I had a paper route when I was in junior high school, and I recall marveling that older, retired customers were always up at 5:30 or earlier waiting for their paper. The houses of more normal people were still dark when I made my pre-dawn rounds in sub-zero Vermont winters with only my dog for company.
I remember reasoning that older people were running short of time left to live and probably wanted to make every hour count. A person who knows these things once explained that humans only need four hours of sleep. Any hours in bed beyond four are only for those of us with conflicts in our lives. Remove the conflicts and after just four hours we're ready to bound out of bed. Retirement, often described as "the golden years," implies a life without conflicts, so it explains those retired folks who were such early risers.
"Time is money" is a common cliché in a business context, but that refers to the cost of wasted time. Time instead of money describes a situation in which time is a replacement for money -- a more positive slant on the subject.
A reader of my recent column on the spending and investing habits of the so-called Millennial Generation pointed out that young people were overlooking something that could be more important than making 401(k) deposits. Perish that thought, but he could be right when he says that time and the ability to enjoy experiences that will be impossible later in life are more important than stuffing money into mutual funds. About the time, in their 60s and later, when adults have the wherewithal to indulge in hiking trips around Europe, most will only have hip and knee problems if they're lucky. Twenty percent of those who otherwise would have made it to 70 will have died. Others will be too incapacitated to even tool around the country in a camper.
My millennial advice column made the point that young people waste money on things without giving any thought to how enduring that same expenditure could be had they contributed instead to their 401(k) plan. My insightful reader, however, argues that even mutual funds and stocks are just "things." I can see his point that they were only one step up from expenditure sinkholes like clothes, coffee and the latest digital upgrades, but there is a difference. After all, a $4 latte is gone forever, while the same $4 in a mutual fund will be $8, then $16, then $32, etc. -- typically doubling every seven years -- not a bad "thing."
But the reader's suggestion is that young people should be focused on experiences -- on doing what may not be possible later in life. He cites "backpacking around Europe with some friends" as just an example. I see his point. My example would be starting a business or engaging in a career that requires up-front sacrifice and staying power -- like commissioned sales. This is something that few people over 40 tend to tackle. By that age, most are headed down a career path that is adequate financially even if not that enjoyable, and to support families they need the financial security and certainty that comes later in life with most full-time jobs.
So, as compelling as the arithmetic can be for making 401(k) deposits early in life, there is something to be said for searching for experiences in place of steady work. Young people have a window of opportunity to try things out to see what works. According to the Grant study popularized by the Gail Sheehy book "Passages," people in their 20s normally focus on relationships. Those in their 30s tend to become focused on their professional lives. Reversing the order of these trends is what leads to problems -- and possible conflicts -- downstream. So, I have to agree. There's at least an argument that hanging out with friends, developing relationships and trying different jobs and experiences could be as important as saving and investing money. But at least young people should save what they otherwise would have just wasted.