Friday, December 14, 2007

Informal Survey Results -- perspective from other retirees

A few weeks ago I sent out a brief survey to some of my retired friends to get their perspective on the rewards and challenges of being retired. It was fun to read their responses, so I thought I would pass on their collective perspective, wisdom and suggestions.

Best thing about retirement?
For all the respondents, the best thing about being retired was FREEDOM. "No structure, deadlines, stress" was one person's response. Others said "freedom," "flexibility to do what you want when you want," "not having to hurry to get done with a project," "freedom," "flexibility," "control over my time." It was very interesting to note that all respondents mentioned freedom or flexibility in their response to this question about the best thing about retirement.

Biggest challenge in making the transition to retirement?
There were a variety of responses to this question. Several respondents mentioned a change in their relationship with their spouse -- adjusting to spending more time together, trying not to encroach in each other's space/domain/time. Several people mentioned financial considerations, including adjusting to a new (lower) budget. One person expressed concern over the erosion of his skills and gifts and felt a need to pass on what he had learned. Another said his biggest challenge was forgetting about work: worries about schedules, employees and job problems were still very real in his mind when he tried to rest. A few people mentioned that it had been difficult to slow down, noting that they had to make a conscious effort not to hurry to get things done, and a few respondents said that they missed positive feedback from others because basically there wasn't anyone around now to give it.

Downside of being retired?
My friends didn't report much downside to retirement, and several specifically said they had not found the downside yet! A few people noted health concerns related to aging and the associated higher insurance rates and increased medical expenses; a couple others mentioned missing the camaraderie of the workplace.

What advice do you have for someone planning to retire?
There were many interesting responses to this question. Here are some of the most common and insightful suggestions for planning for retirement:
  1. If you have any doubts about retiring, don't do it -- you're not ready!
  2. Develop outside interests before you retire to provide social contact and something to do with your time.
  3. Clean up as much debt as you can -- it costs more to live than you might think!
  4. Keep your own sphere of influence -- don't encroach on your spouse's time or space.
  5. Figure out what you really enjoy doing -- and then enjoy doing it!
  6. Don't volunteer for at least one year. Give yourself time to do the things you've been putting off since retirement.
  7. Give yourself 18 months to decompress -- then start planning for the rest of your life!

I'd be interested to hear your responses to the questions posed in this informal survey. Use the comment option below to add your thoughts to the mix!

Friday, November 9, 2007

The first few months of retirement

After working 24 years for corporate America, my work identity was very strong. My career offered many opportunities and interesting experiences. I worked hard, learned a lot, earned a good living. I was focused, organized, motivated. My last assignment was the culmination of 24 years experience, and it was a great job. It allowed me to be creative, afforded me the clout to get things done, revolved around things that mattered. I had positional power, people looked up to me and sought my opinion. But after four years in this job, most of the programs I started ran themselves, and it was hard to watch a corporate bureaucracy slowly encapsulating the innovative, nimble programs I had pioneered. It was time to retire.

My company had a very nice going away party for me. My friends took me to lunch.. and dinner...and coffee. My husband and I threw a great party, where we danced and drank and said farewell to all of the people whom we had enjoyed working with through the years. I feel that we marked the occasion well, and after it was over, I was ready to go.

For the first few months I felt like I was on vacation -- or playing hooky. Our daughter was still living at home, and the poor kid got so much hands-on mothering she didn't know how to act. I packed her lunch. I was at home when she got home from school. One day she said to me, "Mom, did you and Dad retire just so you could RUIN my senior year??"

One of the very best things about retirement was re-claiming Sunday night. For years, Sunday night had been the time when I fretted about all the things I didn't get done over the weekend and began worrying about all the things I had to get done at work the following week. I was usually grumpy and out of sorts on Sunday night. And I often stayed up late to eke out the last few hours of the weekend, which made me grumpy and tired on Monday morning. But after I retired, Sunday night became a wonderful time. I no longer worried about errands left undone: I could easily do them on Monday, or Tuesday, or Wednesday. I no longer worried about all the things I had to get done the next week: there weren't that many things to do! Because Sunday had been so stressful while I was working, it became a very special, happy day for me.

Another wonderful thing about retirement was the luxury of being able to stay up late and sleep in. I'm a night person and even after a quarter century of working, I never really adapted to the 8:00 to 5:00 world. Through the years I learned that I do my best thinking from 4:00 - 6:00 pm and then again from 10:00 to midnight. After retiring, I could stay up to midnight and then sleep in to 8:00. It was wonderful. It still is. I'm finally able to live according to my own circadian rhythm.

During the first few months of retirement, I also especially enjoyed the time I had to spend with our daughter. While she's a self-sufficient, resourceful, charming young woman, I think she was happy to have some extra time with her Dad and me. And now that she's gone away to college, those precious months during her senior year in high school remain very special memories.

