What Squirrels Can Teach Us About Retirement

For Boomers, It Looks Like Stashing Nuts Beats the 401(k)

Back in the days when we were all fat and comfortable, wrapped in the security of our bloated brokerage accounts, people would talk about “The Number.” In baby boomer parlance, The Number is the amount of money you need to have in the bank to be able to retire and still maintain the lifestyle you so richly deserve and to which you have become accustomed.

That’s academic now since none of us will be able to retire, ever, but back then I tried to think of who else we know that faces similar issues and might be able to provide a guiding philosophy for this thorny question. And I thought of squirrels.

You see, when squirrels gather acorns and nuts for the long winter, they hide them either in one huge hole or, as the common gray squirrel does, in several hundred different places, exercising behavior known as “scatter hoarding” (what investment advisers would call portfolio diversification). The hoards allow the squirrels to rest quietly in their nests during the winter, leisurely cracking nuts while watching reruns of “American Idol,” without ever having to shovel the walk or put up with unpleasant commuting conditions. Snuggled together, they leave their nests only as necessary to grab some carry-out from their various food caches.

I wondered, how does a particular squirrel figure out how many acorns and nuts it needs to maintain its standard of living during its season of “retirement” — and can this instinct help us calculate when we finally have enough “nuts” to retire?

In search of an answer, I Googled “squirrels gathering nuts.” Rather than relying on some extraordinary scientific phenomenon, Almanac.com tells us that squirrels simply “gather food until there’s no more to gather. They are rather greedy.” (Yet another parallel to humankind, but not what I was hoping to find.) OK, so the squirrel doesn’t know any more than we do when it’s time to get out of the rat race, even though it is, more or less, a rat.

The most impressive information I unearthed about the squirrel is that, though its brain is roughly the size of a walnut, when spring arrives it is generally able to locate about half of the hundreds of places where it hid its hoard of nuts during the previous fall! How can this rodent, with its teeny hippocampus, remember where it hid all those tiny nuts six months earlier — especially when I can’t remember half the time which section in the mall parking lot I left my giant SUV, even though it was only an hour ago and I didn’t hide it under several layers of dirt?

Surely the squirrel’s enhanced memory skills are not an indication that it is more highly evolved than we are, because if that were the case, it would not be leaping from one treetop to another, kamikaze-style, without the benefit of a net. But come to think of it, perhaps the average squirrel is slightly more intelligent than the average human. After all, its investment loss ratio is roughly equivalent to what mine has been over the past year, and its fees are definitely a lot lower.

At the end of the day, sadly, it does not appear that there is much we can learn from the ubiquitous squirrel. But there is one pretty important lesson we humans could certainly teach it: When you’re standing on your hind legs in the middle of a road and you see four large, round, black rubbery things rolling toward you at an alarming speed, don’t just stand there staring — drop the nuts and run like hell!


Alisa Singer’s humorous essays have appeared in a variety of print and online newspapers and magazines in the United States and Canada. She is the author of the books “I Still Wanna Be A … ,” an illustrated collection of whimsical poetic fantasies in which she “morphs” herself into her childhood heroes, and “My Baby Boomer Memory Album,” memorializing the first grandchild, Social Security check, chin hair and other milestones of the second half of a boomer’s life. Visit her Web site at alisasinger.com or e-mail her at asingerauthor@gmail.com.

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