September 14, 2012

How To Retire

That seems like an odd title, doesn't it? How to retire is simple: stop working. Well, no, that isn't quite the case. If almost 400 satisfying retirement blog posts have taught me anything, it is that this is a complicated journey. It seems to be unique to each of us. Sure, there are general guidelines and certain steps to take to improve your odds of retiring well. But, as I read through the responses to the questionnaires that will form the core of my new book, I am struck by how each person answers many of the questions in a slightly different way.

Retiring cannot be reduced to a series of specific steps. Yet, How to Retire is one of the most Googled terms in the area of retirement information. It only lags a little behind retirement financial calculators and retirement pensions in the total number of hits. So, there is a real hunger for help, a desire to find some guidance. Not being one to shy away from a challenge, let me try to summarize in a way that anyone will find something to work with.

1. Why do you want to retire? You've had a bad week, or month at work. Your boss or customers are annoying. You are tired of the daily commute. None of these should be enough to make you decide to retire. Trust me: retirement carries the same bad days, the same annoyances, the same routine. That is what living includes.

To really want to retire voluntarily the reason has to be two-fold: you have reached the end of the line in terms of enjoyment or satisfaction with your work. You dread getting up every morning and facing the same old things. Your dissatisfaction has been building for quite some time, not just because of a rough patch.

The second reason is you can't wait to tackle a new phase of your life. You have plans and dreams, you itch to try something new, you can't wait to tackle whatever is next. You feel you have talents and energies that must be tapped.

Retirement isn't running from something, it is running to something else. Any other reason is probably not sufficient.

2. Are your prepared financially? Trust me, none of us ever feel we have enough money to retire. The thought of no more regular paychecks is sobering. But, there is a difference between not being ready and being ready but still being concerned or cautious. The average 50 year old American has less than $50,000 saved for retirement. That person is not ready, no matter how much he downsizes and simplifies.

I don't believe in set dollar amounts for retirement. There are too many variables. But, common sense says that even with a decent Social Security check each month you are likely to need quite a bit more to live for another 20 or 30 years. If you live within your budget, understand how to use credit, don't treat your home equity (if you have any) like a piggy bank, and understand the concept of delayed gratification, you are well on your way.


3. Are your prepared emotionally? Do I mean to accept all that free time and lack of deadlines? Am I ready for a stress-free life? No, that's not the issue. Emotional preparation means the loss of your personal identity. Most of us see ourselves as valuable and defined by our jobs. "What do you do?" is the first question asked when you meet someone. Who will you be when the answer is "nothing." Can you find meaning and purpose when you have to create it yourself? Are you mature enough and secure enough in defining your life by who you are instead of what you do?

4. Is your primary relationship strong enough? Being home full time with another person is a major adjustment. I'll say that again: this is a big deal. Retirements end with one or both partners going back to work simply because they can't stand being together full time. Divorce is a growing issues with older, retired folks. In fact, the largest percentage increase in divorce comes from those 50+. The time to work through differences and decide on the balance of we and me time is before work stops.

5. Do you have ideas on how you will use your free time? At first blush, an unstructured day seems like heaven. Each 24 hour period stretches before you with no commitments, no deadlines, no pressure. The reality is very different. After financial worries the biggest fear of those getting close to retirement is how they will use their time. What will they do all day? With 30 years filled with a job or career, there has been little time to develop any outside interests or passions. As point #1 above notes, retiring into nothing means you aren't ready to retire.

The most pleasurable retirement happens when someone has things to retire to: hobbies to pursue, new interests to explore, travel to take, grandkids to visit, books to write, volunteering opportunities to accept......things that bring meaning and purpose to your days. These are the things that cause you to get out of bed full of energy and enthusiasm. For those faced with another day of puttering around the house, reading for hours at a time, and ending the day falling asleep in front of the TV, retirement becomes a type of prison, locked into a behavior whose only goal is to get from morning to night.

