June 12, 2013

Retirement and cold feet

Most of us experience cold feet, or a lack of confidence, when faced with a major change in our life that disrupts what we know and are accustomed to. That is a natural reaction. I would guess it is somehow connected to the 'flight or fight' reaction.

Retirement would certainly qualify as an event that could cause cold feet. There aren't many experiences quite the equal of stopping something you have done for dozens of years, has probably defined you in some way, and has paid the bills. To not have your job description as the answer to, "what do you do," can be scary. I may preach about the tremendous joy of a satisfying retirement, but I can attest to my own case of almost frozen feet when it came time to close down my business in 2001.

Recently, I was reminded of this common occurrence by a regular reader. An e-mail detailed the struggles her husband was having in letting go. The family business was up for sale, and the decision to move on had been discussed for over year. This couple had downsized their housing and belongings. They had started making plans for their time together. But, when it came time to actually walk away...those cold feet poked through his socks.

After my assuring her that hubby's reaction was very normal and would eventually work itself out in a way that was best for both of them, I agreed the general topic of last minute retirement cold feet was worth a post. Like always, I am depending on some insightful comments and suggestions from you.

I will assume that this couple's financial house is in order. To retire without a good plan and a solid financial footing isn't wise. That would cause anyone to have second thoughts. Retiring when someone is tired of going to work every day, or had a fight with the boss, or any other reason...without months, if not years, of thinking through all the aspects of a life without full time work, is a mistake and will probably not work out well.

If, on the other hand, money has been saved and invested, expenses have been pared, and projections of future needs have been made, then retirement becomes doable. The decision as to when to retire then can be approached without unnecessary financial fears. True, life is going to through some problems your way. Your retirement plans are not going to unfold exactly the way you may hope they will. Financial concerns will be with you, at some level, under you die. But, guess what, being employed doesn't change that. We have no guarantees, working or not.

I will assume the couple has a firm foundation to their marriage relationships, one that won't be harmed by having both spouses together more of the time. Even for a loving, long term relationship, retirement takes compromise and adjustments. The cliché of being "joined at the hip," implying a couple that is with each other 24/7, is usually not a good idea. There is a need for private "me" time for each partner.

I will assume the couple isn't planning on leaving family and friends behind to move to a "dream" location near the ocean or halfway up a mountain. Living on a canal boat in France sounds nice, but how realistic is it to most of us? Moving soon after retirement doesn't always turns out well. No longer working is a major stress-producer. Add a move to that and you are off the charts in terms of pressures on you.

So, that brings me back to the central question: how does one deal with cold feet after making a decision, whether it is our own hesitation or that of a loved one?  I can make a few suggestions, but then want to turn the forum over to you.

Retirement is a step, but not one that is irreversible. Plenty of folks stop working and then decide at some point that they miss some part of the working work. It may be the extra money, but it also could be time with coworkers. A sense of being part of something bigger than one's self motivates some to return to work.

The point is, if you find you simply can't settle into retirement at this point in your life, then get another job, either full or part time. Of course, once you leave your field of endeavor it may be a bit of a struggle to pick up where you left off. But, retirement today isn't necessarily a permanent state. You always have options.

Secondly, start focusing on what you will gain from retirement and less on what you may be leaving behind. Think about the hobbies, activities, travel, extra time with family, reading that stack of books on your nightstand, or sleeping until you want to wake up....all the good stuff waiting for you. A satisfying retirement is all about gaining the freedom to do what you want, when you want.  

OK, cold feet experts, help this couple and everyone else who can identify with this situation. How did you break through that final mental barrier that kept you from taking the plunge? What was it that finally allowed you to look forward rather than backward?


  1. Nice post Bob. One thing you didn't touch on much which was a major factor for me 13 years ago was a sense of accomplishment. In my work like I was usually given a pretty big task and me and my team would then go about accomplishing it. I lead an information technology team so much of what we did in developing engineering tools was new and untried. When we completed each major accomplishment there was a europhoric feeling of accomplishment.

    When I retired it scared me that I would never have that type of feeling again. What was there to accomplish after you quit working? The possible answer to that question almost terrified me. I admit that it took a couple of years before I discovered I could accomplish great things after leaving the corporate world. Until that belief finally set in I constantly had cold feet about retiring.

    1. Excellent point, RJ. A sense of accomplishment is important to our overall happiness. For most of us, that accomplishment comes from work.

