worker in the States (much younger than me) asked me about my pension plan. I laughed. Pension plan? My motto was to live for today and let tomorrow take care of itself. Anything could happen tomorrow – I could be run over by a bus and never live to spend a penny and in the meantime I’d have scrimped and saved for a retirement that would never be.
Later that year, another co-worker told me that from the day she first started work, she’d put away very other pay check. We were the same age. We had similar jobs. We even had the same first name. But she had a new car that she’d paid cash for, a house with no mortgage, and a pension plan that would allow her retire very comfortably at 45. She also had a 20-year head start on me. I spiralled into a major depression just thinking about my penniless future and how stupid I’d been. Action was called for.
I met with the company’s investment advisor, a nerdy-looking type with an alphabet after his name. He took pains to tell me how irresponsible I’d been; how careless. He painted a bleak picture of what my future would look like. I was practically beyond redemption. He presented me with all sorts of options – dazzled me with fancy financial terms – pressed the buttons on his calculator with the dexterity of a concert pianist – and conjured up a scary-looking neon graph on his laptop. I left his office laden down with glossy prospectuses and annual reports, and an appointment for the following week that I never kept.
Over the next ten years, I kept busy travelling and moving around, going to school, working my way towards Budapest. I was so busy living that I didn’t give any more thought to what would happen once I stopped work and the money stopped coming in. Until last week, that is.
I was in a pharmacy over in Széna tér waiting to have a prescription filled. The old lady in front of me handed in her ‘script with a 5,000 forint note. She asked the pharmacist to give her the most important tablets; that was all the money she had. She was about my height. She had her hair cut short. Like me, she wore glasses. We both wore green coats and brown scarves. In a flash, I saw my future and it scared me senseless.
I went home and immediately made an appointment to see a financial advisor – someone into ‘wealth management’. I’d talked to him socially, and had been promising ever since to get my paperwork together and go see him officially, but I never did. I’m sure I had a good excuse (or twenty) – I always do.
For three days before my appointment, I had flashbacks to my man in Alaska and his calculations and permutations, his fancy software and his alphalary of financial terms. I was in no mood to be humoured as a brainless broad, but neither was I prepared to do the necessary research to educate myself. I was nervous as hell and dreading the outcome. I could see myself on a diet of bread and water for the next twenty years as I saved enough to eke out a sad, hermitic existence for twenty more after that.
Saved from the brink
We sat over a coffee. He asked me what age I wanted to retire at. I told him. He asked how much money would I need to live on, per month if I stopped working today. I did the math. He drew an x/y graph, in biro, plotting time against money, explaining what he was doing in words of one syllable. I was actually following him! He factored in inflation and figured out how much money I’d need to give me that sort of annual dividend at 65. An impossible figure. A future of penury opened in front of me, a future I was slowly but inexorably slipping toward, one forint at a time. He continued: How much could I comfortably set aside per month, starting now? I did the math again. He pulled out a printed table of closely set figures – and taking a conservative annual return of 6.5%, showed me how much I would have saved by the time I retired. I started to breathe again. I was salvageable. The irony wasn’t lost on me: I’d to come to Budapest to find a financial advisor who spoke in plain English. I have an appointment for next week…and this one I’ll keep.