Retirement expert insists that financial planning is only part of the next phase of your life. Getting a life is most important.
With all the talk about retirement, the national focus is on how much to stash away in your 401(k) and IRA and when you should leave your job and start taking Social Security benefits. That’s all crucial, but what people are forgetting is what they want to be and do when they grow up. That’s the message of Seattle-based retirement expert Andy Landis, the author of When I Retire.
“Everything you see about retirement planning is money, money, money and that’s important, but maybe even more important is what the heck are you going to do with yourself,” Landis says. “Your spouse is really wondering that. I like to say it would be a shame to outlive our money, but it would also be a shame to outlive our meaning.”
Landis, a lecturer who gives seminars to pre-retirees about Social Security and Medicare, says he has spoken to many people who don’t know what to do with themselves in retirement. It can be a life crisis instead of something great like a rebirthing or renaissance process that it should be.
“It can be agony if you’re trying to figure out what to do and you end up driving other people crazy,” Landis says. “I’ve heard of people getting into endless games of Solitaire, which is just a shame. You have all this knowledge you built up over your entire career that the world is crying out for these skills, and you don’t know what to do with yourself.”
The solution, Landis says, is having a life plan towards retirement not unlike the financial plan many of us set up already. No matter how much money you’ve saved, you have to have a life to get up for, he says.
Landis says he uses a checklist with dozens of choices to see if it attracts people’s interest. It could be staffing a lighthouse or fire lookout tower for a summer. Some may be interested in going to school or visiting national parks.
It’s about developing a plan of what to do in the first six months to a year and then a plan for the next two to five years and then a long-term plan, Landis says.
“I think what this can do is ease that transition into retirement,” Landis says. “Instead of a difficult transition, it can be a time of eagerness if you know what you want to be doing.”
Landis uses his own dad, John, as an example. He describes him as someone who lived for work as a Type A personality. When he retired at 66, he planned to take road trips, take college classes and learn about computers. Within a year, he died of a heart attack in front of his television.
“We found a bicycle with flat tires showing he had never used it,” Landis says. “There wasn’t any indication he took a road trip. Once he quit work, he didn’t have a life. I can’t say that having a plan would have saved him. It looks to me he was bored with nothing to do and no drive left. Dying at 66 is not my plan for retirement.”
Landis says people must decide when they should retire. One person he interviewed says he knew it was time to retire when the “job is getting in the way of what you really want to do.” Not everyone focuses on something specific to do and cited how one man says retirement was more about “what I’m going to be” instead of what he does. For him, that was exciting to think about.
“I have a term called the ‘abundant retirement’,” Landis says. “It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re wealthy. I’ve seen people with abundant retirements with little or no money. They may be on public assistance, but have a rich life. What we need to discover is what that means for each person as we get towards retirement. Hopefully, they can find what turns them on. They can find their passion. They find something that’s interesting to them that makes them interesting to other people, too.”
What makes the transition from work to retirement difficult is that when we’re on the job everything is decided for us, Landis says. We know what time we’re going to get up in the morning. We know where we’re going to go and what we’re going to wear. We know whom we’re going to see, he says. “When you take all that away—that structure, the goals, the socializing, the learning, the factors that go into a doing a job—and then the job is gone, you’re kind of lost at sea,” Landis says. “Your job as a new retiree is to rebuild a life that has those needs in them with the socializing and the learning and the structure and goals and sense of accomplishment and recognition that the job gives you automatically. Now, you have to do it. People don’t know how to do it because it has always been done for them.”
Most people stumble around for months or even a couple of years until they find it, Landis says. They wake up and it hits them, he says. For Landis, 63, he says it’s going to be about cars and reading. He’s already started making that transition when he was working giving pre-retirement seminars.
“When I was laid off five years, I was given a blessing,” Landis says. “The blessing was they told me six months before they eliminated my position that it was probably going to happen. For those six months, I went through every emotion—the five stages of grief. Somewhere along the way I was walking into a seminar room to lead a seminar and I thought this is where I feel most alive in my life. I don’t know what I’m going to do next in my life but it has to have this in it.”
If people are lucky enough to stumble on what they’re passionate about, it’s exciting, Landis says. But if all you think about is your past glories on the job, people may choose to turn on the TV and drink beer and do other things that aren’t healthy.
“It’s unique to find out what your true values are and what your religious and spiritual values are and who you are, really,” Landis says. “Who did you always want to be and who did you mean to be? What were you always meant to do? Retirees are more spiritual than the rest of us and the reason is when you get the job out of the way you have time to consider what’s important. It’s a process of self discovery that we all do in our lives, but we have way more opportunity to do in retirement.”
Choosing a path is even important to a marriage because people are together on a regular basis compared to when one or both spouses had a job, Landis says. Many relationships erode in retirement, but many prosper as well because the couples rediscover each other, he says.
“The idea is to plan and build a life you want to live and maybe the life you always wanted to live or were meant to live and now you can actually design it,” Landis says. “You’re the sculptor and symphony conductor that gets to piece this life together in the way you want. You spent the last 30 to 40 years doing what the boss wanted and now you get to pick how you design your life. You’ve been given a tremendous gift—so the question is: What are you going to do with that?”