Are You Afraid to Retire Even Though You Can Afford To?

Actually retiring may be the hardest part about retirement. If you’ve got cold feet, here are some ideas to make retirement the next step in a journey, not a final destination.

I am seeing an interesting pattern in discussions with my clients about retirement — and it’s certainly not one I was expecting. Instead of worrying about whether they’ll have enough saved to enjoy retirement, they’re worrying about whether they’ll enjoy retirement at all.

It seems like discussions about retirement start almost as soon as we get our first job. Whether it’s saving as much as possible in your 401(k) plan or making an annual IRA contribution, the focus is always on having enough money to retire and enjoy all the things they’ve been dreaming of doing. For some, the big plans include traveling to far-flung destinations; for others, it’s spending time with family, finally moving to that place you love to visit on vacation, or volunteering. 

As financial planners, we talk about these dreams as goals and put dollar amounts on them with anticipated timeframes around when you could expect to achieve them.  If you have been worried about market ups and downs over the last few years, concerns about withdrawing funds when the account balances may be down from the peak value are real.  To address this worry, ask your financial planner to “stress-test” your retirement projection using lower capital market return expectations in your financial plan, or consider having a bear market when you begin taking your distributions.

Client has second thoughts as she nears retirement

As we diligently make progress on achieving those retirement dreams, we don’t spend as much time as we should thinking about what life may actually look like in retirement. Recently, I spoke to a client who says she would like to retire at the end of this year. We have been working toward her economic freedom for years, and she has enough assets to help make all the dreams she has expressed come to fruition. We got to the end of the financial plan discussion, and I was all set to celebrate starting the countdown to the long-awaited retirement date.

But there was a pause, and then she said, “I don’t know if I can actually start to withdraw the money and feel good about it. I have been so focused on saving, investing, and planning for years that I don’t know how I will feel about starting to take money out, even if it’s for things I think I want.” 

She went on to say that she always thought she wanted to move to another state to be close to her extended family, but she now realizes that they are going to be busy with their own lives, and it won’t just be fun all the time like when she visits now. And if her family won’t be able to see her multiple times a week, then maybe she doesn’t actually want to live in that state and make a major lifestyle adjustment to weather climates she doesn’t enjoy year-round and not being able to walk on the beach every day.

She shared that she worries that the photography and golf hobbies that she feels like she never has time to enjoy now won’t be enough to fill her days. She has traveled extensively already, and the list of places she still wants to visit is getting shorter. In other words, her biggest worry about retiring is what she is going to do with her time when she retires — even though she says frequently, even now, that she can’t wait to stop working.

I have had similar conversations with physician clients who start our discussions by telling me that they are very stressed, and the only thing they want to do is close their practice as soon as financially possible. And yet, when we work through their wealth management plan and show that they have more than enough assets to walk out the door tomorrow, they can’t do it. For some people, retiring from being an expert in their field or having a prestigious job feels like giving up part of the identity they have worked very hard to earn.

How to cope if you’ve got cold feet for retirement

So, what do you do when the hardest part about retirement is actually retiring? The most successful transitions to retirement I have helped clients implement start years before the planned retirement date or have elements that help ease them into decisions. Here are some ideas to make retirement the next step in a journey, not a final destination:

Consider slowing down at work instead of stopping completely. Working part time allows you to have the best of both worlds: continued income and a day-to-day sense of purpose, as well as the time to pursue hobbies, travel, and leisure.

The physician who wanted to walk away from his practice is now working only three days a week, happy to still be caring for patients while being able to participate in his teenager’s school and sports activities. 

Try before you buy. If relocation is in your retirement plans, you can similarly take a new location for a test drive before committing to living there full time. In the case of the client who might want to live by her family but really likes her current home, I recommended that she rent a house for a year in the new state to see if she can deal with the weather, and if her extended family’s lifestyle suits her before she sells her current home.

She can rent out her current home for some income, or she can just come back home for a break during the very hot or cold months in the new state.

Plan to explore new things. While you may have a few hobbies that you enjoy now and want to pursue in retirement, you can also plan to try out new experiences to keep your day-to-day life fresh and interesting.

Many people find that volunteering gives them the purpose that working used to fulfill — but without the stress. You can also explore those activities that you always thought sounded fun — like learning to paint, ballroom dancing, playing pickleball, running triathlons, or taking a series of cooking classes — but never had time to do before.

“I am busier now that I am retired than I was when I was working” is a common theme I hear from clients, but now the activities are things they have worked hard to be able to enjoy. 

Having your financial adviser work with you on planning for your life in retirement as well as your finances can help ensure the transition you make can be happy and fulfilling. 

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