A personal finance writer who made it refreshingly personal

I was sad to learn Jonathan Clements was leaving The Wall Street Journal, not to write at another media outlet, but to work at Citigroup. (Though I was far from shocked; the Murdoch-era editorial cleansing rages on, just today claiming top editor Marcus Brauchli.) Make that, I'm happy Clements is pursuing something new, different -- hopefully, stimulating and lucrative, too. I'm sad because he was the rare personal finance writer who indeed understood the personal, going beyond raw dollar signs to keep financial planning in perspective.

Clements made his last column unabashedly about the personal, lifting the editorial curtain to expose his feelings about the endgame for all this financial engineering. "What is the real reason for all this saving and investing?" he asked. "The short answer is, you save now so you can spend later. But what will you spend your money on? People dream of endless leisure and bountiful possessions. Unfortunately, after a few months, endless leisure often seems like endless tedium."

He went on to cite three key things wealth can – should -- do for us, noting their relevance to the fat of wallet and modest savers alike: (1) If you have money, you no longer should worry about it; (2) Money can give you the freedom to pursue your passions; (3) Money can buy you time with friends and family.

Clements went three for three, hitting it clear out of the park his first two times up. No longer worrying about money, even if you have lots of it can take real work. The problem starts when the paycheck stops. Even if a salary isn't really needed, it's a big, psychological leap from the end of accumulation to the start of depletion. Behind the numbers is the validation a paycheck provides, as a marker of our value to something bigger than ourselves.

Money's power to free us to pursue our passions: so big, you can't quantify it. Clements didn't mean taking up skydiving, tackling Class Five rapids or other Branson-like pursuits. He meant more of the things we already genuinely enjoy, mixed with some new, or lapsed interests; writ large, solo and shared activities that can sustain us for a full, final third of our lives, and provide a sense of purpose. Note that he wrote passions, plural, and for good reason: too much of only one good thing often turns toxic.

Finally, how money buys time with friends and family. Absolutely, but with one caveat: you can choose your friends, but not your family. For some, more time spent with grandkids and other dear family is a natural next step, while for others who already felt they had enough time with family during their busy working lives...that well may still be enough time in retirement. Don't feel bad if you find yourself more drawn to your comrades than your long lost cousin after calling it quits; feel good about being honest with yourself.

I wish Clements the best. His replacement has big shoes to fill.

Michael Burnham is CEO of My Next Phase, a consulting firm offering non-financial retirement planning products and services (www.mynextphase.com).


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