Dying with Zero


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How to sing ourselves to sleep

And now, the end is near…“ we can hear from the lyrics by Paul Anka. He is still alive, but Blue Eyes, who made My Way famous, has up and gone. Paul’s idea is “to live a life that’s full.” One should go all the way or not at all. (Okay, I exaggerate.)

But a bit of history is of interest. The original song was in French, with a melody by Jacques Revaux, and lyrics by Claude Francois. The story, in French, is unrelated to Paul’s song. It was a bittersweet story of two lovers who had fallen out of love, but went on as though nothing had changed (Comme d’habitude — as usual).

My Way is sad in its own way. As we age, like old dogs, we stubbornly cling to habit. We wear the bottoms of our trousers rolled, as famously declared by T. S. Eliot.

Bill Perkins has written a book (Die with Zero, 2021) with the message that we should give away our financial wealth long before we face the inevitable, and I don’t mean taxes. It’s not exactly a poor man’s problem, though it happens often enough to merit some serious cogitation.

To rephrase the question is to face a basic fear:  Should we die without any worldly possessions? Perkins says, shouts, “Definitely, Yes!”

But why? The essential argument is that money or material wealth is something we cannot take with us. So, then, why leave money “on the table”?

The answer is that we do so irrationally because 1) we over-estimate what we need for health or funeral expenses towards the end of our lives, and 2) we underspend in our golden senior-citizen years because we realize, too late, that the things we want are things that money can no longer buy.

When we face dying, we may want to go back to the past, but that’s impossible, or we want to do things that our bodies cannot anymore bear to do.

As Eliot said, we grow old, and wear the bottoms of our trousers rolled.

This means that we accept that the sea waves will lap on our feet when we walk the beach, and that’s a good thing. But we don’t need money for that.

We must instead be as healthy as possible in the final years because health is also wealth. And there is greater uncertainty in the timing of when we get sick than in the time path of our incomes and nest eggs.

Did Perkins get it right? There certainly are arguments for dying with wealth intact.

One is that a spending spree early in your retirement years (say, between 60 and 65) is out of character. Who wants to look ridiculous buying a Lamborghini when you cannot find a mechanic to fix the thing?

La dolce vita — cruises, first-class flying, Hermes stuff, or $500 dinners — doesn’t seem right. (Do you want to look like some corrupt politician from a poor country in Africa? Or worse, can you imagine winning a major lottery, and “blowing the money” like there was no tomorrow, and then you end up just as poor as you were before?)

Secondly, a modest life is a good life. Mother Teresa would undoubtedly agree. Your slimy religious leader will sidle up to you to pray for your soul, but please to give a major donation to the Heavens (moi, he says). Your Scrooge instincts will then take over, preventing you from being the fool who easily parts with his money.

A third argument is a tradition-bound one. All the ‘old money’ families are the way they are because the wealth is kept intact until the patriarch or matriarch dies. The heirs do not have to deal with ‘Poor little rich girl/boy syndromes.’

You can always tell your children and grandchildren that you have provided well enough for them, certainly not too little that they think of you as a tightwad. You already gave them a good start in life with a good education.

All that wealth you cannot take with you is, from an economist’s point of view, wasted. The scholarly word is ‘inefficient.’ You can squeeze out more happiness by timing your lifestyle and saving decisions in a specific pattern throughout your lifetime.

As a child, you don’t worry about money you don’t have; your parents magically take care of you.

When you start a working life or a family, you imbibe the Calvinist work-and-save ethic, which means you expect to have a nest egg for retirement and old age.

The economist will wonder if the size of the target nest egg is too large. If it is, then you’re overworking yourself in your middle years, and missing out on life; if the projected nest egg is too small, then you’ve signed up for a grumpy old age when your children won’t enjoy your company because you will be a ‘burden’ to them.

As already noted, health is also wealth. It makes eminent sense then that we also devote resources to preventing disease.

I once discussed this matter with the daughter of a tycoon who achieved great wealth. He had worked in his youth — overworked is the better term — to the point that his health suffered in his old age. She said her father would have been much happier with better health and less money.

A conundrum also arises when you’ve already retired, and if you have saved too much. You have to, well, “get rid of it.”

Donating your property long before you die is a way out of this conundrum.

Here, Perkins makes a good observation. He notes that your children or grandchildren can best use their inheritance when they are between 26 and 35. If they’re too young, they squander what you give them; beyond 35, they are getting too old to enjoy your money. Your goal is to see them enjoy their lives more.

The answer is to give to the generation that’s neither too young nor too old.

There is an overlooked benefit of the donation solution. A karmic view about money or material wealth is that you can never give it away.

As explained by Michael Phillips in his book (The Seven Laws of Money, 1974), the money that is given somehow returns. He sees the money gift as representing an “alliance” between the donor and the donee. Both parties enter into an implicit (or sometimes explicit) bargain on what is to be done.

The donation “works” because the money is not wasted. The donee gets resources he otherwise would not, and the donor is satisfied (even if vicariously) that something good came out of her gift.

Is this a cynical view? The donor extracts a promise from the donee, and the former enjoys the fulfillment of that promise in his lifetime.

The karmic solution cannot be carried too far. I don’t believe in the ‘righteousness’ of the billionaire class who claim to give away their riches. We should look askance at how their riches came about from the start.

Facebook and Google didn’t have to invade our privacy rights to the extent that they did. Musk grew Tesla because he received government subsidies. It is better to avoid these products today than to be “grateful.”

Paul Anka wrote, “The record shows I took the blows, and did it my way.”

What are these blows? They are the errors and mis-estimations that result from us being human. Artificial Intelligence cannot fix them. Even if it did, would we want it?

There is always a default outcome — intestate succession — or Let It Be. (That’s another song.)


Author’s email: [email protected]; Twitter: @ORoncesvalles


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