Most advice about retirement planning focuses on how to save enough money to replace your paycheck.
But work provides us with a lot more than income. Many of us get a sense of meaning, accomplishment and even identity from what we do. Work also provides social connections and a structure for our days.
Losing all that can be disorienting, which is why experts — including some who have already retired — recommend thinking about how you will replace those aspects of work.
“Most adults don’t want a life of pure leisure,” certified financial planner Barbara O’Neill writes in her book “Flipping a Switch: Your Guide to Happiness and Financial Security in Later Life.” “They crave a sense of purpose, meaningful daily activities and relationships, and the freedom to do what they want, even if that means continuing to work.”
Envision a typical day
Retirement often starts with a flurry of activity as people travel, visit family and indulge in favorite pastimes. But retirement experts recommend envisioning a more typical day after you’ve checked off some of your bucket list activities. How will you spend each hour, starting from the time you wake up? Who will you spend time with? How will you respond when someone asks “What do you do?”
O’Neill, for example, doesn’t use the word “retired” to describe herself. Instead, she explains that she left Rutgers University after 41 years as a professor and now owns Money Talk Financial Planning Seminars and Publications, where she writes and speaks about personal finance topics.
In fact, research shows that working in retirement is associated with greater happiness. Part-time work also can help you phase into retirement gradually, says CFP Shelly-Ann Eweka, senior director of financial planning strategy at finance firm TIAA.
“Some people get really stressed out, because it does seem final,” Eweka says of retirement. “Consider working part time to have less employment and more free time so you can ease yourself into it.”
Take retirement for a test-drive
You may want to take your vision of retirement out for a test-drive before you quit work, Eweka says. Consider spending a two-week vacation doing what you hope to do in retirement, such as playing golf, traveling, volunteering or looking after the grandkids. If you’re planning to move to another area, you might rent a home there for a few weeks, if possible. You may discover that the reality meets or exceeds your expectations. If not, you can alter your plans before you commit, Eweka says.
Also consider how you’ll replace the social interactions you get from work. People with strong social connections tend to be happier, healthier and live longer. You can invest in existing relationships before and after retirement by spending more time with family and friends. O’Neill recommends setting designated days and times to regularly connect, either in person or by phone or video call.
But aging also means you’ll be losing connections as people die or move away. Volunteering, joining community organizations or just getting to know your neighbors better can help you build relationships with new people, O’Neill says. The companionship of a dog, cat or other pet also can contribute to well-being.
Without work-imposed structure, some people start to drift, with one day blurring into the next. Setting goals and taking steps to achieve them can help restore a sense of purpose and achievement, O’Neill says.
O’Neill started her post-Rutgers life by setting five goals: finishing the book she was writing; staying active in financial education; cultivating friendships; “doing lots of fun things and new things”; and staying healthy by walking 10,000 steps daily, eating healthy foods and getting at least 7 hours of sleep each night. (Tending to your physical well-being is key: 81% of retirees in a 2014 Merrill Lynch study cited good health as a key ingredient for a happy retirement.)
Achieving specific, measurable goals can help people redefine their concept of productivity, which is important to many people’s sense of self-worth, O’Neill says. Goals also can help offset a tendency to put things off.
People who are used to saving and delayed gratification may have trouble “flipping the switch” to spending and enjoying their lives, O’Neill says. But time, good health and energy aren’t infinite. Many people in her 55+ community in Ocala, Florida, struggled during the pandemic not just because their plans were canceled, but because of an acute awareness that the clock was ticking, she says.
“It wasn’t just two years lost, it was two good years,” O’Neill says. “You don’t know how many of those you have left.”