By Chris Taylor
Say the words "midlife crisis," and most people think of cringe-worthy scenes like graying men squiring around much-younger paramours in zippy sports cars. Matt Welch went in a more wholesome direction: Baseball cards.
The 46-year-old editor-in-chief of Reason magazine set out to collect every Topps-brand baseball card ever printed of his beloved Angels. It took roughly five years and $1,000, but this past New Year's Eve, the final two cards came in the mail. "Strange things happen to men in their 40s, and this was my midlife crisis," said Welch, a New York City resident originally from Long Beach, California. "I hadn't thought about baseball cards in 30 years. But then I bought one, then two, and it was so pleasurable I thought 'Oh hell, why not?' "
A relatively harmless midlife crisis, to be sure. And one which his wife Emmanuelle Richard has given her tacit approval. "She's said from the beginning, 'It beats the convertible, and it beats the expensive mistress,' " he jokes. But its is a crisis nonetheless, which no doubt feels very familiar to 40- or 50-somethings who feel increasingly alarmed at the passage of time. One common response: Whip out the wallet.
Personal Desires vs. Family Needs
Whether it's for an extravagant vacation, a pricey hobby or a shiny new ride, the many challenges of midlife can lead us to throw off our usual financial restrictions, if only for a moment.
"People spend all this time investing in their marriages and careers and families, and then 10 or 20 years down the line, they often want to renew their enthusiasm for life," said Dr. James Hollis, a psychoanalyst in Washington, D.C., and author of "Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life." "That can lead to risky purchases. I knew one couple whose marriage was teetering on the brink, and they went out and bought a home they couldn't afford. They got to this big empty house and said, 'What have we done?' "
The danger is that the midlife splurge comes during a period of life when Americans can ill afford it. After all, in their 40s and 50s, many members of the so-called sandwich generation" are dealing with the twin financial challenges of raising children and helping their own elderly parents. Meanwhile, they must save for their own retirement, a task for which most Americans have fallen woefully behind. One recent Wells Fargo survey found that 41 percent of those in their 50s were saving nothing for their golden years.
Consider It a Financial Dance
That all makes for a delicate financial dance, with no room for a misstep. That's why experts advise that those in midlife need to be extra-vigilant that some big, emotional purchase doesn't mess up a lifetime of diligent planning. Financial planner Robert Foley of Tustin, California, said the key is to recognize these midlife emotions when they occur. "It's normal and OK to have these feelings," said Foley, who just turned 50 himself and admitted to "longing for the sports car I never had."
Set up some roadblocks for yourself, so those emotions don't translate into massive bills. Clearing larger purchases (over $500 and up) with your partner, for instance, can be one line of defense against overly impetuous decisions.
Also, build some smaller indulgences into your budget instead, Michael Baker, a financial planner from Charlotte, North Carolina, advised. Allow yourself a bigger-than-usual vacation, tie it to some milestone like a birthday or an anniversary, and then work towards it in anticipation. That way, like a dieter allowing yourself an occasional dessert, you won't go crazed with deprivation and react by going too far in the other direction.
Welch's baseball card quest was just such a minor extravagance and seems to have done the trick. At the very least, his affordable midlife crisis got him an excellent collection to show off to fellow Angels fans. Welch's advice for others desiring a midlife splurge? "Get the spouse's buy-in early on," he quips. "That's very important."