How Saving for Retirement Is Like Marathon Training

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They're both long-term commitments and can be painful. But the rewards are totally worth it.

Recently ING U.S. did a survey asking about saving for retirement vs. training for a marathon. More than half the respondents think retirement is harder.

I disagree.

I’ve automated my retirement, living carefully so that I can save as much as possible. 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 one day think, “Hey, I think I’ll retire.” An intelligent program of fiscal fitness will keep us from having to say “Welcome to Walmart” 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 Frugal Nation site over at MSN Money? It’s full of money 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.

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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Stacy Johnson

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