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The automaker Subaru sailed through the recession with record sales and increased market share according to a recent Bloomberg report. Why? "Our customers were not affected by the recession. They have a better financial situation," says one of their largest dealers. What is so special about Subaru owners? Are they immune to economic chaos?

Because every single model has four-wheel drive, snowboarders have made it their ride of choice if sufficiently rusted out and held together by bumper stickers and duct tape. What could explain, however, the attraction of the car at the other end of the spectrum - people who have their financial act together? Could there be a connection between these people and the thought process that leads to healthy retirement account balances?

Studies of Subaru buyers by a market researcher Strategic Vision shows that the average household income is $88,000 which is only about $10,000 more than the average household income nationwide. Subaru owners are described as "a thrifty lot, traditionally buying less car than they can afford and with 36 percent paying cash. These buyers are eco-friendly "... who value the freedom to go where they want, when they want. They are not buying things, but experiences," according to a company official.

Those words describe perfectly the person who successfully masters his or her 401(k) opportunity. It's not the dollars themselves piling up as a product of self discipline. Instead, it's the smug satisfaction from knowing that an opportunity has been seized. "Freedom to go where you want when you want?" That's certainly the case when you're sitting on a six figure 401(k)/ IRA balance instead of stuck in a job and living from paycheck to paycheck.

Paying cash for a new car? Do the math someday to figure out how much you save (and have to invest) if you stay away from auto financing. Pay cash, keep cars longer and buy less than you can afford - then invest what you save. By comparison, the retirement plan industry is now cognizant of what cynics call, "the big red truck syndrome." This is the all-too-common case whereby someone receiving a payout of their 401(k) account can't resist buying a new truck.

There's a lesson in this for younger employees who often have trouble seeing the merits of 401(k) savings. Always buying less than you can afford at the moment is a good rule of thumb.

Younger people who spend responsibly and stuff money into 401(k) plans could not care less about saving for retirement. The 401(k) deposits they sacrifice to make are really earmarked to be there for rent and food when they are out of work or go back to school. Paying taxes and a penalty? No problem. If you're out of work, the 401(k) distributions may be the only income, and taxes will be nonexistent. As for the 10 percent penalty, this will be charged on every dollar spent, but there are no Social Security or Medicare taxes which would have been about 8.5 percent. Having even a modest nest egg beats moving back in with parents or living on a friend's couch.

The lesson here is that Subarus are cool and so are the people who own them. But we can't just talk the talk by "wearing" a Subaru like a tie dyed shirt. We have to walk the walk - handling finances to create the resources and flexibility to "go where we want when we want." This is the immediate experience that retirement account balances create for us.

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