The retirement planning industry is going through a quiet revolution that could be easy for you to miss. After all, a quick scan of today’s headlines paints a grim picture for America’s retirees—bear markets, rising inflation, lack of savings, a looming recession. Well, I’m feeling a little uncomfortable now, are you?
It’s true that conditions over the past few years have not been ideal. Shockingly enough, it’s not the headlines that bother me most about the state of retirement today. My concern is that we’ve got a group of soon-to-be retirees who have been saving, investing, and doing everything right. Yet, they are so riddled with worry about the future that they miss out on living their lives.
Does that sound a little bit like you? Let’s talk.
Go back and reread that first paragraph. What do all those gloom-and-doom topics have in common? They are all focused on money and the markets. Traditionally, retirement and financial planning have been treated as one and the same. I will go out on a limb here and make a suggestion that may shock you.
Retirement planning is not financial planning. And when we treat retirement planning as though it is just a matter of getting the math right, more often than not, we pile a little more worry onto that unappetizing plate of financial woes.
Finances are absolutely a crucial foundation for a successful retirement. However, when you consider retirement planning solely from a monetary standpoint, it becomes the hub around which your life revolves. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather build my life around being the best version of myself who can show up for my family, my friends, and my clients. Money is a tool I can use to support my vision instead of being the vision.
Last fall, I was interviewed on another podcast, and the host referred to the non-financial retirement topics as the “squishier” side. I was grateful that he used the term; it’s the perfect example of how the less concrete aspects of retirement often get overlooked, even derided.
That squishy stuff is your life, ladies and gentlemen.
At the end of the day, it’s incredibly difficult for someone who has lived their whole life saving, following the rules, and being frugal to feel comfortable spending out, living without an income, and switching from sowing to a reaping mindset. We’re often so focused on just making it to retirement that we don’t pause to consider the realities of day-to-day life once we’re there. A solid retirement plan should help you consider those realities and be confident in your ability to handle them, even if there’s a storm or two along the way.
As I’ve refined my thinking over the past thirty years as a practicing financial planner, I’ve realized that my role is much more than choosing suitable investments or helping clients decide on a Social Security claiming strategy. My role is to guide my clients and, to an extent, my Retirement Answer Man podcast listeners toward thinking through major retirement decisions in an organized way. When we consider retirement issues together, we focus less on the choices that lead to the best mathematical outcome and more on the desired life outcomes.
I’ll use myself as an example here. I’m 56. Two years ago, I stopped saving in pre-tax assets and started funding Roth 401(k)s for myself and my wife. Now, I’m in the top tax bracket, so that may seem silly. But I realized I have so much already saved in pre-tax assets that I’m just building a bigger liability later on. I can afford to pay the taxes today. I’m annoyed by it, but right now, I have sufficient cash flow that it doesn’t negatively impact my life. I’m trying to give the gift of options to my future self by building tax-free assets.
Do I know what tax rates will be like when I retire? Of course not. A well-considered retirement plan accepts that uncertainty is part of the equation. Knowing that, sometimes our choices will come down to making a judgment call as to what creates the most peace of mind rather than what is mathematically optimal. And that’s perfectly okay!
Not long ago, I met with a client, a single woman with a significant monthly pension and Social Security benefits. She is well overfunded for retirement and has no estate or legacy goals. The decision before us was when she should start pension payments and claim Social Security. The mathematically optimal approach would be to delay both benefits and allow them to continue growing as long as possible. In her case, it was clear that there was another part of the equation: a crisis of confidence. The fear of spending her accrued assets was taking a toll on her mental health. Providing her a sense of peace outweighed the mathematic bonuses to her income benefits. Although she had the financial resources to fund her life, we encouraged her to claim the pension immediately, freeing her from her spending fears and permitting her to confidently live out her envisioned retirement.
Let’s consider another case. A few years back, I spoke with a Rock Retirement Club member—we’ll call her Jo— who desperately wanted to travel, specifically to visit Europe. She had saved enough to make the trip but hadn’t made planning it a priority. During our conversation, she shared with me that a degenerative eye disease ran in her family. Her sister had just been diagnosed with it, and it had caused blindness in their mother. Jo felt that chances were good she’d one day end up with the condition, too. I said,” Jo, you’re telling me you have the money, you’ve always wanted to make this trip to Europe, and there is a possibility that you could go blind… what the heck are you waiting for?!” So we worked together and identified the next steps to make that dream a reality; a few months later, she sent me a picture of herself in Munich.
Where do you fall? Are you pushing back your retirement due to the latest dire prognostications? Have you thought through not only how you will build your retirement savings but how you’ll actually use them? If, up until this point, you have only considered your retirement plan in terms of spreadsheets and investment portfolios, I challenge you to take a different approach. Start by thinking about your one-and-only life. What do you want to accomplish? What impact do you want to have on the world? Let that guide you next time you open that carefully crafted retirement spreadsheet. You’ve got this.