Bucket List Planning for the Young

Bucket List Planning for the Young

Our culture tells us that we should develop a bucket list of things to experience before we kick the bucket.  My father wanted to see a game in every major league baseball park, which he did with not many years to spare.  But thinking about kicking the bucket is a bit morbid, so 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 lead.  Maybe it’s time to re-think this whole bucket list idea?

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 memories versus a big pile of dollars.  Clearly that’s personal preference, but I don’t meet many folks that skew more Scrooge than Cratchit so I think there’s a lot of agreement that living a fulfilling life is a worthy pursuit.

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 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 treadmill during our working years.  We feel as though 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’re trying to accomplish with the time remaining?

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

  1. A) We are in fact mortal, and kicking the bucket is alarmingly closer in years than it used to be and,
  2. B) We’ve established a financial foundation to feel like there’s extra resources beyond our minimum essential life-needs list (MEsLL… sorry, had to cram that concept in here somehow…)

But, if we wait until we meet these criteria, we’re going to miss a lot of opportunities on earlier laps around the sun.  Perhaps some earlier bucket list planning makes sense?

The 14 & 18 Bucket Lists

I launched my oldest daughter to college this year.  Right after high school graduation, our family had a cruise planned, but COVID had other plans.  We rescheduled the cruise for later in the summer, just before college move-in, but COVID had more other plans.  Losing out on the cruise was certainly a first-world problem, but disappointing anyway.

Missing that opportunity for a family celebration while also simultaneously grieving the absence of my oldest and basking in the satisfaction of helping get her to the starting line of life gave me plenty of time to ponder.   As a financial planner, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the epiphany of my pondering is this: the bucket list planning that we should start with is based on 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 good chance that you can treat elementary school and most of middle school as “Nerf” grades and attendance records.

Sports and other extracurricular activities certainly fill up the time slots too 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 that doesn’t transfer to high school and the Common App for college.

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 some type of job.  Their desire/need to earn cash is yet another calendar limiter that 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, I faced the reality that we can 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 for 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 have a pass on (kick the) bucket list planning.  You probably have decades until you meet criteria A & B 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 as a saver, you have a higher risk of dying with too much money than too many fulfilling experiences.
  3. Shave a bit off your IRA and TSP savings for a year. Yes, this is 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.
  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 produce a boost of airline miles. Just watch out for the tendency to justify over-spending on credit cards.
  9. Keep a visual aid handy to track saving for the goal so the whole family can get on board.

Consider ages and stages too.  If mom and dad want the kiddos to love skiing and feel comfortable as international travelers, what ages will the kids really start enjoying either one?  How much fun will it be changing diapers on the Euro Rail?  Keep in mind too that the mouse is only sort of ageless.  There will come a point at which pre-teens don’t dig Disney as much.

Cleared to Rejoin

We must save for our needs when don’t want to or can’t earn income anymore, but if we wait to have all of the fun in life until we retire, we miss out on experiences, especially with our children when we have a vote in how the time gets used.  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 in life 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 years.

Fight’s On!

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