The Holy Grail

To many people, retirement is the Holy Grail of financial planning.  Clients almost always list retirement as their top financial planning objective.    This makes retirement planning central to what I do for a living, yet I don’t spend much time thinking about actual retirement.  I’ve been focused more on the process of helping people grow and protect their wealth in order to have more choices in the future.  Prior to writing this article, I didn’t give retirement much attention except as my role as a facilitator for others in their pursuit.    My assumption has been that people know what they want and my job is to help them get it.   While largely true, not everyone truly knows what they want or have even given retirement any deep thought.

An on-line message board discussion recently got me thinking about the end result, rather than just about the means to the end.  The conversation was about retiring early, but could apply to anyone contemplating the end of a working career.    How will you fill your time?   What are the downsides of departing the work force?  How will you feel without the structure you’ve become accustomed to?   If you are serious about retirement, these are pretty good questions to consider.

A job is often seen as just a means to a paycheck, and with many, the sooner the job ends the better.  Work can be filled with office politics or excessive job stress.   Horrible bosses are not just the subject of movie comedies.   For these people, retirement is not a dream, it’s a necessity.   Often health issues or the need to care for other family members might make retirement mandatory.  For this article, I’m more interested in exploring the situation where the choice is not so clear.  

I believe that few people want to retire because they hate their job.  Usually, they just want out of the grind.  It’s the drudgery of having to be at the same place at the same time every day that takes the greatest toll.    Having to commute twice a day in rush hour traffic magnifies the problem.    A day that spans from six a.m. to six p.m. does not leave much time to deal with other aspects of life, much less enjoy life.   Retirement might be more about survival than self-actualization.    In such cases, you might look for another way to earn a living, while surrendering less of yourself.   Another solution might be to phase out work by working fewer hours or in a less demanding role.   This option is usually not available without leaving an employer or changing careers. 

From my interaction with clients over the years, there are as many different retirement scenarios as there are people when you consider location, lifestyle, activities, and other factors.     Even so, there are some common themes.   For example, a two-home lifestyle is the dream for some.  If you have been fortunate enough to accumulate sufficient wealth, who would not want the ability to escape harsh winters or oppressive summer heat for part of each year?     Escaping for a few weeks or months each year does not necessarily mean having to own two homes, which can be burdensome for some retirees who seek greater simplicity not more responsibility.  All things considered, renting can offer more flexibility and probably less cost.    I’ve seen both approaches work well for clients.     

I always find it interesting to learn where retirees plan to settle when they have so many choices.   Climate sometimes influences the decision, but being near family and friends is usually the overriding consideration.   Proximity to quality health care is usually a big factor as well.  Many ingredients could come into play, such as access to cultural events or living among others with similar interests.  University towns are a popular destination, because of the inherent energy and access to low-cost entertainment such as plays and concerts.  There are retirement communities and organizations that provide the opportunity for regular interaction with other retirees seeking to fill similar needs.  

The work environment provides much of our social contact on a daily basis.   Being suddenly removed from these connections can leave a large void to fill.     Therefore, it seems to me that social interaction is probably a necessary part of an enjoyable retirement.  That said, this social need doesn’t have to be met through formal events.   Some guys like to meet regularly for an “old guys” breakfast to socialize and solve the great problems of the day.

People worry about being able to fill the extra time.  Married couples even joke about not wanting the other spouse home too much.  I think there is some truth behind this, as each person needs a certain amount of space.  What would you do with an extra ten hours a day?      This is a question that troubles some folks.   From my observations, this is more about the fear of the “unknown” rather than a reality.  

When retirement actually happens, most people tell me they enjoy it.  It’s like every day is Saturday.  There are plenty of things to do.  Working out at the gym, walking, travel, reading, and babysitting grandkids are some of the most common activities retirees express.    Learning or playing a musical instrument would have a lot of benefits I imagine, including staying mentally sharp. 

Even for people without a lot of hobbies or deep interests, there is no shortage of things to do.   It’s a common refrain when I talk to retires that they are busier than ever and don’t know how they ever found time to work.  The number of doctor visits alone can consume a couple of days a week! 

I don’t think it’s so much about the quantity of time, but rather the quality.  Boredom can be a legitimate concern if you spend your time idly or in an unfulfilling mode.  Work is not just about paying the bills, it can be integral to who you are as a person, and how you see yourself.   There is also a good chance that what you do for a living is what you do best.  There is usually a great deal of satisfaction in doing what you do well. It is important to have a good sense of self-worth independent of your job, before exiting a career.        

Charitable work is a natural way to fill time in a productive way.  Giving back by helping a worthwhile cause could provide many of the same intrinsic benefits as employment, but without the added stress.  Finding the right fit would seem to be the main challenge.    Any volunteer work to help others would be commendable, but it would be best to have a passion for the work.    For some, coaching or mentoring young people resonates because it helps to forge the next great generation. 

One suggestion that I’ve heard to smooth the transition from work life to retirement is to keep a routine of some kind and to get out of the house daily.   You could even set an alarm that plays music or quiet talk as a gentle reminder when it’s time to get going.   Look for reasons to get out more often, such as making smaller but more frequent grocery shopping trips.   Retirees should prioritize getting and staying healthy, because the extra time you have in retirement will not be worth much if you are not healthy enough to enjoy it.   

I’ve been lucky to have changed careers twice, each time moving closer to my true calling.   That last switch to self-employment has allowed me to leave behind a closet of suits and ties and pursue my passion – while still having time for family and other interests.   It is said that if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.   I’ve found this to be profoundly true.    With the perfect job in hand, retirement doesn’t hold any special allure for me.   I have some outside activities that I enjoy, such as running and biking, but I’m able to squeeze them in.   My wife, Jan, on the other hand, has a ton of hobbies and activities that take a back seat while working.     She has gotten back into music in the last few years playing the French horn with a church group.   I could see her doing more if there was more time, but she has a similar problem in that she gets a lot of enrichment from her work as well. 

Even though retirement is not on my front burner, I think these issues are worth pondering for people who are close to the retirement phase of life.    If it’s been on your mind, it’s worth a realistic look at what retirement would really entail in your unique circumstances apart from the financial side of it.   Retirement might be the Holy Grail, but like the proverbial dog who catches the car, it might not be all that you bargained for if you are not emotionally prepared for it.   Thinking through all aspects of the decision – apart from just the financial side - can help you enter the next phase of life without trepidation and enjoy the wonderful opportunities ahead.   That way, it truly can be your Holy Grail and lead to an enriched and meaningful retirement when the time comes.