Lessons on planning, from driving, books and other everyday things

Posted on December 21, 2021

“Keep distance – Stay Alive”. I read this statement as I was heading to the airport one morning, many moons before COVID took over our lives. Fortunately, I was in traffic (I was not driving and hence could not over speeding as my colleagues would claim is my normal). I was being driven and was thus able to read this bumper comment and had the chance to ponder over it. The advice which was written at the back of a large monster of a truck, very scary looking, was also in the smallest of prints, visible only in standstill traffic.

What did I make of this statement you may ask? Well, firstly, as I was behind a truck, I was acutely aware that most trucks have brake lights smothered in mud or faulty at worse, which means, you would not be warned if the truck had applied its brakes and if you don’t judge speed very well, you could end up driving into the back of the truck!. So over time, I’ve learned to ignore the brake lights and judge the speed of the truck, to determine if it is slowing down or not, to not drive into a truck.

On thinking about this statement as I continued my journey, it occurred to me that retirement planning follows a similar trend. We know (at least in the back of our minds) that we need to save for retirement, but we somehow find a reason for not doing so. A common reason has always been where do we find the spare money we can put into savings. Over the last 3-months, I have once again thought about that statement in the context of the COVID situation we are in.  I no longer go out.  Work and home have blended.  Shopping has been reduced to essentials, and window shopping no longer exists for me!

A wise Persian folk hero, Mulla Nasrudin Idries Shah, inspires me in this area. He takes on various characters to get his point across, whether it is to play the hero, or the fool or the sage, for as long as the message is transmitted, clearly, without any doubt.  Permit me to pick a leaf from his approach to explain.

As Kenyans, we are allergic to saving or planning for retirement. probably, in the usual Kenyan way, retirement is something that will not happen to me and hence no need to plan for the same.  The same applies to the preparation of wills or completing the nomination of beneficiary forms.  If we should, God forbid, attempt to do, the consequences would be dire.  To avoid dire consequences, we do nothing.  Am sure in days gone by, there were reasons for avoiding such activities, but in today’s day and age, it is necessary, like tea and coffee in the morning to ensure functioning.

If that is indeed the case, why do we insist on fire hydrants and fire blankets in kitchens – surely by Kenyan standards, this can never happen to me. Similarly, mosquito nets to protect against mosquitos, alarm clocks to get up on time, back-ups of data, etc etc.  The list goes on and on.
Getting back to the topic at hand, in everything we do in life, in work, in business, in the corporate world, we plan, we prepare – constantly, for the future. Be it change management, future strategy, take over strategy, we research, we test, we plan and we prepare in everything except retirement.

So why is it that for retirement, we insist on not planning? or is it we have planned? with the children and grandchildren? with the business established at retirement?  Perhaps that is the continent’s way, it’s in our genes? There may not have been formal retirement age, a formal retirement policy, a formal funding strategy, a formal investment strategy. but, I am certain, it existed in a form, that was suitable to the generation then.

COVID has opened our eyes in some regards – being at home, for almost 3 months. We are learning to better appreciate our family, having to change the way we manage our finances (especially for those who have been furloughed or made redundant), rethink our spending habits, taught us to teach (those with young children in school), taught us new skills – adapting and being more comfortable with technology, taught us to become farmers – those with gardens and vegetable patches) and for some of us, the inactivity is causing us to pull our hair out (yes, I admit, I have created a number of bald patches).  All in all, different problems call for different solutions. Different generations develop solutions that are appropriate for their generation.  The solution to the retirement and financial problems of today requires us to save, by physically setting aside funds, by investing those funds and then drawing on those funds for retirement or in situations such as the one we are all going through.  The next question would be, how much and when do I start saying?  Ideally, we should have started yesterday first with a budget to know where we are spending our money and hence determine where we can save.  We should contribute to our retirement savings plan (be it the one with our Employer and or our individual retirement plan).

It is important to remind ourselves that we cannot save in one day, it is a long term strategy and works when we are disciplined and consistent in our approach. As the Swahili saying goes – “haba na haba, hujaza kibaba”.

My final take-home of the statement I read at the back of the truck – If I don’t start saving for retirement or COVID type situations now, I might as well be a speeding car, destined to be in the back end of the truck, all twisted and mangled.
by Shera B G Noorbhai