If magazine covers are a guide, the most important activity for all human beings is to become inconceivably rich. The subject of wealth has dominated magazine covers for months. Witness these recent odes to Mammon:
  • The October 23rd issue of Fortune, the one offering the guide to "Retire Rich" along with "Eight Idyllic Hideaways To Call Home."
  • The November 20th issue of the same magazine pictured "The Next Richest Man in the World" on its cover.
  • The December issue of Money magazine exhorting us to "Retire Rich!" and offering their "exclusive 60-Minute Plan."
  • Not to be outdone, the December issue of Individual Investor offered "7 Can't-Miss Strategies" to--- you guessed it---"Retire Rich."
  • Forbes, not to be outdone, devoted their entire December 25 issue to "The Art of Being Rich" explaining the benefits, perils, and investment returns of collecting. With such spirit of the day I can only wish their entire staff a hearty Merry X-mas.

Such timing.  A crescendo of Get Rich! magazine covers appear as the stock market is exterminating wealth at unbelievable speed. It makes you wonder if today's media focus on wealth has the same contrary meaning as the famous Money magazine cover on gold when it hit $800 or the equally famous Business Week cover announcing that equities were dead, just before the start of the bull market. We may be witnessing Mammon's Last Hurrah.

The antidote to all this is Ralph Warner of Nolo Press. Mr. Warner spoke at a recent meeting of personal finance journalists and suggested that all this attention to wealth was silly. You didn't have to be rich to have a good retirement, he said, and while money seemed to be first on the priority lists of those anticipating retirement, it was a low fourth or fifth on the priority lists of people who were actually enjoying their retirement.

So what's more important than money?

Taking care of your health by regular exercise and healthy habits, having a lot of interests outside of work, having good friends, serving your community, and having close relationships with your family.

Note the complete absence of money, let alone asset allocation, portfolio balancing, technology stocks, and even such new security blankets as Long Term Care insurance.

If you're in your 40s or 50s and find yourself spending altogether too much time worrying about how many hundreds of thousands (or millions) you will need to retire, I have a suggestion. Do what I did after hearing Mr. Warner: put in a rush order for his book, "Get A Life: You Don't need a Million to Retire Well." (Nolo Press, paperback, 336 pages, $24.95)

The foundation for this book, which was first published in 1996 and now in its third edition, is unique. Instead of starting with an imagined retirement and advising on how to accumulate the money deemed necessary, he interviewed real people who were clearly enjoying their retirement years.

The result is an entirely different set of answers and priorities.

Don't get me wrong. Money is still important. It's just much lower on the list of priorities because it won't solve the real problems that most people have in retirement--- boredom, loss of self esteem, lack of contact with others, ill health, etc. In interview after interview, the message Mr. Warner gets from happy retirees is that if you take care of the living of your life, the money part will pretty much take care of itself.

How? Through a multitude of practical steps that have nothing to do with what Mr. Warner calls "the retirement industry." For one thing, Warner believes we will need a lot less money in retirement than the retirement planners say. We can sell a large house for a smaller one. We can move from an expensive area to a less expensive area. We can turn our avocations into part-time vocations. We can lighten up and laugh at the latest and greatest in luxuries. And we can save and invest a few dollars.

Merry Christmas, everyone. Let's count our blessings.