It was unexpected, the mind-boggling discovery that suddenly I was rich. And what's more, that I had been rich for over a year -- without even knowing it!

Of course, if I were in the habit of balancing my checkbook more often I would have known sooner of the sudden jump in my personal fortune.

Anyway, what happened was that last week while going through my checks I came across one that caused a light bulb to go off over my head. Metaphorically speaking.

There it was -- Check No. 2243 -- the last payment on my last son's college education. I quickly calculated in my head that, with no more college tuition payments, over the next four years I would be richer by a windfall of almost $75,000! And that doesn't include dividends, interest and a possible investment in some fantastically successful, breakthrough pharmaceutical company -- one which will invent, say, a cure for baldness -- whose stock will then zoom up to give me a 500 percent return on my investment!

My thoughts began racing. I felt dizzy with the potential of this windfall. Now I could do all the things I always said I'd do if only I could afford to do them. Things that would expand my horizons and enrich my personal growth. Things like:

* Learning a foreign language. Or, better yet, taking one of those courses in accents that teaches you how to speak English in the accent of your choice. Based on the premise that people who speak English with, say, a French accent are more interesting than those who don't, such a course offers the possibility, it seems to me, of opening up many new friendships with strangers on trains and domestic flights.

* Taking a really super vacation -- such as chartering a private yacht and cruising the Greek Islands for a year. Or maybe taking a leave of absence from my job to find out where the gym teacher who wasn't nice to me in the seventh grade is living and then going to her house and confronting her with my side of the story.

* Going to a beauty spa for a six-month make over, so I can finally understand what it's like to be one of those Women-Who-Are-Too-Attractive-For-Their-Own-Good types who are always being written about in self-help books and articles.

The list making went on for several days. And I became bolder in my spending habits -- doing things like paying $10 more than the monthly minimum-required amount on my credit cards and buying brand-name pantyhose.

A woman with a nest egg of a couple hundred thousand dollars, I told myself, could afford to cut herself some slack. Budget-wise, that is.

The next thing you know I was at the Pampered Pet Shop buying catnip toys to replace Max and Fluffy's usual playthings: tin foil balls which I crumple up to sort of resemble silver mice.

Life, as the French -- or someone affecting a French accent -- would say, was tres jolie.

But life, as the great psychoanalyst Karen Horney would say, still remains one of humankind's most effective therapists, setting us straight when we stray too far off-course.

And so it was that my new and improved financial lifestyle took a sudden nose-dive last week. What happened was I picked up one of those magazines devoted to money and how to get more of it and there it was: an article on retirement. It said that I would need to put aside a minimum of ONE MILLION DOLLARS ($1,000,000!) if I wanted to keep up my current standard of living when I retired.

Which shocked me since my current standard of living leaves a lot of room for improvement. But given the fact that the future is one of those invisible realities in which people believe -- including yours truly -- I knew what I had to do: sit down and start planning for my retirement.

Any way you look at it, it's not going to be easy. I guess it means I'm definitely going to have to return the cat toys and pray they don't notice the tiny teeth marks. And I guess the seventh-grade gym teacher will just have to go to her grave without knowing that it was Lois Marsh who cut the climbing ropes, not me.

Which reminds me: Lois Marsh still owes me $2.25 from the day I lent her lunch money.

So that's it. A dollar here, a dollar there and pretty soon -- Voila! -- we're talking retirement condo in Boise, Idaho.

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