Financial Resource Center

Retirement Planning

Retirement: More to Prepare Than Finances

by Dianne Molvig / November 11th, 2013

We all have moments while we're working when we wish we weren't. But are you having more of those moments lately? You've worked for decades. You've saved a healthy nest egg. After crunching the numbers, you and your financial planner have determined that you'll have the financial resources you'll need for your remaining years. Those financial considerations must come first. But once it appears you're financially set, there's one big question still hovering: Am I ready to retire? Experts advise that the answer to that question is not about being ready, but rather about getting ready. "You need to plan and prepare for retirement, and be intentional about it," says Szifra Birke, a financial behavior and transition coach in Chelmsford, Mass. "Many people have a financial plan. What they often don't have is some sort of life plan."

Retain the positives

When people contemplate leaving work for good, they often think about the negatives they'll leave behind, Birke points out. They'll be able to say good riddance to deadline pressures, overbearing bosses, office politics, tedious meetings, and so on. "What they're not aware of," she says, "are the positives that will fall away, too. They take those for granted."
It's not about being ready to retire, but rather about getting ready.
Think about what you'll miss when you're no longer working, Birke recommends. Is it the opportunity to help people, or to do creative projects, or to interact with customers, or to relish the self-confidence you feel about a job well done? "You need to ask yourself. 'What am I currently getting from work that is positive for me?' " Birke advises. "Then imagine how you would create those positives outside of the job. And these days, for many people that means thinking about reducing their work, rather than going from all to nothing." The latter strategy also will help if you're nervous about retiring for fear of what the economy might do. Such a fear is commonplace and understandable for those who witnessed the 2008 recession. By reducing your work, rather than retiring completely, you'll earn some income and feel more secure. Everyone's dream, of course, is to have a happy retirement. In working with her clients, Birke urges them to look deeper into what "happy" is. She explains that psychologists talk about three phases of happiness: pleasure, engagement, and meaning. The first is the feel-good part of happiness, Birke explains. For retirees, that means having time to go to the beach, take a trip, go out to eat, watch the sunset, and so on. After working for years, "they just want time for more of those pleasure moments," she says.
Many people have a financial plan for retirement, but no life plan.
But usually that gets old after a while. Boredom, restlessness, or loneliness begin to set in. That's when people realize they need the second level, engagement—that is, engagement with other people or pursuits that matter personally. They also seek meaning, or a feeling of having a larger purpose and contributing something to others and to society. Each individual has to figure out how to fashion a retirement that's fulfilling and enjoyable. The key, Birke emphasizes, is to know what you want and then believe that you can create it. "Often people simply don't think about creating possibilities for themselves," she says.

Think ahead

Retirees have divergent views on what constitutes a satisfying retirement. But one viewpoint they all seem to share is that people who aren't retired simply don't grasp what retirement is like. That comment surfaces again and again in the interviews and focus groups Jill Steinberg does with people who already have retired. She's an emeritus professor of psychology at San Jose State University, a retired clinical psychologist in Santa Cruz, Calif., and founder of, an online mentoring community focused on successful retirement.
Know what you want your retirement to be, and then believe you can create it.
"One point retirees emphasize is that people who aren't retired don't realize the need for planning and how different retirement is," Steinberg says. "They don't recognize that retirement is a big deal." It's common, she adds, for people to set retirement itself as the goal. They can't wait to get there. But once they reach that goal, they face a blank slate and ask, "Now what?" "If you're going to take a trip abroad," Steinberg says, "you don't just get on a plane. You think about the trip. You plan. Most things in life that you want to go well take planning and thought." One strategy she's seen successful retirees use to prepare for retirement is to interview people who already are retired to find out what worked for them and what didn't. Another strategy some in Steinberg's group use is to identify the various elements you want to have in your day-to-day life, such as social connections, exercise, learning opportunities, giving to the community, and so on.
Retirees say that people who haven't retired don't realize the need for planning.

An ongoing process

Cindy Margolin, one of the interview participants in Steinberg's research, is a role model for retirement planning. She devised a 10-year plan at age 50. A psychology professor, she cut back to half-time work, which she did for three years, at age 60. Meanwhile, she began to take on new activities. She took classes, such as art history and oceanography, just for fun. Because of her love for working with children, she volunteered as an advocate for abused children. "But that's a heavy load emotionally," she says, so she balances that by teaching school children on field trips at a marine lab. "I realize that I need structure to achieve goals and feel good about myself," Margolin says. "So, I take on projects: life history photo albums for my children on their 40th birthdays, knitting projects for others, photo histories of my parents for each of their grandchildren, trying new recipes, growing new plants." One pearl of wisdom she offers to people moving toward retirement is this: "Plan ahead. Don't wait until it's time to retire." Still, planning has to be accompanied by flexibility, Steinberg emphasizes. Life keeps changing. Physical abilities wane. Spouses die. People move to be closer to family. Retirement plans must alter, too. "Sometimes people get stuck and keep trying to do the same thing over and over," Steinberg says. "It's the same in retirement. If something is not working, figure out what else you can do. It's an ongoing process. Ask yourself, 'Is my life working?' "
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