Money Carpenter or Money Gardener?

What’s the difference between carpentry and gardening? With the first, you can start with a vision, follow a plan to the letter, and end up with exactly what you first imagined. With the last, you can start with a vision, follow a plan to the letter, and end up nowhere close to what you first imagined. Success in carpentry is largely within the carpenter’s control. Success in gardening is largely not within the gardener’s control.

Alison Gopnik, a developmental psychologist, in her book The Gardener and the Carpenter, describes carpentry and gardening as two different models of modern parenting. The former molds children by steering them in certain directions; while the latter allows children more freedom, within guidelines.

What if we applied carpentry and gardening to success with money?

Money Carpentry

Some people believe that achieving financial success depends, like carpentry, on acquiring the right set of knowledge, skills, and tools. All they have to learn is how to use them in the right combinations and right order. Indeed, many firms in the financial industry would like customers to believe their advisors are money carpenters. You place your order with your vision in mind, and their carpenters will make it happen.

Financial success actually can happen this way. Certainly having knowledge, skills and tools increases the chance it will.

Money Gardening

Money gardeners, however, understand knowledge, skills, and tools can only get them so far. They know that life, like money, is as unpredictable as the weather, so they do what they can to protect themselves from well-known hazards. They also accept there are hazards they can’t prevent or protect against, without significant expense. When they have a bumper crop, they are proud but grateful, and they save for the future. When they have a drought, they don’t give up.

When you view money as gardening, you regularly tend to it with skills and tools, but not too often. You know it may not turn out exactly as you envisioned in the beginning. In fact, it probably won’t. It could turn out better, it could turn out worse, but more likely, it will turn out different.  

That can be scary, or it can be exciting. Will it be storms or sunshine? We have no control over that. Money carpenters find it hard to accept this variability. Money gardeners, as a certain saying goes, accept the things they cannot change, change the things they can, and have the wisdom to know the difference. While money carpenters might feel safer with formulas and blueprints, money gardeners feel more free.

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Retirement Life: More Than Money At Stake

I knew a man who couldn’t wait to retire from his government job. Because of decades of hard work and wise money decisions, he was able to call it quits at 55. Thrilled with his newfound freedom, he immediately took to cooking, golf, dating (he had divorced at 49), traveling, fishing, and having fun. For the first few years, every time I saw him, I could see the lack of work responsibilities had lightened his step and his heart. After about ten years, he moved to a Florida retirement community where the roofs and mailboxes are almost identical and one of the few ways to stand out is by the cover on your golf cart. It seemed to outsiders that everyone looked the same, dressed the same, exercised the same, but seemed happy with their life in the sunshine.

Yet one day on the phone he said, “Y’know, I really like talking with you. I don’t have anybody to talk to here.”

I was shocked. “What? Surely there are some retired CEOs, executives, people that think like you, that play golf, and that you have a lot in common with.”

“Nah,” he said, “I don’t have that much in common with anybody here.”

I thought that was crazy. He looked like all the rest of them, dressed like them, played golf and pickleball like them. He probably was just as well off, financially, as any of them. How could he not have someone to relate to? Unfortunately at that time, I was unfamiliar with the signs of depression. Five years later, it took his life.

According to writer Mitch Anthony,  there are three myths about the “ideal” retirement:

  1. “This part of my life is going to be about ME.”

Anthony says, “This is a formula for emptiness.”

  1. “I am going to surround myself with people like ME.”

Anthony’s reply: “This is a formula for stagnation.”

  1. “I am going to do nothing but relax.”

Anthony: “This is a formula for boredom.”

Emptiness, stagnation, and boredom. Doesn’t sound much like the ideal retirement. A Mayo Clinic gerontologist told Anthony, “A life of total ease is two steps removed from a life of total disease.The first step is that they get bored, the second step is that they grow pessimistic, and then they get ill.”

This is what writer Robert Laura termed the “dark side” of retirement. For some who don’t think about how to bring meaning and purpose to their life after work, serious mental health maladies, like depression and addiction, await. Florida retirement communities have some of the highest suicide rates in the country, particularly among white males over 65 years old. Women seem to fare better. Anecdotally, several women I know have vibrant lives in retirement communities, filled with volunteering, teaching others, and various circles of friends.

South Dakota financial planner Rick Kahler responded to Laura’s article with several wise suggestions: Ask yourself how much of your identity is tied up in what you do, rather than who you are. Start creating a life to retire “to” rather than simply a job or business to retire “from.” Consider gradually reducing to part time and taking extended vacations, rather than showing up one day, and having nowhere to go the next. In your ideal week, how would you spend your time, and with whom? Have a diverse social network outside of work. Writer Douglas Bloch  complained his parents’ retirement community had no children, while his retired friends were finding fulfillment mentoring youngsters in math.

Want to take it further? Dori Mintzer, Ph.D. has a weekly live interview series – “Revolutionize Retirement,” where she interviews experts on retirement life. Sign up for free at

Retirement planning has far more at stake than planning how to invest your assets. For some people, a well-thought out investment plan for their time, more than their money, can be the difference between illness and premature death, and a long, fulfilling life.

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What’s Your Next Chapter? Questions for Any Age

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where…” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“… so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.” (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 6)

What will I do with myself every day in “retirement”? Many 45 – 65-year-olds struggle to answer this. But what if, for you, “retirement” is a long way off, or, has been going on a long time already? What if you just want to know how to spend your mid-life? Or your 80s? Since I was 20, I have relied on the What Color is Your Parachute? book series to help with this kind of question. There is the original one for career-hunting, and a “Retirement” edition. They may sound different, but both books essentially ask the same questions…When have been the times in my life that I felt most fulfilled? What accomplishments, big or small, brought me the most joy? What places have I lived where I was happiest and why? What kinds of people do I enjoy being around the most? How much alone-time is necessary for me? It turns out that, in many respects, planning for “retirement” is not much different than planning for any other decade.

But what about money? While retirement might be a time of “financial independence,” that term can vary by degrees throughout our lives. Many people start a new chapter in their 20s, 30s, 40s, or 70s. They must feel financially independent, at least for at time, in order to do so. If you are not there yet, what’s one thing you could do? Take ownership of your purpose. Some people hand over that ownership to a financial professional when they ask, “Here is the sumtotal of my financial decisions over my life so far… What kind of life (income) can you get me?” Some people even shop financial professionals this way and choose the one that gives them the highest answer.

What if, instead, you did the homework to determine what kind of life you want first? Then you could go to the financial professional and ask, “What are the chances I can lead this life, and not run out of money? How big or small are the changes I might I have to make to get there?”

When you determine your purpose first, you can align yourself with someone who can guide you to get there. You don’t give up ownership to them, because they help you know the impact of your decisions. You could wake up every day with purpose, knowing exactly what you are meant to do. That’s not retirement. It’s independence, no matter what age you are.

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