It takes money to flee the rat race

Value Judgments

Your Money

February 08, 2004|By JANET STEWART KIDD

WALL Streeters call it their "walk-away" money.

Well, they actually call it something you can't print in a newspaper, but it means the same: How much money would it take for you to leave the rat race?

Not that you would necessarily quit. But imagine hitting the magic number that makes you bolder and more at peace - maybe even better at your job.

For Robert Safro, the number is $2 million in addition to his retirement accounts.

"That's the figure that I want in liquid assets that would allow me to turn over some clients and reduce my workload," said the 48-year-old Bethesda entrepreneur who sells promotional products for fund-raising events.

Having a target number is even more common in the financial markets, traders say. Those who have reached their numbers and haven't quit tend to trade with more confidence and take better risks, they say.

"It's the number you hit where what the outside world thinks doesn't matter anymore," said Jon Najarian, chief market strategist for PTI Securities in Chicago and a financial-markets commentator for a radio station there. "I know a lot of guys who thought they'd hit their number a few years ago, and then the market turned on them."

For his firm's wealthy clients, the number is about $5 million, he said. Najarian had a number - $1 million - when he was a financial-markets clerk starting out two decades ago, but he said he has far surpassed that figure. Having achieved the benchmark makes him better at his job, he said.

"I love making money, but the euphoric rush of being right about a trade is what keeps me working," Najarian said.

What keeps many of the rest of us working is the euphoric rush of buying groceries and paying tuition. But there are guidelines that can give you a sense of how much you'd need to walk away from it all.

For a practical estimate of retirement needs, the Web sites of several investment companies - such as T. Rowe Price (www.troweprice.com) - offer free calculators that let you manipulate your retirement date to see what an early exit would cost.

If you're anything like me, however, the calculators can be worthless. Most are based on steadily rising income, leaving out many entrepreneurs, working mothers who wander in and out of the work force and job-hoppers whose salaries spike or plummet with each new layoff or opportunity.

And, although financial advisers and the more complex calculators can adjust for certain levels of comfort in a retirement, they can't answer the most fundamental question: How much is enough, or at what number does my time become more valuable than my income?

Your responses to these three questions won't map out a financial strategy but will help you answer the how-much question:

Are you really reaching for your father's retirement? Most Americans try to, even teachers whose parents were investment bankers, said financial planner and author Pamela York Klainer. Unrealistic expectations like those will set you up for failure.

Are you looking to spend away your fears? "Extended families used to live close by, and now we expect to have to pay for those services as we get older or face losing control. The illusion is that if we can pay our way we will maintain control," Klainer said.

Are you flexible enough? "The whole notion of a personal independence number can be an entertaining and motivating mental game," said Tom Morris, a former philosophy professor and author of True Success: A New Philosophy of Excellence. Taken too literally, he said, it gets ridiculous.

"The people I've known who seemed most eager to set and attain their own number have seldom been the people I most admired for their general life wisdom, self-discipline and proper assessment of things," he said. "And it's exactly those qualities that alone would give anyone a real hope of getting the 'number' right."

E-mail Janet Kidd Stewart at yourmoney@tribune.com.

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