So basically, things were great in my first few months of retirement. I got to do many things that I hadn't had time to do: garden, read, exercise, stay up late, sleep in, take care of errands on weekdays. There were only a few things I missed.

First, I missed working with other people to accomplish an objective. I was never much for small talk at work and I didn't really miss being around people just for the sake of having warm bodies around. But I did enjoy the sense of accomplishment of working with a team to get something done while I was working. After retiring, my dog didn't really appreciate our team meetings... unless of course I had treats to offer for his attention and admiration.

Funny thing, but I missed having business cards. After retiring, I found myself scribbling my phone number on a napkin, paper towel, or scrap of paper when I met someone new. In a way I felt a little lost, like I didn't belong to anything. Finally I got some cards with my name and phone number.

And then of course I missed people asking my opinion, telling me I did a good job, and in general, making me think I was wonderful. My daughter didn't really think it was so great that I packed her lunch, and my husband wasn't in awe when I emptied the dishwasher or watered the plants. My self-esteem began to take a few hits.

I did a lot of reading in the first few months... newspapers, magazines, fiction and retirement books. I think my favorite "how to retire" book is How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free: Retirement Wisdom That You Won't Get from your Financial Advisor, by Ernie J. Zelinski. In retrospect, while I liked the book, I was still too close to retirement to act on the ideas, and I really didn't comprehend the depth of the changes that were coming in my life.

Bottom line, the first few months of retirement were great. They gave me a time to chill. Adjust. Get used to the new rhythms of life. But I still was functioning in my "work" persona. It would take a few more months before the true changes began to unfold.

Will I have enough money to retire?

So how much money will you need to retire? My answer: more than you think!

My husband and I retired the very same day. He had nearly 37 years with our company; I had 24. We thought a lot about retirement before we actually did it, and in preparation for the big day, we paid off credit cards, car payments, mortgages, and other bills. But while we did a good job as a couple, there were still money matters that I had to deal with myself.

First was my attitude about money. To me, money has always meant freedom and opportunity. When I was working, I put money aside for my 401K, allocated some more money to buy company stock, and then I just spent the rest! So while I considered myself to be lucky to be receiving a monthly pension, I knew that my retirement income would be only about 25% of my working salary. I had been spoiled during my career: although I'm not an extravagant person, I could pretty much buy whatever I wanted when I wanted it. I had the freedom to spend money, and money gave me the opportunity to have things, do things, give things. In retirement, I knew I would be facing a big challenge to live on much less than I was accustomed to spending, so I tried to prepare myself to face this huge challenge.

To anticipate what I would need to live within my retirement means, I did two exercises that ultimately proved to be very helpful:
  1. I looked through my checkbook and credit card receipts for the previous year and categorized all the expenses.
  2. For two weeks I religiously wrote down everything I spent, including those mysterious ATM withdrawals. (It was very enlightening to see how a $100 ATM withdrawal disappeared on coffee, gas, lunch, and trips to Target.)

After completing those exercises, I sat down and figured out how much I would need to squeak by on 75% less than I had been spending. It didn't compute. Then I went back and figured out what I could eliminate. It was a sobering experience, but never during this exercise (or in the years that I've been retired) did I second-guess my decision to retire. Instead, I thought about my first job that paid $5700 a year. I was happy then, I reasoned, and felt like I had more money than I ever needed. I assumed that I could figure it out again.

In the first year, however, boy was I wrong. Another retirement failure. Looking back, I think I was in financial denial. No longer working, I had way more time than money. When I was home all day, finally having the time to sit and read a book, I realized there were no chairs in our house comfortable enough to sit for more than 20 minutes. So I went out and bought a beautiful, red suede reading chair. And since I had time to sit on the patio, I realized that the cushions on the outside furniture were threadbare. So I went out and bought some pretty new green cushions. Then, because I missed being around people, I realized that I had time to go see friends and family. So I decided to visit my sister in Chicago... and my mom and dad in Florida... and a friend in Portland. When I retired, I received a little cash buyout for my unused vacation. Within six months I had blown through my little nest egg and was completely broke! This was not good. Too much time. Not enough money.

When I finally encountered the financial reality of my living on my retirement income, I became a little cranky. (Who are we kidding -- I became A LOT cranky.) I wasn't accustomed to having to decide whether to get my hair cut or meet a friend for lunch. I didn't like having to go to the library to find the book for my book club, and not having the cash to buy a new purse on a whim. I hated it when my dog got sick and I had to spend all my mad money for the month on tests, shots and medicine for him. I bought one of those books on how to find bargains and not spend much money, but it alternately made me mad and depressed me. I didn't think this was a fun game at all. I felt like a real failure.

