A concept called “self-continuity” can have an impact on personal financial decisions. What is it, exactly? It’s a measure of how our lives in the future may change from the lives we lead today. High self-continuity means not much difference between today and tomorrow. Low means a future life as a departure from today’s status quo.
The purest expression of someone reinventing themselves in a future life was shared recently by a woman who left a career as an options trader and mother of adult children to go back to school to get a degree in architecture. At UC Berkeley, she decided to dust off her clarinet and join the marching band. Why not? Becoming the oldest band member in the school’s history only happened, however, after spending a week at “band camp” and enduring auditions, but in the end she suited up in uniform complete with epaulets, buttons, hat, etc., and marched at all the games over a season.
Self-continuity is a psychological term, then, measuring people’s ability to see themselves in the future to the extent that they anticipate what will be different. Some people are able to do it more effectively than others, probably because they choose to think about it. The distinction between today’s self and a future’s self is a measure of self-continuity with overlapping selves (not much difference) representing a high level of self-continuity. Little overlap (low continuity) anticipates a major remodel of today’s self.
When it comes to financial planning, visualizing the future becomes important as we approach retirement. Being able to imagine what a reinvented life might bring can have an effect on how we save, invest and/or spend money today. Recent reports from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that retirement income for Americans has been underreported because Individual Retirement Account withdrawals are not included. That’s income from $4 trillion right there.
Also, income from defined benefit pension plans has also been underreported based on new census information as of 2012. Roughly 90 percent of Americans have retirement income sources independent of Social Security and are able to maintain pre-retirement lifestyles.
An article in the September 11th Wall Street Journal on the subject discusses a related concept called “consumption smoothing” — an exercise of financial decisions we make today in light of what we anticipate our future self to look like. If kids are through school and out of the house, we could conceivably be saving a lot more money the final years of retirement, but why overshoot if it means foregoing some pleasures that our good health allows us to enjoy today?
Why not even borrow money to make some trips? Why not quit work earlier if it enables us to substantially change our lives to avoid a long commute or enjoy less stress and a healthier lifestyle?
Maybe it’s as simple as making a list of all the good things about life today beside all the uncomfortable aspects of our present selves. Then make a second list of the pros and cons of an imagined future life.
“Consumption smoothing” may prompt us to spend some money today because in a future self we see, for example, the possible sale of a house we have outgrown — a sale that will generate more spendable income as a result of downsizing.
Borrowing against illiquid assets is not a sin when it is part of a careful assessment of a future self including the latter’s financial requirements. And time is money. For those of us approaching retirement and contemplating what futures we may create, the line of band wagons left to jump on is growing short.