      But, as I know you have proven to yourself accomplishment takes on a whole new meaning in retirement. Personal growth becomes the new measurement. And, that type of accomplishment is so much more satisfying.

  2. Bob,
    As a brand new retiree (three weeks today!), I can relate to this post. Even though I had thought, planned, and dreamed about retirement for years, when it really came down to the decision earlier this year, I almost backed out. There had always been the question of "what about just one more year?" My wife has been totally supportive of my retirement, and she reminded me that I had said that for MANY years.
    My greatest fear has been money, or the lack of it. I was shocked when I actually sat down and did a sample budget based on retirement income; I couldn't believe I had money left over! Of course, we all know life has a way of taking care of that, but the exercise did show me that this fear is to a great extent unfounded.
    When I made the decision to retire this year, I decided to resign earlier than necessary. I was a teacher, and resignations at my school are due in April; however, to give the school plenty of time to find another teacher for the position (AND so I wouldn't back out at the last minute), I turned my resignation in on Feb 5. Instead of regretting my decision, I felt the best in years. My situation was not bad, but the routines and hassles of teaching had worn on me for so long, that when I realized that this was IT, what a liberation that was!
    I know that circumstances vary for everyone, but I do know that for me, once the decision was made and I'd committed to myself and the school to retire, the relief was immediate. No looking back for me!
    Jeff in OK

    1. Jeff, this should be an extremely helpful example to anyone who is worried about taking that next step. Fear is such a powerful, yet wasteful emotion. Almost all of what we worry about doesn't happen, and what does occur we are quite capable of adjusting to that new situation.

      The fear of insignificance that RJ noted in his comment and your reference to the very common fear of money problems are probably the two most frequent reasons someone gets cold feet about a retirement decision.

      But, once the choice is made and the move happens, it is as if a giant weight has been lifted.

  3. Looking forward to hearing comments from the retirees here, to help those of us that might be having lukewarm (okay, maybe cold) feet. I am not sure if I truly have cold feet, or that I just haven't reached the point that I feel my plan is solidly in place, enough to pull the trigger. Could use some sage advice/wisdom on when you all finally decided to pull the cord.

    1. I am hopeful the responses from readers help anyone in this situation. I struggled with it, and everyone I know who has retired did, too. But, life is waiting to be fully lived in a way that cannot be imagined until the work phase of our life has ended.

  4. I don't have a lot of wisdom, except to suggest that those who are on a career track, especially those who LIKE their jobs, probably get a lot of reward and have much of their personal self worth tied up in a job. Where will they get that in retirement. It's much easier for those who "work to live", work part time or are not so invested.

    1. I have to agree with Barb. I think if you're leaving "just a job" it's probably easier for you to make the decision. Those who have a career might find the move more difficult to adjust to. While I have yet to retire, I think my biggest fear might be not having the safety net of a regular paycheck and benefits, but I don't think it's going to stop me from taking the leap.

    2. My life was almost totally wrapped up in my work. As I have written about many times before, I was one of those "live to work" people. I had built a successful business that made me financially secure. Yet, when it went away I discovered that I had been living a mere shadow of a full life. I discovered that I should have been working to live so that when the chance came I could maximize all that life had to offer.

      Take that leap...it feels fantastic!

  5. I'm a fairly new retiree (January of this year). I certainly had several reservations about retiring. I was fortunate that the decision was mine to make and I was not forced out, as many folks our age find themselves.

    Like RJ, I was concerned about the sense of accomplishment. Tied into this was my identity; I was a Nurse Practitioner for a nephrology group. I loved my patients, and it was a very rewarding job. Guiding (often frightened) patients through the process of understanding kidney disease, and how best to manage this chronic illness was extremely gratifying. But it also was very demanding, at times stressful, and often sad, especially with younger patients.

    I also worried about the financial aspect, and also the issue of how I would spend my days.

    My husband had been retired for several years, and I did not want to look back and regret not being able to enjoy our time together while we were still healthy. This perspective was an important one to me, as I weighed my options for retirement.

    We had saved carefully over the years, but it was reassuring to visit our financial advisor and get his blessing. Essentially he said "what are you waiting for?".

    Some of what I did (and am still doing!) is cognitive restructuring. In other words, starting to behave and think differently about my self as a new retiree. By thinking ahead and planning for how I would expand on my many interests actually helped me in the transition.

