Bucket List Planning for the Young

Bucket List Planning for the Young

Our culture tells us that we should develop a list of things to experience in life. My father wanted to see a game in every major league baseball park, which he did with not many years to spare. Most of us are reluctant to dwell on a final to-do list when we’re in the throes of raising kids, paying off houses, and just building out the life we want to live. Maybe it’s time to rethink the entire mindset.

Die With Zero Mindset

If you recall from my review of Die with Zero, I really like the idea of dying with a big pile of memories versus a big pile of dollars.

The challenge is that most of us have our throttle set at various positions of “survive,” “strive,” and “thrive” for most of our younger, healthier years. It’s difficult to plan goals and bucket list items for the distant future when the most immediate demands of life keep our calendars maxed out throughout the year.

However, if we don’t set aside time to think and dream about what we want out of life, then we cede control of what we get out of life to other forces such as our health, the needs of our jobs, and time demands from external organizations and relationships. This is not inherently a curse as it’s often quite fulfilling to devote ourselves to jobs, people, and pursuits that give us a sense of purpose.

Nevertheless, we can end up on personal and professional treadmills during our working years. We feel we’re accomplishing worthwhile goals as we tick away the years and the dollars, but did we really get where we were going? When was the last time we hit pause on the treadmill and mapped out what we were trying to accomplish with the time remaining?

The reality is, that most of us won’t start planning bucket list experiences until we feel that:

  1. We are in fact mortal, and kicking the bucket is alarmingly closer in years than it used to be, AND
  2.  We’ve established a financial foundation to feel like there are extra resources beyond our minimum essential life-needs list.

But, if we wait to meet these criteria, we’ll miss many opportunities on earlier laps around the sun. Perhaps some earlier bucket list planning makes sense?

The 14 & 18 Bucket Lists

As a financial planner, it shouldn’t be an epiphany that the bucket list planning we should start with is based on ages 14 and 18, not 65 or 85.

When our kids are young, we share some ownership of their time with the school district, but we as parents get the veto on when vacations or other experiences claim primacy on the calendar. In hindsight, if a child is doing well in school, there’s a good chance that you can treat elementary school and most of middle school as “Nerf” grades and attendance records.

Sports and other extracurricular activities also fill up the time slots, but missing these occasionally for a family activity is unlikely to derail a child’s future success. If your family wants to take long weekends to feed Benjamins to a certain Florida-landowning-mouse, you can probably skip worrying about a few missed school days here and there. The colleges aren’t going to check in on elementary and middle school attendance records nor the slight ding to a GPA.

What’s more, when our kids hit 14 and start high school, not only do grades and attendance start to matter more, but a few other phenomena get in the way of our ability as parents to own the calendar. At 14, the social swirl becomes immensely more important to many kids. Even if our teenagers can stand to spend time with us, the siren song of teenage social life carries a lot more throw-weight in their calendaring choices.

Age 14 is also the point at which many teenagers will start working outside the home. Their desire/need to earn cash is another calendar limiter you must deal with when trying to hit the “make memories with family” button.

Finally, depending on the child’s desires and aptitudes, high school success in a demanding curriculum, sports, and other extra-curricular activities really does bear on college admissions and scholarships. Missed days and induced drag on the GPA are no longer “Nerf” in high school.

Age 18 brings its own changes when kids head off to college. Not only are they legally adults, but you’ll also probably want them to start exploring their freedom and opportunities for new experiences. Those experiences frequently include using scheduled breaks to go home with friends, stay at school for work/internships, or even travel/study abroad.

As we launched our oldest to school, we faced the reality that we could no longer count on 4-Ship vacations and experiences. We don’t own the calendar as much anymore. (Don’t shed a tear; I’m already planning trips in 10-15 years when we can add grandkids to the roster!)

Bucket List Planning for the Young

If your kiddos are still young, I think you can take a pass on (kick the) bucket list planning. You probably have decades until you meet criteria 1 & 2 above. Why not plan a 14 and 18 bucket list instead?

If that bucket list involves a $20,000 trip to Europe, but your normal annual vacation budget is $6,000 can you find way to come up with the extra $14K? I suspect so, and I’ll offer a few techniques:

  1. Decide on your priorities—make memories while you’re young and healthy or drive a Corvette when you’re 65?
  2. Read Die With Zero (from the library to save money?) to convince yourself that you have a higher risk of dying with too much money than too many fulfilling experiences because you’re a saver.
  3. Shave a bit off your IRA and TSP savings for a year. Yes, this is financial planner blasphemy. But you can probably run projections on the effect of a reduction in one year to determine that the earth won’t implode.
  4. Put off a major purchase for a year or two. Driver safety could be more important than car features…
  5. Buy used. Everything is used as soon as you use it.
  6. Skip your normal vacation the year before and after the big one.
  7. Skip gifts throughout the year.
  8. While I’m not a fan of point-chasing, credit card “hacking” can boost airline miles. Just watch out for the tendency to justify overspending on credit cards.
  9. Keep a visual aid handy to track saving for the goal so the whole family can get on board.

Mid-Life Crisis Bucket List

A few years back, I realized that the number of years since my last ski trip took toes, not just fingers to count.  I love skiing and I’ve wanted my family to have the chance to love it too. At the same time, as a washed-up fighter pilot, I don’t get as much guy time as active duty life provided. Putting my calendar and money where my mouth is, Mrs. Fighter Pilot Finance and I mapped out an annual family ski trip and an annual guys ski weekend (that just happens to lead up to the Spring AFA convention…).  I’m two for two filling those buckets and it turns out my family digs skiing now too.  I don’t need to kick the bucket, but I’m happy filling this particular bucket.

Cleared to Rejoin

There’s a narrow window before age 14 and again before college when our kids can get a lot out of life’s experiences with us, and then outside forces generally crowd the calendar. Building, prioritizing, and executing a bucket list for early ages such as 14 and 18 helps both avoid regret down the road and spread the use of our financial resources over our healthy years, not just our wealthy ones.

Fight’s On!

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