Twenty-Five Years of Financial Insights(Part 14: Three Phases of a Purposeful Retirement)

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They say you’re only as old as you feel. Well, if they’re right (whoever “they” are), I’ve been known to grow older or younger by decades … all in the span of a single day! My clients, many of whom have been with me for years, seem to experience these same sorts of ups and down, especially as they near that momentous day called retirement.

Once retirement does arrive, and “calling in sick” is no longer an option (or a necessity), how will you pace yourself, to enjoy the good times, while taking good care of yourself? What are you going to do? Where are you going to live? Are you going to take ’er easy, work part-time, or maybe start volunteering for a favorite cause?

Based on my 25 years as a financial advisor, I can assure you there are no rules, schedules, spend-down plans or saving guides that apply to everyone, under every circumstance. That said, I have noticed most families experience three broad, often widely overlapping phases during retirement: the go-go, the slow-go, and the nearly no-go phases. And no matter what phase you’re in or how you’re living your life, having a fluid but detailed personal financial plan to guide you from the get-go can help you remain on the go for as long as possible.

Seizing Your Go-Go Days

Be it lengthy or brief, most of us have at least some opportunity to finally realize some of our “I’ll do that when I retire” dreams. You have your plan, you have the money, you’re healthy – so let’s go. Is it a European cruise? A trip down under to Australia and New Zealand? Maybe an African safari, or a sojourn to New York, “The City That Never Sleeps.”

Speaking from personal experience, I can’t stress enough how important it is to appreciate your health and your energy while you can. Having gone through a very tough round of cancer and corresponding treatment a few years ago, I can tell you that your health can change overnight. And know that, if you’re married and one of you experiences a set-back, it’s likely to ground both of you.

Energy is key. While our bodies may not be 20-something anymore, “move it or lose it” is the best prescription for prolonging your go-go days – whether that’s through daily walks, competitive sports, attentive gardening or regular trips to your local gym. Find something physical you enjoy doing, or at least don’t mind doing … and keep doing it.

Savoring the Slow-Go Days

I think of the next phase of retirement as the slow-go days. For many, this phase starts around mid-70 and can last a decade or longer. You’re still relatively active, but the trips might be a little less exotic, the exercise a bit less brisk. Health issues may slow you down more often than before.

That said, the leisurely pace can also open opportunities to spend more meaningful time with family or friends, mentoring younger generations, or otherwise reflecting on and sharing the seasoned lessons you’ve learned. During this phase (and every one), it’s still important to remain physically and mentally active, but perhaps in a more mellow manner.

Managing the Mostly No-Go Days

Then there’s the mostly no-go phase. Each of us is different, with different health levels and challenges, but clients who beat the averages and live into their 80s or 90s tend to reach a period when their activities, interests and expenses grow more localized. Again, as during one’s slow-go days, it’s still best to remain as engaged as possible in life’s never-ending rhythm. This can be hard when the realities around us may not be as enticing. But, if we turn to the science of what makes us happy – and keeps us that way – we discover it’s mostly a state of mind to begin with.

This not only makes intuitive sense, but there’s solid evidence to support me on this. Happiness researcher and TED speaker Shawn Achor describes studies suggesting that, “if I know everything about your external world, I can only predict 10% of your long-term happiness. 90 percent of your long-term happiness is predicted not by the external world, but by the way your brain processes the world.”

That’s powerful stuff, opening important possibilities we can benefit from throughout every phase of our hopefully long lives.

Live Long and Prosper

Shifting back to the more practical side of things, what is the lesson relative to your financial well-being? Again, I recommend having a great financial plan, and sticking with it even when those external forces may shift around you. I hope you have a great advisor as well, to help you shape and follow your personalized plans, as well as to make appropriate adjustments to them when your individual circumstances call for it.

Ironically, in many ways, your retirement phases can be compared to what it was like to be a teenager. Enjoy each phase for as long as you can. Don’t hold back. Remain restless. Stay curious. Love and be loved by those around you. Occasionally, drive them crazy with your energy. In this way, I hope you’ll find a measure of happiness every day.

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