    If possible, a "practice retirement" may help. I did this by taking a month off last year, just to see what it would feel like. I loved it! It helped me to realize that there IS life after retirement, and it can be just as rewarding, maybe more so, than one's career.

    It's funny, I thought for sure I would miss being identified by my profession. I don't! It was a great part of my life, but it feels good to have moved into the next stage of my life.

    1. Thank you, Carole, for such an excellent summary of the process you went through. I really have nothing to add to your thoughts. I can completely identify with your journey.

    2. I loved one point Carole made; I really enjoyed my job, thought it was an essential part of the world & did wonder BEFORE I retired, how I would miss it. As it turns out, it WAS a great part of my life, but although I'm proud of what I accomplished, I'm glad it's in my rearview mirror.

      One generalization I often hear is that for most folks, if they like/love their jobs, they will like/love retirement. There are exceptions, but it is true that wherever you go, there you are......so if you are unhappy ALL the time working, you may very well find unhappiness in retirement also.


  6. My husband loves his WORK but the business he is in is subject to incredible change and hassle in the past few years. If he could do his work in some sort of a "vacuum" it would be nice.. but, we have to deal with reality.Some industries change dramatically over a 30 year span... great post.. I'll enjoy watching the replies as this topic seems a common thread amongst some of the folks we know who are facing retirement soon!

    1. Loving one's work but being in an industry that no longer values what someone does is almost like a betrayal. I have friends who were school teachers who absolutely adored working with children. But, it was the parents and the school bureaucracy that finally killed the joy for them.

      If only......is the regret with no satisfying conclusion.

  7. I think if a retiree would have asked before I retired what questions I would have had....I would have wanted to know what brought them the most satisfaction in retirement and what I should be doing say five years before I retired. Well, now that I am retired...this would have been my reply. What have you never had enough time for while working? How are you going to build that into your retirement? What do you think about volunteering and community service....is that something that you can contribute your talents toward? Are you "practicing retirement" with your salary....if it works then it surely should once you retire. What new things would you like to cultivate? Have you been nurturing friendship and family? If not, practice before you retire? Sometimes these things get back-burned while you are busy trying to keep up with your career. These things would be good benchmarks to start with. I guess it was hard for me to separate my Who from my Do....that is something that will face a new retiree. So,you wake up one morning sooo relieved that you aren't defined by your Do....and that is liberating....if you have that figured out before retirement...what a blessing.

    1. "Separate my "who from my do" is a perfect way to express that dilemma of self identity when it is too closely tied to employment.

      All retirees who are happy eventually do just that. For some it is almost instantaneous. For others it takes years. But, that understanding that we are so much more than someone who earns a check is the key.

  8. I think it's a bit like knowing when it's time to have a baby - it's so powerful you just know. If you don't know, it's likely because you're not ready.

    In my case, I loved my job up until the moment I didn't. The moment I stopped loving it is the moment I began to have thoughts about retiring. When the torture of going to work became close to being unbearable, I knew I was ready, and I submitted my notice. The entire process, from first seed of dissatisfaction to eventual retirement, took two years.

    As unhappy as I'd been at work those last couple of years, I will absolutely admit I was terrified I'd be bored or unhappy in retirement. I am happy to say that has not been the case. It takes some time to get your bearings and create a new life structure, but once you do it's full steam ahead. We're approaching retirement in multi-year chunks. For the first couple of years we are focusing on travel, ongoing education and endurance events. I foresee oversees volunteer work, or short stints of living overseas in our future. A move to a new area isn't out of the question, though we're not currently looking. We increasingly understand life is extremely fleeting, and we don't have as much time left as we might think we do.

    You have to be proactive about going out and building the life you want. It may take many attempts to find the areas or activities that feed you, but I guarantee you they are out there. The critical thing in retirement is to understand you are in charge of your life, and the more you invest in seeking out and creating a life that best represents you, the more satisfying it will be.

    GIGO holds true in retirement just as it does in business.

    1. If there is anyone who I know who has been proactive in taking on all retirement has to offer it is you and your husband. I don't think I was aware you struggled to come to the conclusion to leave work, but obviously it has been a very fruitful time for you two.

      I can't relate to the baby analogy but it sounds very apropos.

      Speaking off a tremendously satisfying retirement, are you back from Hawaii yet? I'm typing this response while sitting in our RV in a beautiful campground in northern Arizona!

