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Best New Ideas in Retirement: ‘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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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.”

Kelley Long and her husband, Chandan Nayak, a childfree couple living in Arizona. She recently took a “mini retirement.”

Photo courtesy of Kelley Long

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 Julythat 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’.”

Similarly, Kelley Long, a certified financial planner and CPA in Arizona with many childfree clients, says much of her work involves “setting people up to feel comfortable taking certain risks with their earning possibilities that parents don’t necessarily get to do.” Those risks can include quitting your job with no plan for a new one and trusting that the money you’ve saved up will be enough until you find your next job or income source. 

Long, who is married and childfree herself, calls this temporary break from working a “mini retirement.” She recently took one herself as a way to recalibrate how she spent her time and to work on building a new financial coaching business. 

“Most people don’t ever think of just stopping saving for a couple of years,” Long said. But for childfree people, “if you have a decent amount of money already saved and you stop and let it ride and go live in a van in the desert, the impact isn’t as great.” Long and her husband are in their mid-40s, and were pleasantly surprised to learn from their financial planner that in five years time, they could both cut their earnings in half and still die with millions of dollars. “Will we go part time in five years? I don’t know. But the possibility is amazing.”

While the pandemic has retooled many people’s aspirations about where they want to live and how they want to work, this societal-norm-challenging movement appears to be growing as well, as more U.S. adults are saying they don’t expect to have children. Last year, the U.S. Census Bureau released a report highlighting America’s “growing childless older adult population.” It showed that 16.5% of Americans age 55 and older, 15.2 million adults, are childless. Some say it’s for financial or medical reasons, others are worried about climate change, to name a few of the cited reasons in a 2021 Pew Research Center survey. Pew noted: “44% of non-parents ages 18 to 49 say it is not too or not at all likely that they will have children someday, an increase of 7 percentage points from the 37% who said the same in a 2018 survey.”

LeNora Faye is living childfree and is an advocate of the lifestyle.

Laurie MacBrown Photography

FILE, not FIRE

Childfree people are a “rather large under-represented minority,” Zigmont, the childfree certified financial planner, believes. “Part of that is because it’s a hard topic,” he said. He started advertising himself as a childfree financial planner in 2021 and so far, he hasn’t seen evidence of the specialty becoming popular with financial planners. Discussions about being childfree can quickly get emotional and bring up complicated feelings about life choices. People on both sides can feel judged and defensive. When Zigmont ran online ads for his upcoming book “Portraits of Childfree Wealth,” two Reddit users reported the ads for “promoting hate speech based on identity and vulnerability.” 

Childfree people are better-positioned to follow what Zigmont calls FILE, which stands for financial independence, live early, a variation on the popular movement known as FIRE, financial independence, retire early. Whereas FIRE is about retiring completely, FILE is “more of a dimmer switch for work,” Zigmont says. It could involve a scenario where someone cuts back on work so they can pursue a passion project, like opening that cupcake shop they’ve always wanted to, or that animal rescue. People with kids can try something like this, of course, but it’s harder. There’s also a path that Zigmont says childfree couples can follow that he calls “the gardener and the rose,” where a couple lives off one income and takes turns being the one who is “blooming” (following passion projects) and the one who is providing support (the gardener).

With both FILE and the gardener and rose scenario, Zigmont says, “it’s a different set of planning than, ‘Hey, I just want to retire as soon as possible. It’s going to change which accounts you use, it’s going to change your investment strategy, it’s going to change your tax structures.” 

To help clients move toward FILE, Zigmont recommends Roth accounts, where account holders pay taxes on the money going into the account but not when they take it out. To his mind, a taxable retirement account can make better sense than a traditional one for childfree people who aren’t planning to pass on their money to the next generation, because they’ll pay capital gains but not income tax rates, which tend to be higher. Another benefit to a Roth account for people pursuing FILE: they can withdraw their contributions when they need the money (as long as it’s been in the account for at least five years), sometimes decades before traditional retirement age.

One misconception about childfree people is that they don’t need to do any financial planning, said Christine Moriarty, a certified financial planner and founder of Money Peace in Bristol, Vt. But planning is still important, even if you don’t have dependents and your cash flow is relatively strong and steady, she said. Moriarty, who doesn’t have children herself and works with many same-sex couples who are childfree, recommends making a solid estate plan. Choose a back-up executor and another back-up on top of that. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having three executors,” she told MarketWatch. 

When planning for retirement, childfree people may have more flexibility when deciding where to settle down, because they’re not factoring in the location of children and grandchildren. One of Moriarty’s childfree couple clients spent five years exploring the U.S. in an RV before deciding to settle in Arizona. Another consideration more common with childfree people is picking out a nonprofit to leave money to in a will. “They’re thinking, this is my legacy. It’s defining legacy differently,” Moriarty said.

There can also be a need to help childfree people set financial boundaries and play defense against family members who make assumptions about their cash flow, Zigmont says. He’s written a list of financial-themed bingos that clients may encounter, such as, “You don’t have kids, so you can afford…” or “Since you don’t have kids, you should help me pay for mine…” As Zigmont tells his clients, “It is amazing that family and friends have plans for how to spend your money…If you even once give in, you become a bank for everyone.”

These presumptions can also take the form of assuming a childfree person will take a more prominent family role care for aging parents, especially among siblings, he said. “It’s really hard to say to a family member, ‘Hey, I’m not going to give you any money,’” Zigmont said. He added later, “I spend a lot of time with people telling them they don’t have a vote in your life — same as you don’t get a vote in theirs.”

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