Saturday, August 6, 2011

Five Retirement Mistakes You Could Live to Regret

Cooling down from teaching her popular aerobic dance class the other day, my friend Kim shook her head as she strolled around the gym. "Just talked to someone else who has buyer's remorse," she said, toweling down. "Can you imagine? She said they decided to buy here because they just loved one of the floor plans."

We agreed that some people spend more time planning a holiday dinner or a vacation than they do planning for the practical and emotional aspects of retirement. Where you choose to live, what you plan to do, how close you want and need to be to family and longtime friends, how you and your spouse agree or disagree on how you will retire -- all of these things are critically important. And yet, some people make major life choices without thought or planning. For some, that can spell retirement disaster.

The five most common mistakes people make in emotional retirement choices include:

1. Acting on Impulse.  Like the couple who came to look at model homes here, fell in love with a floor plan and bought immediately, some people fail to consider all aspects of a lifestyle choice.  It just makes sense to consider whether you want to move in retirement or not. And if you do, spend some time, preferably several years, before retirement, scouting out possible locations.  As well as looking at models and checking out all facilities on site, look carefully at the surrounding area. Is this a place you can live -- and be happy? What trade-offs are you willing to make?

A community like Sun City Anthem Merrill Ranch, where Kim and I live, is in rural Arizona. The closest major department store is a 20-30 minute drive.  The closest movie theater is a 40 minute drive.
We do have a grocery store, UPS store, two banks, a home decorating store, dental office and several restaurants located within this community and a quick golf cart ride away, if not walking distance, for all. Serious shoppers or movie buffs might think twice about living so far out. For Kim and me, who buy our clothes from Lands End catalogues and are mostly content to see films via Netflix, this location is just fine. For my husband Bob, a movie buff, this location is still no problem at all. Once a week, he combines a trip to the closest movie theatre with a visit to Barnes and Noble, in the same shopping center as the theatre, for a much anticipated treat. However, for others, who long for elegant restaurants, a lively nightlife and super malls, living here would definitely be less satisfactory.

If you're looking to the Sunbelt, spend time there in the summer as well as the winter before buying. Arizona heat can be a shock to the uninitiated. If you're looking to relocate to the Northwest, what is your tolerance for rain or cool, cloudy days? If you dream of spending your days on the beaches of Florida, go in the summer and see how you do with humidity and bugs.  If your dream retirement spot is in New England or the upper Midwest, make sure you spend some serious time there in January before committing to a move. In short, check out places during their worst weather months.

Buy or even subscribe to local newspapers to check out the town or surrounding areas. What are the major issues? What crimes are reported? What community activities exist? What is the political climate? The religious atmosphere?

The latter may seem a strange consideration, but it isn't when you consider the case of some friends of friends who fell in love with a big, beautiful house by a lake in Utah.  They relocated from their modest home in Los Angeles and settled happily into their spacious new home in Utah, only to find that they are the only people in their entire community who are not Mormons. It isn't a matter of being ostracized or run out of town. Their neighbors are nice people. But their lives revolve around the Mormon church and there is little room in their social lives for outsiders. That was something this couple never considered when they sought a beautiful setting and home for a relaxing retirement.

2. Acting on Assumptions:  Assumptions can really come back to bite you. If you plan to relocate, do you assume that family and friends will travel to visit with you?  If you're relocating to be closer to your adult kids, do you assume that you will be socializing with them on a daily basis?

Even if you move only a day's drive away from family and friends, chances are there will not be a rush to take you up on your invitations. Especially if most of these loved ones are still working, their time to make a several day trek to see you is limited. Spending all two weeks of their vacation time with you may not be your kids' idea of a dream vacation.

My childhood friend Mary recently shared with me her resentment that her in-laws insisted that she and her husband and kids spend every summer vacation with them at their cottage in Maine. The years slipped by and the kids grew up and Mary thinks with regret of all the trips to Disneyworld or to her old hometown of Los Angeles or to tropical islands or just camping and sailing on a nearby bay that her family never took because her husband felt obligated to please his parents. Not all adult children are as eager to please as Mary's husband. So you may not see nearly as much of your kids -- or your long-time friends -- as you would like.

Bob and I have a lovely separate guest house that I am mostly using as an office these days. In the nearly year and a half we have been here, our guest house has been occupied by guests -- my brother and his family -- for one night. We hope that we will have more guests here over time. In the meantime, it does make a great office! And we recently made the decision to take long weekend trips back to L.A. to visit with family and friends every other month -- since our time, at this stage, is more flexible than theirs. My brother has just built a guest house in his backyard to accommodate these visits.

Assuming that moving closer to your kids will mean that your social life will revolve around them can result in the painful realization that your kids have lives of their own and may not want to see you as often as you want to see them.

