06/22/2012 06:49 am ET Updated Aug 22, 2012

Retirement: Are We Really Ready For It?

Many years ago, on one of my first dates with my now-husband, he purchased discount movie tickets for us using his AARP card (which you can get at 50). Now as much as I hate getting ripped off by movie ticket prices, what I learned that day was that I hated being called a senior citizen even more. I made him return my ticket and pay full price.

Fast forward to today and I'm flashing my own AARP card around with wild abandon. It isn't because I think age entitlements are based on any real logic (I don't). I've just grown more budget-conscious as the sand runs through the hourglass of my working life -- it has resulted in an attitude of greater frugality. If someone wants to sell me something for a few bucks less, my palms are open.

While I'm not really close to an expiration date on my working life, I find that my sights are focused on it with greater intensity. We all know that the day will come when we no longer set an alarm clock. What few of us can imagine is what we do after we wake up at leisure that day. And for the most part, that day is shaped by how and what we do now to financially plan for it.

Me? I'm saving like the squirrel who knows the apocalyptic winter is coming. Like many of my peers, I literally spent like there was no tomorrow during the glory years and then when I lost my job in the recession, it came as the proverbial bucket of ice water dumped on my head. No need to dump a second bucket; I got the message.

I now worship at the altar of my 401k and wonder why banks don't return to those holiday clubs of my youth where you gave them $5 a week and a month before Christmas they returned your money with a pass to go on a shopping spree. It was all about spending what you had in hand and not spending what you needed to borrow. Somewhere, as a generation, we forgot the lesson of those holiday clubs.

I survived my job loss, held it together financially and emotionally. I more than survived; I grew from the experience and wound up in a better place. But when I look in my rearview mirror, I see road casualties who I know will never fully recover. Back a few years ago, President Obama even acknowledged them as road kill. OK, not in so many words, but when he spoke of people who would likely never recover financially from the recession, he was talking about boomers who had lost their jobs. The work skills that served them so well for decades were no longer valued; their unsellable houses tethered them and they couldn't relocate if and when a job offer was proffered; and many who collected their 99 weeks of unemployment later found that the workforce had no interest in them precisely because of that.

I don't know what will happen to those people but I suspect there are enough of them that the government won't be able to continue sweeping their needs under the rug forever.

For the time being, we prefer to celebrate the stories of those who when knocked to the ground, picked themselves up and reinvented themselves. We all need the inspiration of possibility and the hope of a good next chapter.

Personally, I try not to read too much fantasy into it all. As much as I love reading the stories about the 60-something couples who cash in their chips and go traveling for a couple of years, there's nothing new about the rich having it easier. I take more comfort from the stories about people who have successfully downsized and can tell me how to do it. Less may be more but how do you get there from here, especially if you are balancing adult kids who can't find work and parents who seem to be disintegrating right before your watchful eyes?

The one certainty I have is that for boomers, retirement won't be our father's Oldsmobile. We will work to an older age than our parents did, likely have less than they did when we punch the time clock for the final time, and there will be no coloring within the lines of expected. And until then, there are AARP discounts to be had because at the end of the day, every little bit helps.