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Best New Ideas in Retirement

May 19, 2022, 2:17 p.m. EDT

‘Who is going to take care of you when you’re old?’ Childfree retirement planning answers the questions all of us should be asking

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By Leslie Albrecht

People will say all kinds of things to you if you tell them you don’t plan to have children, ever. “You’ll grow out of it.” “It’s selfish to not have children.” “You don’t like kids?”

People in the childfree community refer to these comments as “bingos.” 

It’s called “getting bingoed” when someone throws a cliché at a childfree person about their plan to not have kids. Childfree people check these statements off on a mental bingo card; hearing one can feel like a rite of passage for newcomers to childfree living. 

“But you would make such a good parent.” “What if your child grows up to discover a cure for cancer?” In online childfree communities, newbies will post about getting their first bingo and helpful veterans will chime in with suggestions on how to respond. One of the most common bingos is: “Who will take care of you when you’re old?”

That’s a question that Jay Zigmont, a certified financial planner in Water Valley, Miss., is ready to answer. He’s prepared with charts and U.S. Census data to help him. In fact Zigmont has launched an entire business essentially designed to respond to that query and many of the others that childfree people confront as they venture off the traditional path of school, marriage, kids and retirement. 

Zigmont, who is married and childfree, specializes in financial planning for what he describes as “childfree families,” people who don’t have kids and don’t plan to have them in the future. (The preferred term isn’t childless, it’s “childfree” with no hyphen, Zigmont says, because a hyphen would imply the person was missing something. He says he uses the word “family” intentionally because having a family doesn’t necessarily mean having children.) 

Being childfree means using a different financial planning framework than parents do, say those in the childfree community. Many traditional money goals simply aren’t part of the plan, like accumulating wealth to pass on to heirs, figuring out a way to pay for college, or saving for a bigger house. If you’re in a double-income-no-kids situation, there’s less of a need for life insurance if no one is counting on your income, and there’s less of a need to stay in a job you hate just for the money.

Childfree people can also throw out the conventional thinking about retirement and planning for “someday.” The future is no longer framed around “When my kids leave the house, I’ll finally have the time and money to do other things with my life.” These households typically have more flexibility and more disposable income (though childfree people sometimes point out that it’s a myth that they’re all rolling in cash). A sense of freedom is one of the lifestyle’s main attractions. “We actually get a bit of paralysis analysis, of having too many choices and too many options,” Zigmont says.

For the increasing number of Americans who are pursuing their lives without children — nearly one in six adults age 55 and older, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — the Best New Idea in Retirement is figuring out how a childfree retirement can meaningfully work; and for the rest of us, it may be watching the childfree creatively blaze new paths that widely apply . It can be emotionally fraught, but the financial questions childfree people confront are worth examining regardless of one’s parental status, because they reveal truths that everyone can learn from.

A prime example is the bingo, “Who is going to take care of you when you get old?” When someone asks that, Zigmont says, “What that means is they’re assuming somebody else is going to take care of them.” While there are many forms of caretaking, evidence suggests that in a financial context at least, this assumption might be misguided. A tiny percentage, just 1.5%, of older parents, received any money from family or friends, according to a 2021 U.S. Census study that compared older parents to older people without children. Among childless people, the share that received money from family or friends was actually a touch higher, at 2.5%. (A 2020 survey by AARP painted a different picture: it found that 32% of adults age 40 to 64 had provided financial support to their parents in the past year and 42% expected to do so in the future.)

“The difference of being childfree is we know we have to take care of it, and we have a plan to do it,” Zigmont says. He had a client in their 20s ask recently about long term care insurance, but had to explain that she needed to wait because typically insurers won’t give people under age 30 quotes. Zigmont points out to his clients that the U.S. medical and financial systems “fall apart” when people at the end of life don’t have a next of kin. To prepare for this, he suggests that clients appoint and pay a trustee to act as a durable power of attorney and/or a medical proxy.  

“The answer to the question of who’s going to take care of you when you’re older is, you are,” Zigmont says. “Your money, your time, your effort. You’re going to pay somebody to take care of you.”

In America, 15.2 million adults aged 55 and older are childless

When LeNora Faye thinks about her retirement, she pictures herself as an active older person, embarking on new careers. The 39-year-old is living childfree in Alberta, Canada, and now spends most of her time as a childfree lifestyle advocate. She writes a newsletter on childfree living and is currently co-planning a virtual childfree convention scheduled for July that will include sessions on childfree estate planning and living childfree on a budget. 

Faye, who did her estate planning when she was 34, doesn’t see herself slowing down too much as she ages. She’s planning with an eye toward being financially independent and she pictures herself following passions like writing film scores. A former professional violinist, her dream would be to have a Las Vegas residency where she could play music and share stories about childfree living with an audience. She sees a need for “kick-ass childfree people in their 80s and 90s who can tell the world how awesome it is.”

Another active member of the childfree community, Cody Hetzel, is 43 and already semi-retired. He and his wife have achieved financial independence much sooner than they thought they would, he said. “It’s opened doors and we’ve been able to choose which one we want to walk through instead of just walking down a tunnel,” Hetzel said of being childfree. The couple, who live in Savannah, Ga., started an estate sale business and sold it in 2019, and they now pursue passion projects. He runs a small social network called Childfree Family where childfree people can connect, and his wife paints pet portraits and volunteers at an animal rescue. They both also walk dogs and pet sit in their neighborhood as a way to stay active and socialize with neighbors.

Hetzel started saving money for retirement in his 20s. He says being childfree gave him the freedom to pursue more aggressive investments, especially in 2008, when he started investing in individual stocks that had fallen in price. “I’m a pretty risk averse person, but being childfree, I felt like I was a little bit more liberal with how I invested,” Hetzel said. “We don’t have to be like, ‘Well, but what about braces, and the kids want to play sports or play an instrument and those cost money’.”

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