Your Magic Number


A Completely Different Way to

Think About the Rest of Your Life

By Lee Eisenberg

Free Press; 268pp; $26

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Editor's Review

Star Rating

The Good A wry and informative meditation on planning for retirement.

The Bad The account is increasingly haphazard as it nears its end.

The Bottom Line A valuable rumination on what makes for a satisfying life.

January, 2006, marks the 60th birthday of the oldest baby boomers, the leading edge of the 76 million-strong generation born between 1946 and 1964. The group that roared at Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate and rocked at Woodstock is now chuckling at Diane Keaton's Mrs. Robinson-like antics in Something's Gotta Give and flocking to concerts by the sexagenarian Rolling Stones. Little wonder that retirement planning has become a national obsession. The media assiduously cover the finances of an aging population: 401(k)s and IRAs. Mutual funds and long-term-care insurance.

Boomers follow the markets, page through investing books, and confer with their money advisers. Despite that, most folks who are nearing retirement -- whether they occupy executive suites or cubicles -- are haunted by financial uncertainty and wonder whether they have really set aside enough for life's later stages. "What are the chances that you'll live out your days in comfort?" asks Lee Eisenberg, author of The Number: A Completely Different Way to Think About the Rest of Your Life. "Do you have what it takes right now? What happens if you don't make it to your Number?"

Good questions all, with the last one enough to make most of us shudder. Eisenberg is the former editor-in-chief of Esquire and more recently executive vice-president and creative director at retailer Lands' End. He uses the device of the Number -- that uncertain sum of money we'll need to live well during the golden years -- to write a meditation on retirement planning as a journey and a quest. In actuality, the Number is unknowable, Eisenberg says. But in the end, he offers guidelines: For example, a middle-class person used to living on $200,000 a year will need something north of $2 million and south of $5 million. Along the way we visit many of his pals and professional acquaintances, spend time at the headquarters of mutual fund giant Fidelity Investments, attend a Weyerhaeuser (WY ) Co. employee-retirement seminar, and fly to Hawaii to interview a personal finance guru. The Number is a valuable addition to anyone's bookshelf, although aspects are disappointing: For my taste, the book feels increasingly haphazard near the end.

The author uses anecdotes to illuminate his six Eisenberg Uncertainty Principles. Boiled down, the uncertainties stem from: 1) living in a society steeped in debt with little peer pressure to get your financial house in order; 2) not knowing how money works; 3) the withering retirement system; 4) the dark clouds hanging over pensions; 5) the difficulty of finding a trustworthy guide; and 6) questions about what truly matters.

Yet this is not a typical personal finance book, thank goodness. The value of The Number lies in its conversation about getting older, insights about key questions for any financial blueprint, and, most crucial, ruminations on what makes for a satisfying life. Eisenberg is a good storyteller with a sense of humor, the kind of guy with whom you'd like to share a drink. He has a knack for the wry aside and a real ability to distill complex information. Put it this way: The Number is designed to get you thinking about what you want from life, and by that metric it succeeds. "An unexamined life may or may not be worth living -- but it's almost always more costly than the examined one," he writes. Amen.

That said, don't buy the marketing slogan. The Number is billed as a new way to think about the rest of your life. It isn't. Throughout this book I was troubled that most of its characters were very successful. Their "number" worries seem to revolve around whether they will be able to own a third home or not. Yes, money may be irrelevant in the end, as one character says, but we should all be so lucky.

Indeed, The Number is really less about retirement and more about downshifting. It considers how those who have flourished, now in their late 50s and early 60s, can say goodbye to their office mates -- not to hit the golf course, but to find another, more satisfying career. That's what happened to Eisenberg, a tale he relates in a Woody Allen-esque manner: Highly successful Manhattan editor in his mid-50s ends up with Lands' End in Dodgeville, Wis. (population 3,022). Uproots family, cashes in stock options when Sears, Roebuck & Co. (SHLD )33 buys Lands' End. Writes a book. Now that's not a bad model for a second or third act.

To me, it's the message of Eisenberg's own story that stands out. Yes, you have to save, but the basics of personal finance are pretty simple. Set aside some income every year. Don't take on credit-card debt. Don't put all your investment eggs in one basket. But when it comes to planning for retirement, the investments that really matter are education, career, and networks -- the intangibles economists call human capital. Want to examine a really good portfolio? Read the Acknowledgements at the end of the book. Opportunity knocks for anyone with friends and colleagues like that.

By Christopher Farrell

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