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What to Do in Retirement: Finding Purpose Beyond the Numbers

There’s a lot of focus on the “numbers” in retirement planning. And there’s a lot of focus on the specific tools and techniques that you can use. But there’s not much focus on actually being retired.

But that’s what all of the spreadsheets, and research, and calculations are there to support.

And all of the “traditional” aspects of retirement planning are important. Creating and maintaining the income that you need to pay for what you want to do in retirement is crucial.

But it’s the scaffolding of your retirement. It’s there to support the things that you want to do, and the things that are meaningful to you.

So what do you want to do in retirement?

Like a lot of the most important questions in life, this is an incredibly difficult question to answer. But it’s the key to having a good retirement.

Retirement is Not an Endpoint

Part of the problem here is that while we’re still working, we look at retirement as the goal itself. We need to save up enough to be able to retire. And we may have dreams of a retirement of endless travel, or golf and pickleball, or whatever it is that you can’t do as much of as you want right now.

We’re really thinking about retirement as the absence of work. We envision it as basically a really long vacation.

But it’s not.

Think back to the other big milestones in your life – graduating college, or getting married, or getting that big promotion. None of those were the end. They were certainly the end of one phase of your life, but they were really a transition into the next stage of life.

And that’s exactly what retirement is.

Retirement is a New Start

When you start retirement, you are starting a new phase of your life. And just like any big change, there are positive and negative aspects to that change.

The plus sides are pretty obvious – and what we often imagine when we are looking forward to retirement. We have the flexibility to decide what we are going to do. We don’t have our work anchoring us to a set schedule, and we do anything that we want (within reason).

The Downsides of Retirement

But that is also one of the biggest challenges that retirees face. They don’t have work anchoring them to a set schedule. Whether you worked outside the home, or if you stayed at home, for many people work was the center point in their lives.

It provided the structure of your day. You (or your spouse) went to work at roughly the same time every day, and then returned home at roughly the same time every evening.

If you worked outside of the home, it likely provided most of your social connections.

And, almost universally, you derived a large amount of your status and self-worth from your career. When we meet someone now, within the first few minutes, the conversation is likely to turn to our jobs.

When we retire, we separate ourselves from this to a very large degree. Often retirees can feel unmoored from their previous self with pretty severe repercussions both for yourself, but also for your relationships with others (especially your spouse).

In fact, retirement is one of the common points where couples end up divorcing. This change in routine – especially if one spouse retires before the other one – can drastically change the dynamic in your relationship. And this is only amplified if you and your spouse have not talked through what you want out of retirement, and what it will look like together.

Getting Lost in Retirement

The transition to retirement, while it has the potential for really great things (which we’ll talk about in a minute), means that you need to be intentional about what you want to be doing.

You don’t have the outside constraints of work providing structure. You need to provide your own structure.

When you retire, you likely want to go out and do all of the travelling that you haven’t had the time for, or play a whole bunch of golf or pickleball. Most people treat the first year or two of retirement as a really long (and well deserved) vacation. And their not necessarily wrong to do so.

But this vacation period will come to an end. There’s only so much golf and pickleball you can play. And you only have so many trips that you can take. Without intentional planning, you are going to get bored.

You can kind of get lost in your own retirement.

And this can lead to significant health problems.

Almost a third of retirees are depressed. And alcoholism (as well as dependence on other drugs) is also common among retirees.

Retire to Something – Not From Something

It’s a cliché, but it is one hundred percent true. In an ideal world you shouldn’t be retiring from your job – you should be retiring to something you love to do. Ideally, you should be thinking about, and looking forward to, the next phase of your life.

While this may not always be possible, there are definitely a lot of jobs out there where you are definitely retiring from them, you always want to be looking forward to what you get to do in the next phase of life.

Simply put, for almost all of us, life is just not fulfilling if we are focusing on the absence of something. A good life is not simply the absence of discomfort. A good life, and good retirement, is defined by what we do – and specifically the things that we choose to do.

And in retirement we get to decide what that those things that we will be doing are.

What Do You Love Doing?

But that leaves us with a pretty important question. What are those things that you want to be doing in retirement?

A lot of people reach retirement, and need to figure that part out.

While leisure activities are probably part of the mix of things that you like, and want, to do. They can’t be everything. It will probably be pretty great for six months to a year, but you’ll likely get bored relatively quickly.

There are a whole host of activities that you can take on, and goals that you can set for yourself. Some of them are deep and profound (going back to school, mentoring, or volunteering with a local organization), and some are not as much (seeing a baseball game in every MLB stadium, or running the Umbrella Cover Museum).

What matters is that you find the things that have meaning to you, and keep you engaged and active. Not only does it just make life more enjoyable, it helps you both stay healthy and mentally engaged.

How Do You Decide What to Do?

Finding these passions are a lot easier said than done though.

So how do you go about figuring out what you want to be doing?

There’s a lot of different approaches, but some things that you may want to try are:

Self Reflection

Start with introspection. Consider what you are passionate about, what you’ve always wanted to do but never had the time for, and what makes you feel fulfilled. This could be hobbies, volunteer work, or learning new skills.

Talk to Others

Talk to friends, family, or even a career coach who specialize in retirement planning. They can offer insights and suggest possibilities that you might not have considered.

Go Back to School

Retirement is a great time to learn. Whether it’s through formal education, online courses, or community workshops, learning new skills can be both fulfilling and beneficial.

Trial and Error

Before you retire, start experimenting with different activities. This could be part-time work in a field you’re interested in, volunteering in various sectors, or picking up new hobbies. See what sticks and what doesn’t.

Talk to Your Spouse

However you approach figuring out what you want to do in retirement, if you’re married, there’s one thing that you have to do.

Talk to your spouse.

What are they interested in? What would you like to do together? How can you keep growing both individually and as a couple?

For most couples, retirement means spending more time together than they ever have at any point in their lives. You want to make sure that you are on the same page – and just like always, communication with your spouse is key.

Your Interests (and Abilities) Will Change

Whatever you decide to do in retirement, understand that you’ll change through time. Just like you aren’t the same person you were in your 20s (hopefully anyway), you aren’t the same person that you will be in your 90s.

And that’s a good thing.

We evolve through time. Both in terms of the things that we are interested in and enjoy, but also the things that we are capable of.

So it’s important to build that your plan allows for this flexibility.

There’s very little about retirement planning that is simple. And there’s very little that is fun (unless you like playing with spreadsheets – which, admittedly, I do). But figuring out what you want to do in retirement is one of the few places where we get to stretch our creativity and focus on what we actually want.

So much of retirement planning is exclusively about the numbers. And there’s a good reason for that – the numbers are important. But it’s important to remember the point of all of that work and saving that you have done throughout your life.

You wanted to be able to enjoy your retirement.

And figuring out what you want to actually be doing in retirement is the key to truly enjoying your retirement.

To find out more about creating a retirement plan that works for you, read our eBook 6 Steps to Creating Your Retirement Plan

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