Retirement Planning: The Great Oxymoron of 2009

I’m doing a lot of rethinking about my previous apathy about “retirement.”

My husband and I typically use the word as if it refers to a single event, like a party we might both attend at a fixed time in the future – together. I never considered the option of him arriving at the party before me (which conceivably could be irritating if I went to work every day while he stayed at home and watched TV). Likewise, I don’t think he’d feel so “free to be you and me” if the “me” was a full-time hobbyist, either.

On the converse side, if Kevin wasn’t with me when it’s time to “go to retirement,” I’m pretty sure I would not want to go. The grandkids are getting older, and I don’t predict that teenagers will jump up and down when Nana comes calling to take them to the movies. So what would I do with myself?

I’ve always thought it would be me and Kev, one road. But a friend of ours died this week unexpectedly. There’s a reality check. And people do get divorced. Not us, I say, but hey, statistically, the likelihood is that at the very least, one of us will outlive the other.

I have a standard life insurance policy for that eventuality – that’s my singular “plan” for coping with a life-changing event of that magnitude. I haven’t thought beyond that because it would feel like bad karma.

Suffice it to say, we don’t have a detailed or conscious lifestyle plan with options B and C, and the financial future that we did plan spiraled with the market. And by that “plan,” I mean that I review my portfolio every five years or so and decide whether to shuffle a percent to a different stock or bond, based on a little suggested formula for risk typed in italics on the form. Check a few boxes. Done.

In retrospect, that didn’t work very well.

I never did the more analytical and involved “this is what you’ll need to retire” projections. It wasn’t a joke, the quip that I am pre-spending my kids’ inheritance by helping them with down payments today, when they really need help to get established. The future is, well, the future. I’ve not spent money lavishly (in my opinion), but I’ve not been tight fisted, either, or particularly worried or fixated on that future – until now.

That mindset shifted when we lost about 40% of our retirement funds and our house “market adjusted.” Our more money-savvy friends panicked, too. Some said to stay the course and leave our money in the market – others were converting to cash. One was particularly vocal about the need to purchase and stockpile gold and precious metals.

We were naive. With about 15 years to go before that magical (though undetermined) date when we would both slip off into a warmer climate together, my husband stated that he hopes he dies while he’s at work – in frigid Wisconsin. “I’m going to expire before I retire,” he explained.

I don’t hope to die younger; I mean, I hope I can keep working til I die.”

Apparently my new retirement plan is “outliving my hubby” and being beneficiary on his life insurance policy. What?!

Suddenly the future has taken on a new sense of uncertainty. Gone are the many options that money promises. How can we make that much up in the time we have left? And how did this “happily ever after”

retirement talk turn into a work-till-you-drop saga? While the loss of 401k money might be a minor setback for twenty-something brazen careerists, it’s truly a horrific turn of events for the fifty- or sixty-something “done-that-been-there” boomer contemplating an exit strategy.

John E. Nelson, featured on our cover, is a very quiet and thoughtful man who has given a lot of thought to planning for retirement. It’s hard to know how useful (never mind popular) a book is by its cover, but the co-author, Bolles, is the widely recognized author of the original “What Color is Your Parachute?” bestseller. This “For Retirement: Planning Now for the Life You Want” spin-off was Nelson’s product with him.

Customers who bought it via Amazon have most often also purchased the books titled “How to Retire Happy, Wild and Free: Financial Wisdom That You Won’t Get from Your Financial Advisor” and “Your Retirement Your Way: Why it Takes More than Money to Live Your Dreams.” The theme for his niche audience seems to be planning for a new life of your own design.

Remember when we thought that was possible? Last year, was it?

Some reviewers love it, others dismiss it as out of touch with the realities of today. I’m going to read it because I suffer from cognitive dissonance: “I no longer have enough money to retire, so let me find a higher-level of meaning in the life I might purposefully construct myself.” Why not?

Nelson focuses on these core ideas:

– Financial pillars (personal savings, employer plans, real estate, workplace, or social security);

– Geographical place (sense of place, aging-in-place residence, livable community, essential region)

– Social relationships (sense of purpose, engaging involvement, enjoyable lifestyle);

– Psychological strengths (core strengths and abilities – best parts of you that you would miss using);

– Biological practices (relaxation, healthy eating, lifelong form of movement);

– Medicine (the system outside of you that you access for treatment).

Certainly that’s more than I’ve thought about before, when considering the future. And in this light, the future doesn’t seem so dire or scary. Planning for living, at least, beats planning for a spouse’s death….