Retirement does not always go the way people expect. While no two experiences are exactly the same, over time it seems that people’s financial situations in retirement tend to fall into one of a few distinct categories.
As you think ahead to how you want your retirement to go, keep the following categories in mind. They offer useful examples of what to avoid and what you might want to emulate.
1. Keeping up appearances.
Even though people tend to think of their finances as personal business, their wealth is often presented to the outside world in a variety of ways. While you probably won’t walk around sharing the latest information on your savings account balance with everyone, the car you drive, the house you live in, and the clothes you wear all provide clues as to your financial well-being, even if you don’t think of yourself as particularly status conscious.
Unfortunately, the public face of wealth can create a form of pressure that leads to poor financial decisions. One reason people sometimes spend beyond their means is to keep up public appearances — whether that entails trying to compete with friends and neighbors or trying to maintain a prior standard that you can no longer afford.
Another example of how trying to keep up appearances can be a distorting influence is that breadwinners often want to spare their spouses and children from any financial anxiety. Thus, they may hide any financial setbacks or be reluctant to admit the true limitations of their incomes. As a result, family members conduct themselves on the assumption that they can afford more than is actually the case, when they could be playing important roles in trying to economize if they knew the truth.
People can be particularly vulnerable to these behaviors in retirement, when not having wage income makes a financial reversal more difficult to overcome. Taking pride in your financial well-being is understandable; but remember that the longer you maintain an inflated illusion of your wealth, the worse the blow to your pride will be when the truth finally does come out.
2. Gambling and losing.
People in retirement are heavily dependent on the success of their investments, and this leads some people to take dangerous risks in order to try to improve their financial status.
Especially now, with savings account and CD rates so low, people are resorting to riskier investments to try to earn a decent rate of return. Earning next to nothing in a deposit account may be frustrating, but it’s not as frustrating as suffering damaging losses.
Some element of investment risk is necessary to earn the growth necessary to stay ahead of inflation, but don’t make investments without being fully cognizant of their downsides. Risk management is critical in retirement because drawing money out of your accounts to live on can amplify the impact of downturns, and your near-term spending needs mean that you don’t have as much time to recover from losses as when you were still working.
Some people are able to afford retirement because they downsize many aspects of their lifestyle — smaller house, fewer dependents, less entertainment, etc. This need not be a matter of financial necessity. Often, a simpler lifestyle can be appealing to people in their later years.
One caution about planning on downsizing in retirement is to make sure you properly account for what your specific expenses will be, rather than just blindly assuming you’ll be able to live on a fraction of the money you needed when you were working. Also, remember that health care can grow to be a huge expense in retirement, especially if you have to move into a managed care facility.
4. Second careers.
Another way of affording retirement is to keep some income coming in via a second career. Some people do this out of necessity because they do not have enough money for retirement, but in many cases people like to keep working because it occupies their time and makes them feel useful.
Semi-retirement can be a perfect way to take things a little easier without completely withdrawing from the working world. As a retirement funding strategy though, don’t assume you will be able to keep working for as long as you want. Health issues or dated skill sets can make it harder to continue working as you grow older.
Ultimately, retirement is about conservation of your financial resources — making sure that what you have can be stretched to last over the remainder of your life. The problem is, no matter how carefully you plan ahead, there are some things you just cannot know in advance. Unexpected expenses, substandard investment returns, and your longevity can all make it more difficult to make your money last.
The answer is that conservation of financial resources requires frequent adjustments. Rather than being a course you can set and forget, managing your finances requires regularly refreshing your plan to see how the latest information on your financial status affects how much you can afford.
Planning for retirement
Retirement is not defined solely by finances. How you choose to occupy your time and whom you spend that time with are critical factors in post-career happiness. However, it cannot be denied that money is also a big influence on that happiness. For one thing, it dictates your level of comfort and the number of options you have. More than that, though, there is the psychological impact of having to live with the consequences of decisions you made throughout your career and beyond.
A lot goes into this. As you think back in retirement, you may be able to trace your financial condition all the way back to decisions you made about your education, and then to the effort you put into your career, how sensible your spending was, and how wise an investor you were. You might not always have made the right choices, but psychologically the important thing is to be able to look back on those decisions without regret. Being able to do that begins today, by putting care and discipline into decisions you make about your finances.
Updated March 23, 2016 and originally published August 18, 2015.