A lot of people spend more time planning for a two-week vacation than they do for retirement. Sure, we sign up for the 401(k) plan at work or open an IRA, but there's more to retirement than a savings account.
For one thing, many of us are defined by our jobs. Will you be okay when you can no longer say you're a teacher, chef or executive? What do you do in retirement, anyway? Sit around and watch television or play cards?
Before you retire, ask yourself six key questions:
1. Do you have a plan? Many of us see retirement as a time to take it easy, maybe play golf or do some gardening. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that. If you've worked for 30 or 40 years, you deserve it. But most people eventually find they need something more meaningful than just the absence of work. Their relaxing days fill up with more pressing activities. They do volunteer work, take classes, land a part-time job or help raise grandchildren. People start to wonder: If I'm retired, why am I so busy? So here's a tip: Make a list of your priorities so you don't squander your time, but use it to fulfill the kind of retirement you want.
2. Will you worry about money? Anyone who has planned ahead at all either has a pension, IRA account or other retirement savings. In fact, studies have shown that it's the 20-somethings, not the baby boomers, who suffered most from the great recession. Most retirees own their own homes, and can take cash out with a reverse mortgage or sell and move to a less expensive neighborhood. We may have friends who provide valuable resources such as sharing a vacation cottage or driving us to the doctor. The point is, no matter what the balance in our retirement account, we can exercise substantial control over our budgets and our lives.
3. Will your medical bills kill you? Medicare and Medicaid, along with supplemental insurance plans, sometimes make it easier and cheaper for retirees to access medical care. Beyond this, retirees have left behind the stress at work, and have the time and motivation to take care of themselves. There's no shame in making accommodations for age-related constraints on your activities. Do you have mobility issues that require you to live in a one-story house? Is your health affected by climate? Don't be any more reluctant to make adjustments for this stage of life than you did for any other.
4. Are you going to move to Florida or Arizona? A survey by the real estate company Pulte showed more than 40 percent of workers ages 55 and over plan to stay in the same city where they currently live when they retire. About a third of the respondents intend to move out of state, but many will relocate not to the sunbelt, but to be near children and grandchildren. Yes, people still relocate to Florida, Arizona, the Carolinas or the Northwest. But if you're considering a long-distance move, you should think about the three Cs -- the new climate, culture and customs -- and make sure you're going to be comfortable with them.
5. Are you afraid you'll be left behind? If you watch "Girls" on TV, you may think the whole world consists of 20-somethings who sip $5 lattes with an Indie rock band playing in the background. But with the retirement of baby boomers, the media now realizes that mature audiences watch TV, go to movies and pay attention to ads. Films like "Blue Jasmine" and TV shows like "Downton Abby" attract mature audiences. Netflix offers easy access to old movies from "The African Queen" to "Doctor Zhivago". The majority of people over age 65 have their own cellphone, most of them smartphones. And you know where you can find grandma? On Facebook.
6. Will you be happy for the rest of your life? A study from Princeton University found that people are happiest in their mid-20s, then again in their mid-to-late 60s. But the truth is, your happiness curve will likely track in retirement along similar lines as during the rest of your life. Happiness depends as much on a positive outlook as it does on any external factors. As you get older you will inevitably lose friends and experience physical limitations. How happy you are with these changes depends as much on you as it does on the changes themselves.
Tom Sightings is a former publishing executive who was eased into early retirement in his mid-50s. He lives in the New York area and blogs at Sightings at 60, where he covers health, finance, retirement and other concerns of baby boomers who realize that somehow they have grown up.
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