Long-time GRS reader Sheila (aka PawPrint) dropped a line earlier this year because she’s facing a financial dilemma. She and her husband want to be responsible — to save for retirement — but they’re afraid that doing so means they won’t be able to pursue other passions, such as travel. Sheila writes:

My husband is nearly 60. As we watch friends and relatives succumb to cancer (mostly) in their late sixties, I wonder about our financial goals. Should we travel now? Or should we keep saving for retirement at our current pace?

My husband plans to retire at 67, mainly because that’s when he’ll reach thirty years with his company, so the health care cost is cut in half. We’re on target to pay off our house by then (or before), my husband has long-term care insurance (I can’t get it), we have Roth IRAs and traditional IRAs, liquid savings, a few investments, some I Bonds, and he has a 401(k).
When I look at our retirement accounts, it never looks like enough, but I don’t know how much is enough. If we reach 70, I don’t want to do so without having traveled to places we’ve talked about seeing. But then again, if we live for a long time, I don’t want to run out of money. It’s all compounded by the fact that I’ve got a disability that limits my activities and may get worse as I get older. I have no idea if I’ll be in any shape to travel by the time my husband retires. How do people figure this stuff out?

Sheila has two related questions here. Let’s tackle them both.

Time to travel?
Like Sheila, I worry about my future health. As I’ve mentioned before, the men in my family tend to die young. Like at about fifty. (My father died ten days before his fiftieth birthday.) This grim history is the primary reason I’m willing to shell out $200 a month to stay fit. It’s also the driving force behind my desire to travel now, while I’m relatively young.

Kris and I have taken several international trips in the past couple of years. Most of our companions have been in their sixties and seventies. (We’re in our early forties, which is usually about 25-30 years below the average age for the groups we’re in.) Without exception, the older people we’ve talked to have said they wished they’d traveled when they were younger. (Many say they wished that had taken their children with them.)

This unanimous sentiment makes Kris and me more committed to traveling now while we’re young and healthy. We’ve watched our traveling partners struggle with stairs, strain to hear tour guides, and suffer during short walks. We want to travel while we’re able to enjoy it fully.

Note: In fact, I am so committed to this notion that I’m going to start exploring solo travel. I met some savvy travelers at last weekend’s World Domination Summit; they’re going to help me plan a trip to Thailand this October!

If health problems are a genuine concern for Sheila and her husband, I’d argue that it absolutely makes sense to budget for travel today. (I’d urge her to use a targeted savings account, like I do.)

How much is enough?
On the other hand, Sheila and her husband need to be sure they have enough saved to meet their future needs. But how much is that, anyhow? How much do you need to save for retirement? Because the future is unknown and unknowable, and all we can do is make educated guesses.

There are hundreds of retirement calculators scattered across the Web, and each one is a little different. No one calculator is necessarily better than any other, but here are a few I’ve found especially insightful:

Really, though, it sounds like Sheila may need professional help. There’s no shame in hiring a fee-only financial planner to walk her and her husband through their finances to be sure they’re on target to meet their goals — both present and future.

The bottom line
Because the future is unknown, there isn’t any one right answer to these questions. The best Sheila can do (or any of us, really), is work to enjoy today while also preparing for the future. It’s a balancing act. The challenge for each of us is to find that point of balance that allows us to pursue our passions today while also letting us sleep soundly, knowing we have enough for tomorrow.

How much will you save for retirement? Have you run the numbers? How much do you need to save? How’d you reach this number. At a lower level, does it make sense for Sheila and her husband to use some of their current savings to travel? Is there some rule of thumb they can use to decide how much to spend and when? Help her figure out what to do!

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