Just because Scott Burns once wrote that a retirement plan too often consists of answers to unanswerable questions, like how long you’ll live or what the stock market will do, doesn’t mean he won’t give it a go.
Burns, 76, a nationally syndicated writer who has been giving retirement and financial advice to “couch potato” investors for 40 years, announced his retirement last week in a farewell column, thanking both editors and faithful readers.
“I’ve received many reader letters about the column. Some tell how you’ve achieved a secure retirement by following this column. One letter spoke for two generations, of columns passed from father to son. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
But don’t take this retirement any more seriously than his last, Burns said in a recent conversation with the Rivard Report from his home office in Dripping Springs, Texas.
“This is my second retirement,” Burns said of his 2006 departure from the Dallas Morning News to join a friend in starting an investment advisory business. “Things were not looking good for the newspaper business. I was not going to spend the next years looking over my shoulder worrying. Also, it was my last opportunity to do something instead of just writing about it.”
Burns began writing about it all growing up in New Jersey, encouraged by a grammar teacher who preferred 100-word essays over diagramming sentences. As the son of a single mom sharing a room in a boarding house, Burns became interested in profit and loss when his mother married “an American success story” who had lost his company and fortune.
Following his boyhood dream of becoming an astronaut, Burns enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The week before he left home, three tragedies struck Burns’ family simultaneously, including the death of his biological father, and writing became a way to make sense of his feelings.
“The money part came later when I discovered I had an ability with numbers that most people who have an ability with words don’t have,” Burns said. “I realized that if I was to ever make a living in writing, that was the path to follow. And I knew people were curious about money.”
Teaching by day, Burns began writing for publications such as Vogue, Boston Magazine, and Playboy on a freelance basis, and published his first personal finance book in 1972. Newspaper writing jobs eluded him until a friend at the Boston Herald opened the door.
“I got a call from the publisher, and four weeks after that, I was a personal finance columnist, which was great because I didn’t have to go through the years of servitude and abuse that many reporters do,” Burns said. “I still have that first column. I wrote it on a big Royal typewriter. I didn’t use a computer until a month before the [column’s] syndication in December 1980.”
Once his column was syndicated, Burns continued to write about consumer debt, compound interest, investing analysis, and saving for retirement, while also inserting more personal stories about the people he met and life lessons on charity – “writerly” columns, as he calls them.
There was the one about his grandfather giving a beggar enough money to last the day, the one about a locksmith who earned a living hanging out in parking lots, and another about a lobster shack in Maine that donated its ceiling of dollar bills to 9/11 victims’ families. As a parting gift to his readers, Burns is compiling these in a self-published book, Still At Large, available free by request. He has received more than 4,000 orders for the e-book so far.
Ask Burns about mentors in his life and he refers to a 2015 column titled, “Count Your Fathers,” in which he describes a series of father figures he admired, starting from the time he was just a boy who wanted to play catch. Later in life, one of those mentors was his editor at the Boston Herald. “When he left, I realized I had had my last father. I was on my own,” he said. “I was 40 then. I felt fine; I was ready.”
For generations of readers, Burns has served as a money mentor himself, dispensing common-sense financial advice and answering the question on everyone’s mind: Am I saving enough? Like those of a concerned father, Burns’ answers are firm and guiding.
“Life is more expensive than most people think,” he said. “If you can find a partner and be on the same page, life is a lot easier than going it alone.
“I’ve learned simplicity pays enormously. Brainpower doesn’t work, only constancy works. Only low cost and simplicity works, and making sure you pay attention to the returns on your money works.”
In retirement, Burns pays attention to returns in his investing advisory business, which currently has more than $700 million in assets under management, and to his children and two grandsons who live nearby. “Living here is very simple,” he said. “I’ve got pairs of slacks I never get to wear.”
Although it’s the end of an era for his readers and fans, for a man who never missed but one deadline in 40 years, that’s a retirement sure to pay dividends.
“What I’m really looking forward to is a period of sustained indolence,” Burns said. “I want to see what life is like without being organized all the time, without deadlines, without looking at every experience as something that might go back into a column. I’ll do projects, but not on deadline.”