February 16, 2016

When Is It Best To Retire?


The short answer is, when you are ready. One of the most read posts on this blog continues to be, How Do You Know When To Retire. Written over four years ago, it continues to resonate with blog visitors, with over 25,000 views at last count. Since the topic is so important to so many, I thought I'd take a fresh look at this vital question.

It is best to retire when you are ready. That is the simple truth, but, those four words cover a lot of area. How you answer the question depends on the particular focus you have in mind. Let's look at the three key parts of the answer, as well as some additional areas that deserve your attention:

1) When you are ready financially. This is not a financial blog. Frankly, the way the stock markets and economy have been performing since the first of the year, I am glad I am not expected to make sense of it all. Even so, retirement is a huge step into the unknown that is much more likely to succeed if your finances are under control. I have written extensively about budgeting, living below your means, delayed gratification, even good debt versus bad debt, so I won't repeat those thoughts.

Instead, let's focus on where you need to be to feel financially comfortable without a regular paycheck. To contemplate retirement you must be very honest with yourself. Decide what type of retirement you want: lots of travel, a summer home, and more meals out than at home, or, a simple lifestyle, with most meals at home, and the house you live in being fine for all seasons. Vacations, sure. But, not a three month around the world cruise and several skiing trips to Aspen.

Then, look at your income and expenses closely, think through different scenarios, and allow for unplanned for emergency expenses. Accept that you will have to adjust as conditions change. Do those numbers support how you want to live? Then, you are very likely to be ready financially.

2) When you are ready emotionally. For many folks, their job defines them. The way we earn our living, the people we interact with, the gratification that comes from our work, even the fact that we have a regular schedule, supports how we see ourselves. Without a job we are lost. We don't know who we are and what makes us happy when we are alone.

An open calendar or a day without structure sends us to the antacid bottle. We run the risk of over-compensating by becoming too busy with commitments and promises. Or, we sleep until late morning, stay in a bathrobe most of the day, read or watch TV to access, and have little to excite us.

Being emotionally ready for retirement means you are prepared to reinvent yourself if necessary, to live out an unfulfilled dream, to balance activity with enough time to just be still, to define yourself without a job. If you are comfortable building your day with a structure that is under your control, you are ready.

3) When you are ready relationally. It should go without saying that retirement often affects more than one person. If you are married or in a long term relationship, your spouse or partner faces a life that is every bit as different as yours will be. 

One of the biggest strains on a relationship is retirement: the long-standing "rules" are no longer clear. Too often a wife or partner finds herself defending how she has managed things for decades. The husband expects his wife to be available to do things he likes, whenever he wants. When he is bored he turns to her for ideas. If his identity has been totally work-centered, he is likely to go through a period of unhappiness, even mild depression. If the couple does not have much to talk about and lacks shared interests, strains can develop quickly.

The partner who is still working faces similar problems. She comes home to find the newly retired person has rearranged things or made changes to established routines. He may show signs of envy or jealousy over her connection to the working world that he no longer has.

I think a couple can survive almost anything in retirement except a poor relationship. Being together full time can put a strain on even the best arrangement. If you discuss potential pitfalls ahead of time, openly discuss sharing the chores, and work to develop a strong bond, you are ready.


The are two additional considerations that can affect a satisfying retirement journey: health and spirituality. Paying for health problems must be part of your financial planning. Taking care of yourself to delay avoidable health issues is your responsibility and requires a strong commitment. If you have ignored this part of your life up until now, the time to get serious is here. 

Thinking about our own mortality is not something most of us do voluntarily. But, as we enter the last third or so of our time on earth it becomes unavoidable. Following the precepts of organized religion is not necessary, but facing death without some set of beliefs about what may happen next can be especially disconcerting for many folks. Even if you think that nothing happens after you die except you return to the earth as dust, those thoughts must be addressed and any fears faced. 

When is it best to retire? The questions you should ask yourself are pretty straight forward. It is the answers that take some time and introspection. And, it is never to early to start that part of your journey.



