The Richest Person In The Graveyard

When most young men and women start out in the workplace, they typically start at the bottom.  The very bottom.  Scrubbing toilets, cleaning floors, and taking on the most tedious boring work.  They usually do the all the menial jobs that their more experienced elders wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole.

These junior workers are (of course) loaded down with student debt, and own very little in the way of assets.  This means they have little choice but to do the sh*t-work, and accept the “low-man on the totem pole” status.

Is there any hope?  Certainly!  Young workers can look forward to getting a raise or promotion.  One more dollar in the bank account.  One more monthly paycheck to pay down that student debt.  One more year of “experience” to add to the resume.

All in the hope that some day life will get better.  This desire to “get ahead”, or to improve our life is pervasive in modern culture.  We all desire to keep improving, and keep “adding to the pile”.  All in the hope that we never fall back down to the bottom rungs of life.

Most people manage to advance up the ladder of life a little — Once student debts are paid-off, life becomes more about improvement.  A better car, a bigger house, nicer furniture, or even a larger retirement account.

Some people take this quest of improvement so seriously they literally never take vacations.  They work 12 hour days in complete dedication to their work, and then literally die at the office…


Will You Die At The Office?

This is no joke.  I’ve literally seen a co-worker hauled off on a gurney — after suffering a fatal heart-attack.  He died on the job, and likely never spent any of the retirement dollars he invariably saved in his workplace 401k plan.

He was one of the proverbial “Richest Men In The Graveyard” — a person who worked extremely hard, saved for decades and then suddenly died… never actually getting a chance to spend a single penny of all that hard work.

That moment, watching the gurney get wheeled out the door, has stuck with me through the years.  At the time I was nothing but a low-level grunt worker in my 20’s, doing all the dirt-work.  But I remember it well.

I didn’t know the dead co-worker terribly well, but the incident reminded me of something really important —  We don’t live in the averages.  We all die on our own schedule.  Like it or not, we WILL die one day.

According to CDC, the average life expectancy in the United States is now 78.6 years old.  This number has continued to improve over decades of human history, and it will likely improve a little in the future (as medical science improves).

Remember though, life expectancy is merely an average.  An alarm doesn’t suddenly go off when you hit 78, and then you keel-over.  A large number of people will die considerably earlier than 78, and a few extremely rare individuals will manage to live into their 100’s.


An Early Demise

As I watched the paramedics roll the body into the ambulance that fateful day, I had two thoughts running through my head:

  1. I needed to get back to work before my boss noticed I wasn’t working.  (Oops!)
  2. There exists the distinct possibility that I might not live long enough to make it to a normal retirement age.

Life expectancy statistics from the CDC support this idea too.  Plenty of young people die in the United States before a “standard” retirement age of 65.

Even more interesting, the likelihood of dying more than doubles once you actually reach retirement age.

death rates by age

Live another decade and then the likelihood of dying doubles again.  The numbers just get worse from there…

This really made me wonder about the wisdom of working incredibly hard and saving up so much for a “standard age” retirement.  Dying early with all your money in 401k’s (and other retirement accounts) is a terrible injustice.  All of those hard-earned dollars might never see any real-world utility for the saver.

Yet the death-rate numbers don’t lie, it’s a distinct possibility you will die before you get to spend your savings.


Striking A Balance

Honestly, life is something of a gamble.  Each of us could die tomorrow, but many of us won’t.  We’ll continue to live for decades.

We have to plan for tomorrow, yet attempt to live for today too (within the constraints allowed by the modern workplace).  It’s not an easy task.

Some people take this eminent mortality as an excuse to live a life of excess, spending every dollar they earn (and more) — This is the exact opposite of the Richest Man In The Graveyard.  In other words — a total spend-thrift.  That strategy works for a while, but if the spend-thrift happens to live a long enough life, he or she will eventually suffer the consequences of those early excesses.

Debts eventually become due, and a lack of savings will eventually hurt.

My solution to this problem was to strike a balance between the two extremes.  I tried to find a middle ground in the “gray area”.  Live a little bit for today, save some for the decades before 65, and then save a little for the very long term (over 65).

So I did just that — I put around $500 a month into a “play money” account that I could spend with reckless abandon.  I enjoyed my life with that.  Then, I put a big chunk of my earnings into a taxable brokerage account.  Except I didn’t spend it.  I invested that after-tax money, and vowed to only spend the dividends on “living for today”.

(This taxable brokerage account would eventually become the money that allowed me to leave my job and declare financial independence.  Now, the dividends have grown to the point where I “live for today” every single day!)

And finally, I took advantage of pretax workplace retirement accounts (401k’s and IRA’s) that included employer matching.  This was my very long-term savings.  I took maximum advantage of employer matching, and I still haven’t touched those funds to this day.  Mrs. Tako and I will let these accounts grow until (if?) we reach age 65.


Final Mortal Thoughts

So far, I think my bizarre plan has worked out pretty well — I traveled quite a bit in my youth, and I also saved enough to leave work at age 38.  Now days, I mostly live off the dividends from my taxable accounts.  I’ve had a lot of fun, and it’s been a darn good life.