    2. Mike was the driver of our early retirement. I always assumed he'd enter retirement first, and I'd follow a few years later at the point I stopped enjoying my job. Imagine my surprise when it worked out exactly opposite!

  9. Hi Bob. Great post..it actually took me five years of planning to get to the actual day where I left work. I think that I was sort avoiding making a decision and that is why it took five years....although I called it planning ahead. :)

    When I did finally retire, I still found that I wanted to work a little and the income feels good. But I did not want to go to work every day. So I took on freelance writing and my cup runneth over now. I have more work than I could have hoped and it is the perfect balance for me between working and not working.It is intellectually stimulating, portable and provides a wonderful sense of accomplishment. Just what I would have wished for and I am thinking that I may never fully retire now!

    1. I guess I am only partially retired, too! I did work as a tour guide for about 4 years after retirement. It earned me an extra $2,000 a year and kept me in touch with other people. But, after awhile I began to resent the loss of my free time.

      Now, I guess I should consider blogging, writing articles for PBS, and selling my books as part time work. But, now I have complete say over when and where I do that work. It earns a little more the money but the freedom is more important.

  10. Cari in North TexasWed Jun 12, 07:42:00 PM MST

    Very interesting topic, Bob, and I'm interested in your readers' comments as well. As I've said, my "retirement" was geared towards starting my military pension and benefits, which happened last October. I sat down with my financial planner earlier in the year to take a broad look at my financial picture, and we discovered that I would probably have more money than I ever have, between pension, IRA, and some oil royalty income. So financially I'm set. I'm working part time until December, mainly to save the extra money for either an RV or extended travel. I've got a list of projects and interests the proverbial mile long that I'm itching to get started on, "when I have more time."

    One thing I learned in a recovery program years ago may help some of your readers. It was "make no major life changes the first year." I know a lot of folks think about moving or changing something, but it's wise not to make too many changes at one time. Give your psyche and your mind time to adjust to the lack of a job/career before doing anything drastic.

    And another thing was the acronym FEAR - False Events Appearing Real. Maybe before the actual retirement date, sit down and figure out exactly what you're afraid of, or what's giving you the cold feet. Like some of your commenters, you may be pleasantly surprised that what you fear isn't likely to happen. I was afraid of outliving my money, now I'm not.

    1. FEAR....I like the acronym. It is quite true.

      To know you have more than enough financial resources must be very comforting.

      I completely agree with your suggestion to not make any major changes quickly. There must be time to adjust.

  11. My husband is on a mini-retirement while he is on disability for his TKR. We're on week 6, with one more week to go before he returns to work. He will retire for real at the end of October.

    We are getting along just fine and I enjoy his company. What is scaring me though is how much money we have spent this month -- restaurants, shopping, garden plants, you name it we probably bought it these past few weeks.. Obviously we will need to rein this in, but it's going to be a struggle, and when he is retired we will be adding in travel expenses, too. It's been interesting but a worry.

    1. Denise, I know Bob will respond to your post because he's terrific that way, but my immediate thought on your post is that oftentimes overspending is a way to alleviate emotions or stress, just as is overeating or overdrinking.

      Reining in the spending may require some thoughtful self-reflection, but it's well worth the effort to do so in order to diminish the stress it so often creates in our lives. Unless the stress is created by your husband's job - than it will likely diminish on its own once he retires!

    2. I'm on an RV trip through today that slows down my ability to respond as quickly as I normally do. Thanks, Tamara, for your thoughts.

      I agree completely. It is natural to bend the rules a bit at times. But, since you recognize the problem, Denise, you already are on the right track to solve it. Awareness points you to a solution....a budget.

      Of course it takes time to set up a budget after retirement that works for you. Until you are living the new lifestyle for awhile there will be adjustments until you figure out how you want to allocate your resources.

      Don't worry....you will make the necessary financial adjustments.

  12. I did the full circle of cold feet:
    returned full time to the classroom.
    I thought I wasn't ready to retire. After four weeks I knew I had chosen poorly.

    I am sitting, holding my newest grandchild.
    My life is full. I cannot see me working again.

    My husband never had cold feet.
    He earned his pension early and only continued to work to help build a nest egg to make me comfortable. Today he is tiling the kitchen.
    He has enough projects for the rest of his life.

    1. Tiling the kitchen? Now that is a serious project. Good for him.

      Obviously you, Janette, have found the balance you need. Enjoy that grandchild!


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