18 comments:

  1. I can endorse your sentiments entirely. I knew I was ready when, with everything in order as you suggest, the whole concept began to excite me more than the job which I had previously loved and which had brought such fulfilment for so many decades.

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    1. There is a tipping point with work when it begins to seem more like a chore and obligation than something to look forward to. If you are "ready" then the time is ripe to take that next step. Thanks, Caree.

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  2. Good advice. Also, a lot depends on age and circumstances. Many of us have not had the luxury of deciding when to retire; we've had retirement thrust upon us in our 50s or early 60s. Then you kind of HAVE to reinvent yourself ... and address the three crucial issues you talk about.

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    1. I was thrust into retirement earlier than planned, by about 12 years! Was I completely ready? No. Did I wish I had the time to ask myself the questions in this post? YES.

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  3. I think retirement is like health - it's your responsibility and requires a strong commitment - to finances, lifestyle; emotional, spiritual and physical well-being; relationship with family and others. It can be a time of self-reckoning when you find out what you're really living for without the obligation of work, without work to fill your time, without work to blame for one thing and another, without work as an excuse, without work and its social aspect. Retirement is like many coming-of-age attainments - a privilege and a responsibility.

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    1. I like that concept - retirement is both a privilege and responsibility. In earlier times, no one "retired" and there was no organized social support for someone who had to stop working. We are blessed to have this opportunity.

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  4. Your comment "when you are ready" is spot on, Bob. Deb was more than ready when she ended at 56, and I was in the position of hating work when I went out at 60. Hating work and being mentally prepared were two different things, though, so I struggled for awhile until coming to grips that it was for the best.

    Being on the same page is a huge plus. We recently became enamored with the possibility of selling our home and moving permanently into a large RV, ideally traveling only in the South for warmth during the colder months. We have been doing a lot of reading and researching, attending RV shows, and so on. This past weekend we attended some seminars about RV full-timing from people have been doing just that for many years. That night we looked at each other and made the determination that financially this was crazy to be giving up comforts yet still having to pay a large amount of money to both secure a unit, and the ongoing costs. Instead we'll look at condos on the ocean and take our sweet time.

    If either of us wanted to continue with the RV route, and the other did not, one of us would have ultimately been miserable. Having the ability to be on the same page in life is critical.

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    1. Deciding to live full-time, or for a full season, in an RV is a huge step. If you ever get the bug again, I strongly suggest renting one for a month or so to see how you two react to such a small space and the work that comes with RV living. Early on, Betty and I determined that having an RV for trips is great, but living in one for an extended period - not so much. Our personal limit seems to be 2 months.

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  5. I was so impressed, this was such a wise post. I just retired after 38 years of being "the guy" at my company. I was on call 24x7 holidays, always. Either the chief technical guy at a technical plant or the head Fred the last half of my career. The pay was great and work defined me. In a small town the plant manager of the major employer is like the mayor or like Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry. I though I'd work until I was 70 because how could you give up the celebrity status? Then we were bought out by the "Evil Empire" and work became WORK! And after 4.5 year of torture they tired of me and, oh yeah, I tired of them. And I retired. I arranged a half time job on my exit that paid most of my bills and kept me in the limelight to some extent but for the most part said goodbye to being a big fish in a small pond. Guess what, life is so much better! I haven't missed going to work a single day. I have a nice side career and my wonderful trophy wife of 38 years and I are hiking and learning that we are still in love after all this time. I had all those fears, and only regret I didn't retire two years earlier. Still at 60, I'm living the dream and happier than I've ever been before.

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    1. Good for you! Taking that huge step is so freeing. At the time it may feel like you are walking off a cliff, but, really you are walking upwards to the next stage of life. Hold on for one of the most fulfilling and creative parts of your life.

