Most articles on retirement focus on the financial issues – how much to save, how to invest, when to retire and how to generate and manage income in retirement. The most comprehensive financial plan alone, though, may be inadequate as preparation for retirement. As the entire concept of retirement becomes broader and more diverse, it is also important to identify exactly what retirement means to you and how to get there.
Webster’s defines “retirement” as “the act of ending your working or professional career, “the act of retiring” and “the period after you have permanently stopped your job or profession”. But with more people staying active longer, retirement seldom means a life of idle leisure. Indeed, financial planners are now using terms like “”next phase”, “the enjoyment phase” and even “walkaway freedom” to describe the period following a primary career.
Continuing to work in some capacity would seem to address many retirement pitfalls. It is true that any money earned from working goes a long way towards stretching retirement resources. Second, there are many social, emotional and intellectual benefits to working even if it’s as a volunteer. Finally, as long as you are working, you likely aren’t spending, and that also helps relieve financial pressures.
Unfortunately, blithely assuming that working in retirement is the answer ignores reality. A survey from the Employee Benefit Research Institute indicates that 69% of workers plan to continue working for pay later in life but that only 25% of retirees have actually worked. The expectation of continuing to work can be met head-on by poor health, age discrimination and a tight and competitive job market.
Even conventional wisdom expects a retiree to actually spend more in the first few years of retirement as new lifestyles are established and new avocations pursued. There are a number of planning techniques that will reduce the risk of financial surprises and, even more importantly, avoid making lifestyle mistakes when entering retirement.
Draw a picture of your retirement – Yes, actually get a pencil and paper (crayons if you want to really get serious) and draw a picture of yourself in retirement. The detail required to draw a picture, and the visual impact of the finished product, can take retirement from the abstract to more real. Even if drawing seems silly, at least describe your picture of retirement in far more detail than “buy an RV and travel”.
Don’t get fixated on a detail – This may seem contradictory to drawing the picture, but the picture is intended to serve as a reality check. Keeping details flexible creates many more options to reaching the most important parts of the dream. For example, insisting on a brand-new luxury RV not only complicates the goal but actually raises other issues (need for status, etc.) that should be addressed.
Know the cost of the dream – This is one area where the emotional and financial merge. Don’t make assumptions or rely on the experience of a friend from years prior. Be realistic, do research and consult professionals if necessary.
Test new locations – Ideally, spend at least two weeks in each new location being considered for retirement and make it as close to permanent living as possible. (I often ask new retirees in Tucson if they took the “southwest tour” of Tucson, Phoenix, Las Vegas and Albuquerque and why they settled on Tucson.) Rent the type of dwelling you hope to live in, get away from tourist areas and don’t eat out. Even better, take the trip in what is considered the least enjoyable season at your destination rather than the best season.
Downsize before retirement – It takes more work but downsizing while still working has significant benefits. You can sell and buy real estate on your own timetable rather than with some arbitrary deadline when you are retired. (If you are relocating in retirement, consider renting in your current location if an attractive opportunity to sell your house arises.) Downsizing can reduce expenses while you are still at peak earnings levels, creating the opportunity for adding more to savings. And you will experience firsthand whether downsizing results in anticipated lower costs rather than being surprised in retirement.
Take a sabbatical – There are plenty of stories about the recent retiree who begged for his old job after a few weeks because he was completely lost with nothing to do. While a long sabbatical may be unrealistic some period of time that is completely unplugged from work can at least simulate the complex emotional impact of leaving a career.
Take classes and volunteer – These are low-cost, low-risk ways to meet new people and try out new hobbies, groups and even second careers. Quite a few financial planners came to the field as a result of planning their own retirement.
In addition to exercise and healthy living, the Harvard Study of Adult Development (conducted for 73 years) offers other clues for a happy retirement. As reported in USA Today, these include:
Make new friends – Even if it is contrived at first, find ways to plan interactions to replace the contacts you had at work. Social isolation can accelerate aging and strain family relationships.
Work your brain cells – The happiest participants in the study learned new things, whether taking a college course, learning a new language or taking up a new hobby. “Learning seems to carry its own satisfaction.”
Find new meaning – Purpose in life is often easier for younger generations who are graduating, getting jobs, getting married and raising kids. But the end of a career can also end that thing that gets you up every morning. It does not have to be some grand noble cause, but “finding what gets you out of the easy chair is every bit as important as having a physical fitness plan.”
Retirement should be an exciting time, a reward for a lifetime of hard work, and not a cause for fear of the uncertain. A little forethought can set the course for the next and best phase of your life.