Fortunately, just at the peak of this post-retirement financial angst, I got a huge reprieve. The non-profit organization where I volunteered needed someone to fill a temporary program manager spot. When the Executive Director asked me to help out, my first reaction was "oh no -- I don't want to go back to work!" After discussing it with her, however, I realized that I could work three days a week, earn enough money to make it worth my while, provide a little structure to my time, get some interaction with people -- and still only have to do it for three to four months. The opportunity was perfect. I took it. It saved my sanity and helped me over the huge financial -- and emotional-- hump that I encountered in the first year of retirement. Looking back, I realize that a temporary job was never in my plan for retirement. But it was just what I needed at the time. A word to the wise: although you might not be able to imagine it now, when the time comes, don't rule out a temporary, part time job to help with the transition to retirement, both financially and emotionally.

Fortunately, the second year of retirement was better for me financially. I adjusted to having more time on my hands. I realized that I didn't really "need" many of the things that I had been buying -- and after cleaning out several closets -- I discovered that I didn't even want them. I never thought of myself as an avid shopper, but I had a real "ah ha" moment when I realized that shopping had become a habit for me, something that I did to fill my time, and perhaps to fill up some of the emptiness inside myself that resulted from no longer working.

Also in the second year of retirement, I developed an idea for a consulting project which I've been able to bring to fruition. More on that in a later post, but it has helped me earn a little spending money and accomplish something that gives me much personal satisfaction.

So now I've been retired for more than three years. Of course it's not my intention to provide financial advice for retirement -- I'm certainly not qualified to do that! But I've learned several things -- I'm not so much of a failure any more! -- and I'm happy to share this information and perspective with others who are making plans for retirement:

First, be honest with yourself about money. Analyze your expenses and understand how and where you spend. Estimate your expenses after retirement and then go back and estimate them again. I'd say multiply by at least 1.3 for the first year. Downsizing is a big, painful adjustment. Having a little extra cash might help you make the transition. And don't do what I did: don't spend your nest egg within the first six months of retirement! Save a little -- for freedom and opportunity when they come up!

Second, if you have a husband, partner, or significant other, have some honest talks about money. My husband and I have different views of money: remember, I see it as freedom and opportunity and look for ways to spend it. My husband, while a generous person, doesn't look for opportunities to enhance the economy. I'll talk about this more in a future post, but being able to talk about money issues as you navigate this huge life transition is very important.

Next, you might find the following categories helpful for your planning purposes. After three years, I can break down my spending into these different areas:

  • Household expenses (my contribution to our joint expenses) ... 30%
  • Travel ... 20%
  • Health-related expenses ... 12%
  • Personal care and clothing ... 7%
  • Charitable contributions ... 7%
  • Entertainment ... 6.5%
  • Gifts and family ... 6.5%
  • Car ... 6%
  • Pet ... 6%

Finally, below are some of my favorite websites and books about money, financial planning and retirement. Of course there are many others, but I found these particularly helpful and interesting:


  • U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau’s Wi$e Up Women - is sponsored by the Department of Labor Women's Bureau. It offers an online curriculum for learning about budgeting , investing and other money matters. My favorite feature of this program is the free teleconferences providing financial advice on a wide range of topics.
  • features lots of valuable free information, including a money quiz, online seminars on financial health and financial security, e-books, and tools and articles on careers and life.
  • Social Security Online for Women provides information for women regarding social security, and includes a Retirement Planner which calculates retirement benefits using different scenarios.
  • Ballpark Estimate is a site sponsored by American Savings Education Council and provides a worksheet that helps you figure out how much you need to save to fund your retirement.
  • The Savage Number: How Much Money Do You Need to Retire, by Terry Savage.
  • Money Shy to Money Sure: A Woman's Road Map to Financial Well-Being, by Olivia Mellan and Sherry Christie.


Well, I hate to admit it, but I'm a failure at retirement.

I retired from corporate America about three and a half years ago. For the first six months I felt like I was on vacation. It was great. I spent more time with my husband. I read books. I stayed up late. I slept in. I did more things with my daughter. I exercised. I enrolled in classes. I took trips. I visited friends. I went to movies in the middle of the afternoon. I spent money I no longer had. Then it really hit me: what do you want to do with your life? What are you doing that matters for the world? I became restless, out of sorts, fidgety. So then I spent the next two years trying to figure out what I needed to do to create an interesting, satisfying new life.

I'm surprised that it took me so long to make this adjustment. My work identity was very strong, and leaving the every-day work ratrace was a huge change for me. I don't think anyone could have told me what it would feel like to retire or what to expect. And even though I had read several books and thought I had planned for this major life change, even though intellectually I knew it would be a big adjustment, I really didn't have a clue what I was stepping into.

The good news is that life after retirement has been an interesting, rewarding journey. And since thousands of my fellow boomers are going through the same thing, I thought it would be fun to share some thoughts and feelings about what it was like to make the decision to retire, to go through the sometimes-agonizing process of figuring out "what next," and then to actually begin doing it.

So while I'm probably still "officially" a failure at retirement, today, three and a half years after retirement, life is good. I look forward to sharing experiences and perspectives!