Most of the advice on retirement planning focuses on how to save enough money to replace your paycheck.
But work offers us much more than just income. Many of us get a sense of meaning, accomplishment, and even identity from what we do. Work also provides social connections and a structure for our days.
Losing all of that can be disorienting, which is why experts – including some who are already retired – recommend thinking about how to replace these aspects of the job.
“Most adults don’t want a pure leisure life,” writes certified financial planner Barbara O’Neill in her book “Flip a Switch: Your Guide to Happiness and Financial Security Later in Life”. “They crave meaningfulness, meaningful daily activities and relationships, and the freedom to do what they want, even if it means continuing to work.”
Imagine a typical day
Retirement often begins with a variety of activities, when people travel, visit their families, and do their favorite activities. However, pension experts recommend imagining a more typical day after you’ve checked off some of your bucket list activities. How do you spend each hour starting when you wake up? Who are you going to spend time with? How will you react when someone asks, “What are you doing?”
O’Neill, for example, does not use the word “retired” to describe himself. Instead, she explains that she left Rutgers University after 41 years as a professor and now owns Money Talk Financial Planning Seminars and Publications, where she writes and speaks on personal finance topics.
In fact, research shows that work in retirement is associated with more happiness. Part-time work can also help you gradually retire, says CFP Shelly-Ann Eweka, senior director of financial planning strategy at financial firm TIAA.
“Some people are really stressed because it seems final,” says Eweka of retirement. “Imagine working part-time to have less work and more free time so you can get involved.”
Retire for a test drive
You might want to take your vision of retirement for a test drive before you quit work, says Eweka. Consider taking a two-week vacation doing what you can hope for in retirement, like playing golf, traveling, volunteering, or looking after the grandchildren. If you plan to move to another area, consider renting a house there for a couple of weeks if possible. You may find that reality meets or exceeds your expectations. If not, you can change your plans before you commit, says Eweka.
Also, think about how to replace the social interactions you get from work. People with strong social connections tend to be happier, healthier, and live longer. You can invest in existing pre- and post-retirement relationships by spending more time with family and friends. O’Neill recommends setting specific days and times for regular connection, either in person or by phone or video call.
But aging also means losing connections when people die or move away. Volunteering, joining community organizations, or just getting to know your neighbors can all help you build relationships with new people, says O’Neill. Accompanying a dog, cat or other pet can also contribute to well-being.
Without the structure imposed by work, some people drift off and one day turns into another. Setting goals and taking steps to achieve them can help restore a sense of purpose and success, says O’Neill.
O’Neill began her life after Rutgers by setting five goals: to finish the book she was writing; stay active in financial literacy; Maintain friendships; “Doing lots of fun things and new things”; and stay healthy by walking 10,000 steps a day, eating healthy foods, and getting at least 7 hours of sleep every night. (Taking care of your physical well-being is key: 81% of retirees in a 2014 Merrill Lynch study named good health as the main ingredient to a happy retirement.)
Achieving specific, measurable goals can help people redefine their concept of productivity, which is important for many people’s self-esteem, says O’Neill. Goals can also help compensate for a tendency to procrastinate.
People who are used to save and belated gratification can have difficulty “flipping the switch” to get on and enjoy their lives, says O’Neill. But time, health and energy are not infinite. Many people in her community of 55+ in Ocala, Florida struggled during the pandemic not just because their plans were canceled but because they were aware the clock was ticking, she says.
“It wasn’t just two lost years, it was two good years,” says O’Neill. “You don’t know how many of them you have left.”
This article was written by NerdWallet and originally published by The Associated Press.