Posted by: drdata921 | February 7, 2014

Pulling the Trigger on Retirement: When Theory Collides With Reality

“Life is a journey, not a destination”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, American essayist and poet

My adaptation of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote is “retirement is a journey, not a destination.” This is getting to be increasingly apparent as I approach my new beginning. You see, despite all of the financial analyses and Excel spreadsheets and despite the multitude of articles that have helped me understand bits and pieces of the puzzle, the uncertainty remains. I am not talking about the unknowns such as future inflation or stock market returns or even how the government will net out on Social Security and Medicare. I am talking about decisions you might make as you approach retirement and realize that this will be something with a lot of unpredictability and may require you to make some calls that you weren’t quite expecting.

Here are a couple of the things that I am now grappling with:

Timing Your Retirement

Aaahh, the spreadsheets were so helpful! I had it planned right down to the month when the stars would align and my finances would be perfectly configured to sustain me through an entire retirement. However, much of that has gone out the window. Some people plan an exit date, but are waylaid by things such as layoffs or unanticipated changes in health. I have had a change of plans due to something much more existential and philosophical.

Two years ago, while preparing to run on the treadmill at the gym, I suffered what is called a Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA – a mini-stroke, although it didn’t feel so “mini” at the time). It seemed so unfair because I workout diligently. However, I learned from this. The net takeaway was life is unpredictable. Sure you can plan to make the move in two years or five years or whatever, but there are no guarantees. In a similar vein, a friend of mine at the gym told me about another incident. A gentleman who also works out regularly had arrived at the gym at 5:00 am and suffered a heart attack that nearly killed him as he began his routine. He was 56 years old at the time of the attack and had no previous warning. Again, I reiterate, life is unpredictable and there are no guarantees. I might add that life appears to be unfair as well if this can happen in the gym. So, I have come to the opinion that the spreadsheets be damned, the time is right when it feels right, and not when the financial analysis says its right.

Getting Your Finances in Order

The mantra for retirement financial planning is get your expenses down. There are several elements from paying off your credit card debt, paying off a mortgage, and finding ways to reduce wasteful or unnecessary spending. For the most part these are common sense. For example, maxing out a credit card is a bad idea no matter what your age, but particularly in and around retirement. Mortgages are a major expense for most people so anything you can do to reduce it is helpful. Some people have gone as far as to recommend that you work extra years to pay-off a mortgage. These all sound like reasonable recommendations.

However, then there are the philosophical issues again. Life is finite and unpredictable. What if you spend the extra years, but die before you can enjoy the fruits of your labor. Downsizing may make sense, but you will still want to live in a house that fits your needs and makes you feel good even if it is a bit more expensive. You may be in the house for 30 years so spending more to find the right place could be worth it – although not in line with reducing expenses. Then again, you may be dead tomorrow and it may make no difference. You just don’t know. This is exactly my dilemma. Consider the TIA. Think about the guy who had the heart attack. This puts things in a very different perspective than you might find in a spreadsheet.

You Knew Adjustments Would Be Required, So Plan to Adjust

It was so much easier when I had a spreadsheet to guide me. I have always lived by the numbers and number don’t lie. However, throw in these philosophical and psychological issues and everything suddenly becomes murky. Now you have three perspectives to consider, not just the one.

So, what is the resolution? I think that the proper perspective is life is to be lived. Everything is not about the money. It’s also about the experience and the enjoyment. Have a reasonable financial plan, but be willing and ready to adjust as the need arises. If financial decisions are all that drive retirement decisions, then you may live a solvent, but unfulfilling retirement. Life is to be lived. Life is to be enjoyed. As one 1970’s song put it: “We may never pass this way again.” Keep that in mind.



  1. Don, great blog today, and I think it puts a life in perspective. Your comment about it not being “all about the money” is spot on, although certainly not something we can turn a blind eye to.
    Just want to say again how I enjoy your perspective, and I hope you continue to post these after your expected trek to Florida!!!
    Look forward to continuing to see you at the “Y”.

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