I’ve been retired for over seven years now. The newness and shininess of retirement has worn off, and I’m now well-settled into this chapter of my life. Work has receded into a distant memory.
Has retirement turned out the way I thought it would?
Has retirement turned out well anyway?
Over the past seven years, I’ve cashed quite a few reality checks. Some of these are pretty universal, some are more unique to my situation. You probably have similar situations in your life, so hopefully my findings will be useful to you too. As they say, your mileage may vary.
Here are ten truths I’ve learned about being retired.
1. Retirement is not a permanent vacation.
While I was still working, I entertained some rather unrealistic fantasies about how idyllic retirement was going to be. I was a bit of a Pollyanna. I dreamed that each day would be a care-free, blissful nirvana in which my toughest decision would be whether to listen to music from my extensive jazz collection, go for a hike on a nearby mountain, or float in the pool sipping a mojito.
It didn’t take me long to learn that every day is not blissful leisure. There are still chores like household cleaning and maintenance. There are good days and bad days and plenty of average days. You’ll never be able to eliminate bad days from your life. Life is just not like that. You’ll have plenty of good days, but it’s unrealistic to expect that every day is going to be a good day.
The best you can do is try to raise the average. You still have some control of how good each day is.
2. You still need to have a purpose.
If you could construct a life of permanent vacation, where every day consisted of nothing but hedonistic pleasure, you would soon be miserable.
As humans, we have an innate desire to contribute something to the world. We need to have some reason for getting up in the morning. We need to matter in some way. It’s why most trust fund beneficiaries and lottery winners who could easily get by never working a day in their life still get jobs or find other ways to contribute something of non-monetary value to the world.
You need to have something to look forward to. When you’re an adolescent, you look forward to turning 18, then 21. When you’re a student, you look forward to graduating. When you’re in love, you look forward to getting married. When you are working, you look forward to your next promotion. Later in your career (or perhaps the day you start working), you look forward to retirement.
After you retire, what will you look forward to? Hopefully, it’s something other than just dying. Always have something ahead in your life that you can look forward to.
3. You will think about money a lot.
One of the biggest things that changes when you retire is your relationship with money. Even when you have sufficient financial resources, you will still be concerned about money.
While you worked, you knew that money would be reliably deposited into your bank account at the end of every pay period. You knew that even if you encountered a few unforeseen expenses or you made a few irresponsible impulse purchases, there would always be more money coming in.
After you retire, this changes. At some point you will receive Social Security payments, but that will represent only a portion of your income. You will start receiving regular payouts from your retirement savings, but that feels different because you know you are spending down money you have saved. It’s not new money that is coming in.
You become aware that the amount of money you are going to live on for the rest of your life is more finite.
That takes some mental adjustment. That also means that you will start evaluating purchases more wisely, which is a good thing. You’ll probably wish you had done that all along.
4. You can’t have it all.
When you dream of everything you want to do after you retire, some of those things will be contradictory.
For example, I enjoy playing my trombone and participating in several bands. I also want to travel a lot. If I travel a lot, I will miss a lot of band rehearsals and it will be difficult to practice regularly.
The best way to deal with this is to divide your retirement into chapters or phases. Set aside a year or two or ten for traveling, then settle down and engage in activities and groups that require regular participation.
Following on the previous point, many of your retirement options represent financial trade-offs. You might have to choose between taking a cruise, remodeling your kitchen, or buying that piano.
5. Entrepreneurial endeavors take much more effort and persistence than you ever imagined.
Many people start small businesses after they leave their careers. This may be anything from marketing your books, artwork, crafts, or music to setting up a consulting business.
One of my plans after I stopped working was to build a business of public speaking and presentation skills coaching. I did a little bit of prep work for that business before I retired, but after I retired I set about to find rental classrooms in which to present my workshops and launched a website offering weekly presentation skills tips. I joined a couple local networking groups and started pushing my services. I found a few guest speaking opportunities (not paying, of course). I joined an organization in which I could help coach presenters on a voluntary basis.
Shockingly, people didn’t beat a path to my door.
I learned that I was completely naïve about how long it takes to build a business, especially one that involves personal services such as training, consulting, or speaking. Several months into the endeavor, I quit. In hindsight, if I had stayed with it for a few years, I might have been successful. Or if I had started laying the groundwork for this business five years before I retired, that would have helped.
I have also learned that writing a book is harder and takes a lot longer than I imagined.
I have enjoyed a fair amount of success with Retire Fabulously!, but most of the rewards have been non-monetary. I’ve been at this for six years, yet there is still much farther to go and much more I could have done along the way.
6. Finding the right balance requires constant effort.
Since the early days of writing for this website, I have maintained that to have a happy retirement, you need to have a mix of activities that provide physical activity, mental stimulation, socialization, and fulfillment.