But what happens if I don’t die young?  If I happen to live past a “standard” retirement age of 65, then I’ve got my retirement accounts waiting in the wings, ready to go.  (These accounts will still have decades left to grow before Mrs. Tako and I ever need to touch them.)

This was the right balance for me.  For me, the real tragedy would be dying early, never having really *lived* at all.  Instead of paying my dues in an office, I want to live as much as possible while I was still young.  When I still had a little energy left.

I didn’t want to die the Richest Person In The Graveyard.  Do you?


[Image Credit: Flickr, CDC]

11 thoughts on “The Richest Person In The Graveyard

  • October 16, 2019 at 2:23 PM

    I’ve known a few folks who have died well before their time. It’s hard to balance earning and enjoying your life, but back loading all of the fun can really bite if you check out early. I think your plan is the right one!

  • October 16, 2019 at 4:35 PM

    Would you rather die the poorest in the graveyard? Worse yet, find yourself in old age with severe medical problems or other difficulties without the funds to meet all your needs.
    I’m not saying one needs to save every nickel or live on the bare necessities or make your family suffer, but savings for one retirement should be a priority.
    We are fortunate enough to have generated a growing income from our investments and that income keeps growing. If we end up with more money than we can ever spend, what’s the big deal. What we won’t end up as is broke, seeking government or some other source of support.

    • October 16, 2019 at 4:52 PM

      You must have skipped over the section where I talked about a balance between the two extremes.

  • October 16, 2019 at 5:29 PM

    My nudge over the edge into the pursuit of FI was an article on raising the social security age. 3 of 4 grandparents passed by 72. If retirement age is 67, that’s 5 years! 45 years of work and 5 to enjoy it? No thank you!!
    Yes sure medical advances. People in our day and age don’t eat like my grandparents – in theory healthier?
    Then there’s the coworkers, one in a car crash commuting to work, a former coworker late 30s heart attack, undiagnosed issue.
    We just don’t know – I’d like to spend as much as I can with friends, family and in nature.
    So save up, and aim for work life balance.

  • October 16, 2019 at 6:41 PM

    In the words of Stephen Wright, the weirdo comedian, “I know when I’m going to die because my birth certificate has an expiration date….”

    Wouldn’t that be nice, or not. And actually life expectancy has been declining slightly in the US, mainly because of the sky-high suicide rate, mostly from the opioid epidemic.

    I do not want to die the richest, but as you eloquently stated, I want to live. I feel I’ve done a good job of that so far, but being ‘only’ still in my 40’s I’ve got TONS left to do!

  • October 16, 2019 at 7:03 PM

    When I was working at my IT job, we had a customer who worked in a job that still had a pension. He finally reached the age where he could collect the full amount and retire. He had his retirement party at work and then flew off to Vegas to celebrate. Unfortunately, he died while there – total fluke incident.

    That one stuck with me hard. Imagine working and working just to get to that point and then only making it for a few days after retirement. Devastating from all kinds of angles, but wow, I refused to spend my best days working my life away.

    We might not be the richest family in the world, but we have enough to live a happy life without having to worry about a 9-5 job any more. It’s truly a blessing and I’m loving every minute of it!

  • October 16, 2019 at 9:49 PM

    Warren Buffett will be the richest person in the graveyard but I think he is still enjoying life a lot.

    It’s funny. Now that I’m working I take missing the rush hour for granted. I had to have an afternoon meeting outside of town and got caught up in evening traffic last evening and that was kind of stressful. It makes me wonder how I did it every day. I wonder if I’m getting soft now…?

    I find I’m about the same level of overall happiness whether I’m working or not.

    So not the richest person in the grave by any means and hopefully struck a good balance.


  • October 17, 2019 at 8:15 AM

    As I age (Just turned 54), I realize more and more how important balance is in life. I never appreciated that fact much as a younger man.

    I see no problem with going at an worthwhile effort including FIRE at 110%+ and with constant focus however you cannot do so relentlessly forever. I think doing so runs the risk that was so brilliantly summed up by John Lennon:

    “Life is what happens when your busy making other plans”

    Nice posting, thanks!

  • October 18, 2019 at 6:47 AM

    Great post. For me it wasn’t the fear of early death but the fear of a late one where I had to do drudgery the entire time. I couldn’t envision doing anything for 40-50 years and still enjoy it. So I hatched a 10 year retirement plan before I finished undergrad.

  • October 23, 2019 at 1:22 PM

    I’ve seen similar – not carted out of the office but dying while on a rare vacation or shortly after retirement. We once bought a boat – just a 18 foot ski boat. Great fun for a while. A co-worker with years of boating experience helped me evaluate it. His comment – there is always someone with a bigger, nicer boat. Same for retirement accounts. The point is to enjoy what you’ve got, now.

    Exiting “normal” work in next 6-7 months – maybe sooner if I can get laid off. Can’t wait.


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