6. Are you ready for the time of your life? As someone whose whole existence was defined by his work, who did a poor job of relationship building and who entered retirement unready emotionally and without real goals, I have finally arrived at a place where I can honestly state that this has become the best stage of my life. I stumbled badly for several years. I read too much, watched way too much TV, spent too many hours surfing the Internet, and longed for the security of my former high profile career.

Then, I found my stride. I stopped worrying about finances. I found passions that ignited me. I discovered the thrill of giving back and making a difference through meaningful volunteer work. I allowed my spirituality to blossom and define why I am here on earth. I rediscovered the thrill of a relationship that is growing and respectful.

I wish someone else had written this post 11 years ago. It would have saved me over three years of waste and frustration. My hope is that you find something here that helps you avoid my early mistakes. This blog is not all good news and sunshine. Retirement is just another part of life. It takes work, You will make mistakes. You will occasionally throw up your hands and ask yourself why are you doing this.

But, then, suddenly you will find the correct light switch. You will figure it out. You will have what it takes to live a satisfying retirement.

38 comments:

  1. Check, check, check, check, check, check. I'm ready! Only 28 more months till the mortgage is paid off.

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  2. I just retired early (52 years old) so this post is particularly useful for me. I'm having a minor struggle with #4, but I think my relationship with my wife is starting to smooth out. I'm still trying define how to handle #5. I was a professional programmer which I got tired of. Ironically, I now spend a lot of time programming for fun. Maybe this is just a phase before I move on to other hobbies?

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    1. My spouse and I had a challenging month about two months into his retirement (I retired one year before him). I have to admit I was shocked when it occurred. Looking back though, never in our 30 year marriage had we been together 24/7/365, so in retrospect I see it now as a normal emotional adjustment.

      Things have smoothed out nicely as we've each found our new equilibrium, and we are enjoying our new alone and together time tremendously.

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    2. Only one challenging month? You and Mike are lucky it was over so quickly. You obviously have a solid relationship. Adjusting to full time togetherness is a big stumbling block for many folks.

      BTW, we are home from the RV adventure and looking forward to the next trip.

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    3. We have all been there. Maybe someday you can laugh at the struggle. I know my husband and I do.

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  3. Great post, with some very true statements. I retired at age 51,(3 yrs ago) and enjoy reading your blog.

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    1. Thanks, Mike. Retiring at 51 is quite an accomplishment. I hope all is going well.

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  4. Funny, I answered yes to all the questions, yet I keep on working for the man every night and day. A hard habit to break since I started at age seven delivering newspapers. One of these days I'll join yourself, Bob.

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    1. Well, I hope so! There is so much more to life than work, work, work! I know you do a lot of other stuff, like play in a band, motorcycle ride, exercise, and enjoy the heck out of living in Tennessee so you have found a balance that works for you.

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  5. I find I spend a lot of time on the internet. No TV though. I do think I need to knock down my computer time.

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    1. I have found myself spending too much time at night on Netflix. It is so convenient with so many options that is it hard to not just click on that icon.

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  6. One of your best articles, a great read to those considering retirement. I disagree that you "wasted" years. You couldn't haven't gotten to this point in your life without going through that time.

    Number 3 was difficult for me, but I think I have finally gotten over that my teaching job was eliminated. I can smile because it happened, not cry because it is over. (Not my thought, it's a quote from someone else but I can't remember who just now)

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    1. Yes, I don't really see them as wasted years because they helped me figure out what I was happiest doing. Even so, I wish I could have figured it all out a little quicker!

      "I can smile because it happened, not cry because it is over" is a great attitude.

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  7. Hi Bob,

    Great post! I've been following your blog for a while, and finally have decided to comment. I'm looking forward to retiring early next year. I feel fairly confident that I will be ready, although still figuring out how I will use all my spare time. After many years of devoted work, it will be a dramatic change for me. But I'm looking forward to this journey! My husband has been retired for a few years already, so this will be a big change for him too. But a good one! Thanks for your great advice. I really enjoy reading your blog.

    Carole

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    1. Thank you, Carole, for the kind words and joining the crew that comment.

      Yes, the change to retirement will be a dramatic adjustment. But with preparation and the support of your spouse, the journey will be a blast.