I still believe that this is true. Whenever I feel like my life isn’t quite the way I want it, I can just look at how I’m spending each day. That will always reveal that I’m shortchanging one or two of these four elements.
7. Old work behaviors die hard.
Throughout my career, most of my time was spent sitting in front of a computer screen. I checked email all day long. I wrote documents and presentations. I scheduled meetings. I researched information. I created and tracked budgets. I communicated with other people via computer.
I still do all of these things. I still spend many hours in front of a computer. It’s weird, but I feel compulsively pulled towards it. After nearly 40 years of work, sitting in front of a computer has become ingrained into my existence and so far I have not been able to pull myself away from it.
Of course, part of that is due to the nature of the activities which now comprise my life. Writing books and content for Retire Fabulously! requires sitting at my computer. I am a wedding officiant, so corresponding with clients and working on their wedding scripts requires time at the computer. I spent two years as the president of the board of a non-profit arts organization, which required plenty of email correspondence, spreadsheets, documents, and scheduling. Between these various entrepreneurial endeavors and organizations, I maintain seven websites. So, more time at the computer.
I feel strangely at home in front of a computer. I frequently remind myself that I need to spend more of my life away from it. It also keeps me too sedentary.
8. You still need time management after you retire.
It’s easy to waste time. You will often say that you are even busier than when you worked – but you are probably not. The things in your life expand to fit the time allotted.
Of course, you don’t always have to be productive. That’s one of the greatest things about being retired. You can allocate a lot more time for fun and recreation than you could while you were working. But you do have to make plans for when you are going to get out and enjoy that fun and recreation. It doesn’t just happen by itself.
It’s easy to assume the attitude that you can do whatever you want today, including nothing. If you don’t feel like doing something, you don’t have to do it.
This is okay up to a point, but if you spend most of your time this way, you’ll get bored. Days and weeks will pass more and more quickly, and you’ll be unable to remember what, if anything, you did. Your life will become empty, which is the opposite of the fun and fulfilling retirement you envisioned.
It’s extremely difficult to achieve a good balance of activities in your life if you aren’t planning and scheduling them.
9. Now’s the time to start changing “someday” to “today.”
Someday, you’re going to run out of “somedays.”
You probably have a lot of things you want to do “someday” – places you want to go, classes you want to take, books you want to write, rooms you want to redecorate, and so on.
It’s easy to get into a daily routine of chores, TV watching, internet surfing and Facebooking, and regular meetings of groups you belong to. You can easily spend the rest of your days buried in your routine and never get around to anything you always wanted to do “someday,” unless you make a conscious effort to break out of your routine and make time for them.
Now’s the time to just pick one and do it.
Pick the trip you want to take next, schedule it, and start planning for it.
One of my friends recently bemoaned the fact that she will probably never work down her TBR list (To Be Read). You probably have a stack of books you haven’t read, videos you haven’t watched, or music you haven’t listened to yet.
So set aside some time each day and start on one of them. You’ll probably enjoy it more than watching the TV or surfing the internet.
I have found it useful to create an Adventure List. That’s a list of things to see and do in your local area, within a couple hours’ drive, that you have never done but want to try someday. There are probably a lot of places you don’t even know about.
After I launched this idea, Jeff and I created our Adventure List and set aside one day each week to go see one place on the list. It has been wonderful! Most of the time, we come away feeling enriched. Some places were more impactful than others, but we always enjoy the experience as well as the time together and the time out of the house.
10. Things don’t always turn out the way you planned – and that’s often a good thing.
I’m not teaching presentation skills and I’ve gotten very few speaking gigs. But that’s okay, other great things came along that I’m enjoying just as much or more. I’m having a much richer musical experience, for example.
Retirement didn’t turn out to be a permanent vacation, but that’s okay. If it was, it would become the new norm and I wouldn’t enjoy it as much. That’s not really fulfilling and, like most humans, I value fulfillment.
Despite all of the adjustments and the things that didn’t turn out as ideally as I had hoped, I enjoy being retired. It beats work hands-down.
Although I am now relieved of the fantasy that retirement is going to be a nirvana of endless carefree bliss, I still believe that retirement can be the best period of my life. It’s within my power to make it that way (or not).
Even though I have to pay bills and do housework and yardwork, I still value the freedom I have to choose my activities and my schedule.
Even though not everything has gone the way I thought it would, I’m happy with how things have gone. I also understand that I have more control over my life than ever before, and if I’m not happy with something I can usually change it.
I still think retirement is fabulous!
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© 2021 Dave Hughes. All rights reserved.
Ray of sunlight in cave: Bimo Luki.
Beach (Cozumel, Mexico): The Travel Nook.
Money in wallet: 401(K) 2012. Some rights reserved.
Man working at computer: louisehoffman83.
Appointment book: Steve Buissinne.