Retirement Surprises: Plan More Than Your Finances

Jalene Hahn |

We all have expectations throughout life and, as we age, we learn that not all our expectations pan out.

Retirement is no different.  Part of this has to do with the expectations themselves.  Most individuals going into retirement have no idea what to expect. According to a survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute and Greenwald & Associates, only 38% of workers have estimated how much income they would need each month in retirement. While having sufficient resources to last for your lifetime is important to your quality of life, a bigger question is, “What’s your purpose?”

My husband passed on an early retirement offer a few years ago because he wasn’t ready for what came next. Finances were one consideration, but he mostly was worried about what his “purpose” in retirement would be. He is not alone in his concerns.

I attended the Age Wave Conference in Columbus, Indiana, in late June that focused on aging from a community perspective. The last panel of the day focused on, “What surprised you about retirement?” The three panelists have different retirement experiences, but they all voiced some common themes.

One panelist pointed out that, “You have to learn to be retired. There is a process to learn how to be retired. You can’t really prepare for retirement. I thought I was prepared but found out I was not as prepared as I thought.” The other panelists had similar sentiments.

The theme that emerged was that you had to be flexible and “go with the flow.” “We don’t do well with change, and we have to learn to be flexible.” As another panelist said, “You have to be flexible and be ready for surprises life throws you.” All of the panelists had unexpected circumstances to overcome. “Plans change, and the things you were counting on don’t always come through.”

In a recent article, “A 67-year-old who ‘un-retired’ shares the biggest retirement challenge ‘that no one talks about,’” George Jerjian surveyed more than 15,000 retirees over the age of 60, and asked them one question: “What is your single biggest challenge in retirement?” Money was certainly a concern. But financial worries weren’t among the top three in the list.

He stated, “People often confuse retirement savings with retirement planning. But these are two different concepts … actual retirement planning, which I believe is more about your life, and less about money. Having steady finances to last you throughout retirement plays a significant role in quality of life, but what’s more important is your life planning.”

His survey responses could be summed up as, “The biggest retirement challenge that no one talks about … is finding purpose.” Purpose was another theme the Age Wave panelists shared. According to one panelist, “I expected to be less busy. I was planning to lay back and not have a schedule. Then I started volunteering and now I am busy, busy, busy.” Another panelist remarked, “Once you are retired, things take over your life. It is equally important to know when to say ‘No.’”

Maintaining balance and adjusting to your changing abilities as you age are also important. Some advice from the panel was to, “Stay young and active. Seek out young people to be with.” It takes effort to have a vibrant life, and all panelists cautioned that it is easy to become isolated and inactive.

A 2021 study published in the Journal of Applied Gerontology associated a strong purpose in life with healthier lifestyle behaviors and slower rates of progression of chronic illnesses. The Age Wave Panelists encouraged attendees to “join different groups that help you stay active physically and find ways to challenge your mind regularly.”

Making sure you have enough money isn’t the end of retirement planning. The real question is, what are you going to do to stay connected—to family, friends and the community at large—and how will you make a positive impact?