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  8. Right you are, Bob. Two years in, I'm having a very satisfying retirement, but there's one Facebook game I'm spending too much time on.

    And the stack of books and magazines I want to read is getting really, really tall.

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    1. Betty and I finished two books each on the just-concluded RV trip, as well as a stack of magazines. It felt good to be able to have so much down time to simply enjoy all that reading.

      I wanted to ask how your husband's book is doing. I know you have become more active in promoting it. Is it paying off?

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  9. I have been retired over a year, and I'm still waiting for a 24 hour period to stretch out in front of me with nothing to do!

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    1. Go RVing...or the Oregon coast...turn off the cell phone and laptop and just be....in your happy place.

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  10. Retired 7 years ago (at 65) from demanding IT job. Why? Because my husband was retiring and because I was tired and wanted a change. To what I had no idea... and still don't. I am in excellent health and do the normal household stuff, workout regularly and read a lot on a variety of subjects. I do enjoy my grandchildren. But I have found no real passions though I've tried several hobbies and some volunteer work. OK financialy but travel funds are limited. Not really miserable, but a little bored and my life seems somewhat empty, though I am grateful for my health and family. Nothing I do feels productive. Never imagined this. At age 72, I probably don't have a lot more time to figure this out. Gosh, mine is the only negative comment. What's wrong with me? Love your blog.

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    1. I can promise you that you are not the only person struggling to find the right mix of activities and interests. Though these comments seem to indicate otherwise, I would guess the majority of retired folks have problems feeling as productive as they did while working.

      How is your husband handling retirement? Does he do anything that you might join him? Has you list of chores at home changed (meaning are you and hubby sharing household duties?)

      My only advice is to understand that productivity in retirement is very different from the working world. Staying healthy and working out regularly, keeping your mind active with reading, doing some volunteer work and enjoying your grandkids sounds pretty good. What you are missing is a sense of fulfillment. Are you willing to take a chance and try something that may be just a bit out of your comfort zone? No matter what it is, just by trying something new you will feel a sense of accomplishment.

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    2. I am with you anonymous. I am only 63 and feel pretty much the same. I'm still trying volunteer work...it is mostly busy work and not terribly fulfilling. I read a lot, have no grandchildren, and I look for ways to get out of the house without my husband...not with:) My house is pretty clean, yard and garden take up time, bills are all paid, we're not much into traveling. We're just bored. Also, I am wondering if anyone else has trouble sleeping since retiring. Since we're not as tired anymore, one or the other of us always restless...up and down...flip flopping in the bed. Sigh. Has anyone gone the route of seperate bedrooms just to get some sleep? That might help our moods, but I am afraid to bring it up with him...male pride and all that.
      Anonymous2

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    3. My parents slept in separate twin beds for most of their married life. Dad was just so twitchy and a big leg kicker that mom couldn't sleep if right next to him. Sleeping less during retirement is a common occurrence. Maybe you could try separate beds first.

      You aren't joined at the hip with your spouse, esp. during retirement. Having time for yourself is vital.

      It sounds as though you need to shake up your schedule and daily life. What have you always wanted to try? What did you enjoy as a younger woman...painting, writing, photography, playing cards, sewing, going back to school to take a course in a subject that has always fascinated you? How about starting to play a musical instrument?

      If I have learned anything on this retirement journey that is critical to satisfaction, it is to keep pushing your personal boundaries. If you "settle" for the way your life is right now boredom is inevitable.

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    4. Anonymous, I didn't see any mention of exercise? Walking, weight lifting, yoga . . . all are excellent for health regardless of age, will get you out into the community and around people, and should aid tremendously with sleeping.

      I'd also recommend Ernie Zelinski's book, "How to Retire Happy, Wild and Free" which focuses on helping people find their passions. My takeaway from this book was that the only one in charge of my life now was me, and it was up to me to proactively do what I needed to keep it vital and fulfilling.

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  11. Bob

    I have often wondered if we don't need to grow into our retirement years. Maybe three years of frustration is just normal. I know it was for us

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    1. I agree, Barb. No one is perfectly suited for any phase of life right from the get-go(think career or marriage!). Knowing that to be true didn't keep me from thinking I was spinning my wheels. But, with time comes a better perspective.