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  6. I've been retired from teaching for three years and haven't regretted it a single day. We were about as prepared as we could have been financially and otherwise, but ultimately it took a leap of faith to actually do it. I once asked my neighbor, a retired teacher, for advice on when to retire myself. She said I'd know when. I did.
    My wife retired last October, and it was the right time for her, too. By the way, this blog was the catalyst for me to finally retire.
    Jeff

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    1. Jeff, I am pleased you found the support you needed on these pages. When I retired there were very few places for me to turn for retirement advice that weren't strictly financial. That kick-started the idea for this blog. As I approach 6 years of writing (and am coming up on 15 years of retirement) I couldn't be happier.

      Best of luck to you, and I hope you have a calm spring, weatherwise, in Oklahoma!

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  7. You were right on, Bob. I was fortunate to be prepared financially but for those who retire young enough to still have children at home, the relationally-ready component is a little harder to prepare for. What will the children's expectations of you be? Will your loss of a work identity affect them, even if not you? What will your spouse expect of you? Maybe more than sharing work. As I experienced it, the family might not let you retire in any way you desired. And you may not fully have insight into their expectations and needs until after the fact. They may not, either. Advance preparation might not be enough. So, just as one might find that they didn't save enough money or that they miss their role on the work "stage" they may also find they have either to return to occupational work or to take on a new family job description that others write for you. This happened to me and I didn't want to have the whole family go into therapy so I started my own business in a second career. Everyone seemed happy with this and all returned to their traditional roles and lives. Ten years later, when the children attained their own adulthood, the family was ready for me to choose my own terms of retirement. And so, I did.

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    1. That is a very interesting side of the retirement issue, one I don't think I have encountered before: retiring challenges when the kids are still at home. Fascinating. Thank so you so for sharing this situation and your solution. I never would have thought that was something that requires extra accommodation, but obviously it does.

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  8. I've been retired (happily for the most part) for more than 20 years, so can speak from experience that your post is the best concise advice I've seen about choosing to retire. Communication with your significant other is very important, as is staying flexible with planning to be able to take advantage of opportunities and adjust when the inevitable bad stuff happens.

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    1. Thanks for the compliment, Dick. The bad stuff, or at least something unexpected, will happen. How one responds will determine whether the retirement journey gets off track.

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  9. Bob, this is a wonderful post and such good advice as I begin my process of tiptoeing toward retirement. You have stated the key dimensions with such clarity.

    In my case, I can check off two and a half of the categories. Financial readiness: check. Relational readiness: check. My husband who has been retired for 10 years is very eager for me to be ready to retire. We do have such a great time together whenever I have have taken periods of time away from work.

    But in terms of emotional readiness, I am only halfway there. My current position at work no longer excites me and is way too demanding in terms of time commitment. I have a rich outside of work life and many deferred projects and activities that I would like to have time for (including having more time with my grandchildren). I am unhappy in my work role and beginning to see negative health impacts. And yet, I am not ready to completely step away from work. Over the span of my career, I have mostly loved my work and found it fulfilling.

    So my solution is to begin stepping away from it in phases. I have given my notice that I will step down from my role as an administrator in June. I will take a leave, and then come back to a different, less demanding position, which is similar to a previous job that I had several ago and really loved. At my place of work, I also have the option of working a reduced load (half-time) or doing a graduated retirement over 2-3 years. So while I am on leave, I will decide if I want to pursue either of those options.

    Thank-you for writing this blog. It has been a great help as I have being going through my decision-making process.

    Jude

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    1. Your analysis of your situation sounds excellent. Being able to slowly transition away from your job is tremendous - something most folks don't have as an option. The break in June should give you some clarity about your emotional readiness. If you aren't quite ready you will know it.

      Just two questions to ask yourself: you list several negatives about your work but express hesitation about leaving. Are you worried your self-identity is wrapped up in who you are on the job? Are you worried about leaving a situation where you are validated and feel a part of a team? If so, those are normal concerns just before retirement. But, you don't seem happy and say you are putting your health at risk. I'd say the chance to reassess starting in June will be an important time for you.

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