In some instances, too, parents have moved here to be close to their children -- and then their children had job transfers or got new jobs and had to relocate -- in some instances, several states away. And the parents are stuck in a retirement location they might not have chosen but for its proximity to their adult children.

It's important to challenge your assumptions before you make any major changes in your life -- making sure that whatever happens -- whether people visit or not, whether your kids want to socialize regularly or not, whether your kids stay in the area or move away -- you will be content with living in your chosen community.

3. Retiring Without a Plan: Even if you plan to do nothing for awhile, having that as part of your plan will free you to enjoy it.  When Bob and I retired, I made a very conscious decision to rest for the first six months. I was exhausted after working multiple jobs with mega-commutes for the last twenty years of my working life. I settled in, got to know my neighbors, hit the gym daily and enjoyed swimming every day. It was wonderful. I didn't feel a bit of guilt because it was all part of the plan.

Last October, in sync with my plan, I began to take classes, both here at the ASU facility and online, started my blog and began to think seriously about book projects. I felt new energy and excitement. I felt refreshed and delighted to be rediscovering the work I have enjoyed most throughout my working life.

Retiring with a list of things you want to do and accomplish will help structure your days and your dreams. The people who get depressed, who feel at loose ends, who don't know what to do with themselves, are those who went into retirement with no plan.

Of course, as time goes by, you will find yourself fine-tuning your plan.

Before retirement, I thought about becoming active in the theatrical society here, rediscovering a passion of my youth and a professional pursuit in my twenties. I also imagined tap-dancing as part of my fitness routine.  But I hadn't factored in the limitations of arthritic feet and a balance problem.  I hadn't considered the collision of professional expectations and amateur fun. I decided that I didn't want to make the considerable time commitment that the theatrical productions demand. And I quietly put my tap shoes on my closet shelf.  But I've found that socializing is much more important to me now than ever before. Exercise has become a daily habit and joy.  Reading is, once again, a major activity. Protesting is a pursuit I had never imagined taking up in my young old age. And blogging - who knew?

But having a basic plan for how you will take care of yourself, how you will have fun, how you will give back and reach out to others is key to a happy retirement.

4. Failing to Resolve Lifestyle Differences with Your Spouse:  It's not unusual, especially when you're just starting to think about life beyond work, for spouses to have differences about how you will live and what life will be like after retirement. Listen to your spouse without automatically dismissing his or her wishes. Even if your lifestyle dreams seem impossibly far apart, give your thoughts, wants and needs the time and space to gel into a life plan that pleases you both.

When Bob and I first began to think of our life beyond daily work, we seemed quite far apart. He was enchanted with the stark beauty of Death Valley and enjoyed the rustic small towns surrounding it. While Death Valley was more interesting than I had ever imagined, I couldn't picture myself living someplace like Pahrump, Nev., one of the closest towns to Death Valley.  I disliked the desert, the mobile homes, the signs offering free fly swatters, the remoteness from civilization.  My first inclination was somewhere near water -- a beach cottage or a cabin at a mountain lake like Lake Arrowhead. But prices at the beach -- whether in California or Maui -- were prohibitive. And Bob's arthritis didn't do well in a four-season climate, thus eliminating Lake Arrowhead.  We talked about just staying put in our lovely planned community and lived happily with that idea for awhile before deciding that we really wanted to live somewhere more rural, with less stress and less traffic.

We found our compromise in our present community: a lovely planned community (like the one we left) but in rural Arizona with a slower pace of life and very little traffic. Bob has the heat and the desert surroundings he loves. I have the water I love -- not only in the multiple lakes within the community but also with an indoor pool for serious exercise and an outdoor resort pool for fun.  We are an easy drive to either Phoenix or Tucson for professional theatre, concerts, ballet, opera, museums, so we don't feel isolated from civilization. Excellent libraries abound. We've found our little bit of paradise though sharing our dreams and finding a way to make them work together.

Not everyone enjoys such an outcome.  A neighbor of Kim's confided recently that she had really hoped to retire to a community that was more elegant and upscale than this one, with neighbors who were all of the country club set instead of the (delightful) eclectic mix we have here: some working professionals (like our new neighbors Hank, a Superior Court judge, and Mary, a K-8 vice principal), some retired doctors, college professors, lawyers, engineers and some retired union workers -- former truck drivers or mechanics or miners or retired policemen  Most seem to socialize with equal pleasure and ease, enjoying both what we share and what we don't.  This woman who wanted a more elegant life felt misled by the golf courses, swimming pools and lovely homes that her husband insisted were the hallmarks of upscale living.  She's convinced that no one here is quite in the same class as she.  "And she wonders why she can't seem to make friends!" Kim observed, rolling her eyes.

It's important to know what you want and what you are willing to let go in building your retirement lifestyle together.