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  12. Item 3 (emotionally prepared) seems like a growth opportunity because we do not have much experience with big changes. We've had one great marriage, one job, been active in one church, lived in the same community (only moving once), had two dogs, just a few cars, etc. We each grew up here, and each of our parents were married over 50 years and moved only once during our lives, so we had some role models for stability. That is not to say that our lives aren't full and rich for us, they certainly are, they are just stable and operate in a traditional sense. To do something non-traditional, like transition prior to "standard" retirement age in a challenging economy, is something for which we don't have a frame of reference based on experience.

    Having said that, I appreciate your insights and sharing over the past two years, and am mindful of this statement in a book by Fr. Jacques Philippe: "We cannot experience this support from God unless we leave Him the necessary space in which He can express Himself ... As long as a person who must jump with a parachute does not jump out into the void, he cannot feel that the cords of the parachute will support him, because the parachute has not yet had a chance to open."

    Enjoy the weekend.

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    1. Very well said, Rick. My parachute has opened many times and I am convinced God is the one who repacks it each time so the cords continue to open.

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  13. Bob, This is a GREAT article. I think it would be very helpful for 40 year olds to be reading something like this. So much is written telling us how to prepare for the financial side of retirement. But it seems very little thought is put into the mental, emotional and spiritual side of what you are going to do and become. Not to mention how you want to spend your time. I think it's vital to spend time developing interests and hobbies that will carry you into your retirement. Things to do that are worthwhile and enjoyable, and hopefully inexpensive.

    I've been working on this aspect of my life for the past 5 years or so, nurturing hobbies that I love, starting to do more volunteer work to see what fits, and investigating even more opportunities to share my life with the community and my family. In January 2013 I will start working part time to ease myself into full retirement. I hope to work part time for 3 or 4 years, gradually reducing my hours until I am fully retired. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that this works as I've planned, but if it doesn't I'm prepared to make adjustments.

    As to what I will answer to "what do you do?" when I'm a part timer or retired.....God willing that answer will NEVER be "nothing."

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    1. You are on the path to a very satisfying retirement, Cindy. You have identified what keeps you engaged, you are mature in your approach to the transition into retirement, and you have a solid plan. I don't think you'll ever have to worry about saying "nothing."

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  14. From my experience, a lot of people worry so much about the financial aspect of retirement that they neglect the emotional part, as well as your # 4 -- what will they do with their time. I recall, after 30-plus years of having my daily and weekly schedules set for me in the workplace, that I was scared of having to take responsibility myself to fill those days and weeks with interesting and fulfilling activities. At this point I can report: I've made lots of progress. But I'm still learning.

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    1. Schedule control is something most of us struggle with regardless of the stage of life we are in. There are so many distractions and so many opportunities to use our time that deciding which is best at that moment produces a different answer every time the question is asked.

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  15. Bob, you are really now an expert on retirement and I love the last part about wishing you could have read this post 11 years ago so you wouldn't have worried as much or wasted time. I think this applies to so much in our lives,don't you?

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    1. We all are looking for help or guidance as we make our way through life. Your story in your new book is a perfect example. Would you have predicted a move to Belize? Probably not. If someone had suggested you needed to shake your family to its core would you have listened? Probably not!

      But, now that you have written about what you went through and your experiences have the potential to save a lot of people a lot of problems by showing them another way to fix what is broken.


      Note: I'll have a review of Sonia's excellent book on this blog a week from Monday. She really is gutsy!

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    2. Just finished Sonia's book this week. Outstanding read - humorous but also very insightful for anyone contemplating a drastic move, like to Belize, in their retirement years or earlier. Look forward to your review of it, Bob.

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  16. This post is excellent Bob. I'm waiting to see how similar our level of boredom is. So far it's not really very close, but you give me hope. Thanks.
    b

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    1. Thanks, Barbara. Based on what I know about all the things you have done in your life I doubt you will ever have boredom problems!

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