Women & Retirement: Money isn’t the only challenge

As a financial advisor, I spend much of my time helping people prepare for retirement. Starting as early in their careers as possible, we work together to figure out how they envision the post-career time of their lives, and we create a retirement plan to help ensure they have the reliable cash flow they need to make that vision come true. But time and time again I see that once they hit that magic age, the biggest hurdle isn’t having the assets to support retirement. The biggest challenge of all seems to be making the emotional switch from being a valued member of a business community to being a non-working retiree.

It’s a common scenario: a client works hard for 30 plus years, saves diligently for three decades, and is all set to retire a year or more early. But though it seems like a given that such a smart saver would be thrilled to be taking this next step, when the time comes, they’re just plain scared to retire. “I think I want to wait another six months… maybe a year,” is a frequent refrain. “By then maybe I can figure out what I really want to do in retirement.”

This uncertainty about the shift into retirement is something I’ve heard many times, from clients in every type of occupation and every financial circumstance. When it comes down to it, the big question for many people who are on the eve of retirement is simple: What am I going to do with the rest of my life?

For women, this struggle can be particularly difficult. First, we’re generally more financially conservative than men, so giving up that known income—that cash coming in twice a month in payment for a job well done—can be frightening. Plus, because, sadly, we still earn less than our male counterparts for the same work, and because we’re more likely than men to take time off from our careers to care for our children or parents, our nest egg is often smaller in comparison. But money aside, the emotional struggle can run even deeper. We are more likely to work in careers we’re passionate about, so leaving can make us feel empty. At the same time, we tend to build most of our social connections at work, so we’re not only walking away from work that gives us purpose, but also from many of the people we care deeply about.

I’m not a psychologist, but I have seen first-hand some approaches that can help smooth this tricky transition and make retirement something you can look forward to instead of dreading the day when you lose so much of what makes you “you.” Here are three to get you started:

  • Create a vision for retirement. While it may seem like a wonderful dream when youre sitting in traffic after a tough work day, very few retirees actually find satisfaction golfing all day, every day. But what do you want to do with your time? Create a vision board, journal, and let your imagination run wild. If you have a partner, write down your ideas separately, and then share them with each other to see how well they mesh. You may find there are some things you can (and should!) do solo, and others you’ll enjoy together.
  • Decide where you want to live. While lots of “snow birds” flock to warmer climates in retirement, it’s not the right path for everyone. Do you want to stay in your current home? If so, for how long? Do you plan to move closer to your children and grandchildren? Talk to them first to be sure your plan fits into their own ideas for the future. Do you want to downsize? Know that it may help lower monthly expenses, but that’s not always the case. Work with a professional to understand your options and make the best choice for you, both in early retirement and in your later years.
  • Start looking for your next “job” long before the day you leave work behind. If you’re someone who gets great satisfaction from your work, consider ways to carry that work into retirement. Look at resources such as Encore, a non-profit committed to helping people in mid-life tap their skills and experience to improve communities and the world, or VolunteerMatch.org, a site that can help match your interests and skills with local volunteer opportunities. Just as you would start looking for a new job before leaving your current position, line up your next opportunity before you’re “out of work.”

In retirement, dollars do matter, but that’s only one piece of the puzzle. By rethinking retirement now, you may just find that the most fulfilling time of your life is in the last 10, 20, or 30 years. Now that’s something beautiful to look forward to!


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