5. Running Away Instead of Running To: When you're sitting in your office or cubicle, bummed that it's Monday and your boss has dropped a new rush project on you and the horrible commute had your blood pressure soaring before you even arrived at work, dreams of a secluded, serene retirement may loom large. You may think primarily in terms of getting away from traffic jams, deadlines, demanding bosses, pointless meetings and layoff anxiety. You may, in fact, be so focused on getting away from it all that you haven't had a chance to consider your destination.

The fact is, you may choose to run not to a conventional retirement, but to a personal reinvention. You may decide to run to a new career, a new occupation, either on a volunteer or paid basis. You may choose to run to the chance to give to others in a new way -- whether it is doing volunteer work with underprivileged children or rescued animals or combining part-time work with lots of self-care and play.

You may find yourself running to the pleasure of leisurely mornings and abundant gardens so carefully tended and time to savor moments with children, grandchildren and aging parents.

You may run to a lifestyle that allows you to indulge every deferred hobby you ever imagined or start that book you've always dreamed of writing.

You may find yourself running into your partner's arms after so many years of being separated by long hours at work, business trips and a myriad of distractions built into a life of work.

The secret to a happy retirement is not to see it as an escape from all the stress of your working life, but as a new phase of life -- with new challenges, to be sure, but also with an exciting array of new possibilities -- to be embraced with gratitude and joy.


  1. As usual your blog was SO right on! Even though our Full Time RVing lifestyle might seem haphazard and without a plan we don't just drive and wander. When we chose our next destination we do research to make sure it is an area which fulfills our needs. We don't mind being in the boondocks but have to have access to shopping, movie theaters and restaurants within a fairly close distance. (no, Pahrump doesn't qualify for me either :-)
    Your final paragraph sums up how I feel about retirement and my lifestyle - love it!

  2. Excellent advice as usual. One of your recommendations is something I have always done in all my moves. I always get a local newspaper. It will inform you of types of crimes, what entertainment is offered, prices from everything from real estate to groceries, what that particular community deems important either politically or socially. It is a wealth of information.
    I am a very flexible person who has moved a lot so I bend to fit my community.
    Arkansas Patti

  3. Just sitting here enjoying my morning with my daughter at a near by coffee shop. She is working and I am trying to catch up with my blogging buddies.
    Like my friend Ms Ark Patti commented I too agree that this is excellent advice as always.
    You coming into my life has truly been a blessing because I love reading your post. I must mention you in one of my post so others can enjoy getting to know you as I have been fortunate to do so.
    I know a few women like the one your friend mentioned and it's so sad that God gave them such a lovely place to live and they are missing out on such a blessing. Makes you want to stamp on their forehead Wake Up!
    Being forced into partial retirement and a divorce late in life I am not going to be able to live the way my husband and I had planned but one thing I do want is to not waste one day of the time I have left.

  4. Thank you so much for your kind comments, BJ, Patti and Maggie! I so enjoy reading your blog posts, too, Maggie and Patti! It's so interesting, isn't it, that despite geographical and occupational differences -- which mean so little actually -- we women of a certain age can understand and empathize with each other so well. A neighbor of mine mentioned that she has never trusted women and always preferred friendships with men (I have an upcoming blog on the pleasure of girlfriends) and I kept thinking how very much she has been and is missing! I'm so glad we've come into each others' lives!

  5. I really enjoyed this. A lot of food for thought...

    Am bookmarking you. I'll be back!


  6. This sounds like a great chapter for a book. I hope you're pondering the possibility.

    Two years before we retired we attended a weeklong seminar at UNC Asheville called "Paths to Creative Retirement", which is essentially a values clarification program. We learned two valuable things about ourselves: (1) the only thing we don't love about the Pacific Northwest is January (so we didn't move, but are out of there in January); and (2) that we see enough of our children and grandchildren, so we don't have to move.

    What a relief, to realize we didn't want to move!

  7. Thanks, Pearl! I love your blog and will be back to that, too!

    Linda, thanks so much for your encouragement. I am, indeed, thinking of an emotional planning for retirement book along with my memoir and a memoir about my two therapy cats Timmy and Marina. My agent has reservations about the retirement book (he says books about cancer and retirement are tough sells in general) but is open to my working on a possible proposal if we can find a pattern of success of "soft" (non-financial) retirement books. That course you took sounds fantastic -- and was critically important if it convinced you that you didn't need to move. Thank goodness! That is the best case scenario: to know you're in just the right place already1

  8. Kathy - what about writing an ebook and publishing it yourself on-line. I follow a marvellous blog called Zan Habits, and Leo, the writer, does, from time to time, publish a lot of material from his blog as an ebook, very reasonably priced and I am sure he sells heaps of them. I bought one, just as a thank you for his blog, as it had so insired me, and I would buy yours, too, of course. Kathy.