By Maryanne Vandervelde
April 13, 2021
It’s one of the most-important decisions many of us will ever make. And we often get it wrong.
I’m talking about retirement—and specifically, when to do it. If you are lucky enough to be able to determine your own retirement date, be grateful that this change is not being forced upon you. But also be aware that it isn’t a simple decision. Many of us know friends who thought they were emotionally ready but later regretted having retired. And we know colleagues who thought they were not ready, and then got sick or died young, filled with regret that they had missed out on a phase of life that could have been wonderful.
It doesn’t have to be this way. After seeing hundreds of individuals and couples in psychotherapy over many years, and writing a book on retirement, I believe that retirement-timing mistakes can be the exception rather than the rule. The key is to know what questions to ask yourself—and how to understand the answers.
To that end, here are eight questions that I think can make all the difference.
1) Every Sunday night, as I anticipate returning to work, do I look forward to finishing tasks, seeing friends and colleagues, and perhaps learning something new? Or do I dread another week of tedious tasks and difficult people?
To answer this takes a little soul-searching, especially after decades of simply accepting your weekly routine. But if you pay attention to your gut feelings at the end of the weekend, or at the end of a vacation, you’ll know whether your stomach is in an unhappy knot with worry, a happy knot with anticipation, or somewhere in between.
One CEO, whom I saw weekly from ages 59 to 69, had been in his position for 18 years. Although he would tell you he loved his job, he hated the angst he felt at the office every day—especially on Mondays.
Over time, he realized that he was hanging onto work as his refuge—the place where he found success and recognition—to avoid confronting issues he had at home.
People were shocked when he announced his retirement at age 67 because they thought he had nothing else in his life. But he knew the decision was right for him. For the next two years I saw him learn and grow and find other sources of happiness with his family. His stomach had told him what his mind was unable to see.
2) Have I thought carefully about my financial picture? What expenses am I prepared to cut if money becomes tight?
By this age, you should know what resources you need to live on and what you will have in income and savings for your retirement years. But people sometimes screw up, or circumstances screw them up. Maybe they (or a financial adviser) mismanaged their nest egg. Maybe the market collapses in a totally unexpected way just after they stop working. The unknowns are unknown.
So it’s a useful exercise to imagine cutting expenses if you ever have to. How might your life change in that way, and how would you feel about that? Are you emotionally prepared for it, or would it be best to keep working, at least for a while?
3) What do my already-retired friends, relatives and colleagues think?
You are unique, yes, but you can learn a lot from people you know and trust.
In my experience, seeking the advice of trusted friends is particularly important for successful women, who are prone to second-guess themselves and feel insecure about next steps, especially when it comes to retirement. They have often worked harder than men to establish their success, and the job has given them identity and independence. They think they will go crazy without work. But almost all are surprised how much they love retirement, how quickly they fill up their time with meaningful projects, and how much better they feelwhen they control their own time.
I have one friend who loved her job, and while she wanted to make some kind of change when she turned 65, she feared she would suffer a recurrence of her lifelong depression if she left work and had nothing to do.
Her husband advised her to continue working. Instead, she got a group of professional women friends together, and they told her: “Do it now! You’ll be glad you did.”
Their encouragement gave her the courage to see that she was ready for retirement—even if her fear didn’t allow her to see that. She found volunteer work with a political candidate she admired, she started speaking at schools about career choices, and she started discussion groups at the local YWCA, helping others make the retirement decisions that had been so hard for her.
4) Would I like part-time work for a more gradual retirement, or is “cold turkey” better for me? Is part-time work even realistic in my field?
The easiest emotional transition away from full-time work is sometimes a part-time or consulting contract, either with a new company or with your existing employer. It’s a question many would-be retirees should be asking themselves.
It often works well, allowing a retiree to test the waters if they aren’t absolutely sure it’s the right time to leave the workforce completely. But people need to do their homework before they assume the answer is yes. I saw in therapy a former chief financial officer who at 66 wasn’t quite ready to retire fully. So he took a job handling the books for another company. He learned within the first week how different that system was from his old one, how upset he felt when he couldn’t quickly pick up nuances from his underlings and how angry he got when his boss criticized him. He quit within one month.
Although in the end it turned out well—thanks, in part, to therapy, which helped him to improve his marriage and understand the possibilities in retirement—it was a traumatic period that could have been avoided had he answered this question with more care.
5) Do I have hobbies or interests that could fill my time? Is there volunteer work that I’d like to do?
Some people are so consumed with hobbies already that they barely have time to work, while others have never had a hobby and doubt that they can think of anything in retirement. But being able to answer this question in the affirmative is often crucial: The most successful retirees seem to need either part-time volunteer work or hobbies that they love and that keep them busy.
Still, people who assume they would like volunteer work would do well to explore the idea fully before answering this question. If you fall in love with the concept of a volunteer job, it’s a good sign you’re ready to make the big move.
But it is entirely possible that you’ll find it tedious—especially if you’ve been a boss during your career. It is often a shock to offer your time, and then be asked to stuff envelopes or work in a boring gift shop. Or you may be honored to be asked to be on a nonprofit board, but then walk into a hornet’s nest of infighting that you had thought you had left behind in your old job. You may also find that a large financial contribution is expected.
6) What friends do I have now that involve neither my career nor my partner?
This is a question that men, in particular, need to ask themselves.
People seldom think about which work friendships will continue in their postretirement life. In fact, they have no idea whether their co-workers are really friends or not. They are often shocked in retirement when they call former co-workers for lunch and are told “no.” Also, men have a tendency to think that their wife’s friends are their own; they are not. There is a famous quote: I married you for better or worse, but not for lunch.
In fact, a survey I did with groups I spoke to showed that on the question of “Who is you best friend?” more than 60% of men said “my wife,” while less than 20% of women said “my husband.” Friendship is not as easy for most men as it is for most women. Men think it’s a compliment to name their wife as best friend, but it’s really not. We all need best friends as well as spouses/partners.
So before retiring, think hard about whether you’re going to have those social connections that most of us crave and need to stay healthy, whether we think we do or not.
7) What role is my partner playing in my decision about retirement?
The decision should be yours as much as possible. You don’t want to blame your partner if things go wrong, as tempting as that will be.
Nevertheless, it is hugely important to understand the motivation behind your partner’s advice on whether you should retire. Is she already retired and pushing me to be more available? Is he getting ready to retire and doesn’t want to be bored at home alone?
Your relationship will thrive much more in retirement if you both know not only each other’s surface meanings but also the deep feelings involved. In other words, this question is important as a catalyst to a conversation—a lot of conversations—so that there are no surprises after the fact. Once one of you retires, a lot of those conversations that never took place when work was a refuge are suddenly on the table. It is much easier to have those conversations earlier rather than later.
I counseled one couple for four years. They were the same age, both accomplished and working in jobs they enjoyed. They had friends who were planning a year in Paris, and then a year in London. He decided it was time to retire and assumed she would feel the same. He was shocked when she said she wanted to work for another five years.
The repercussions were ugly. He accused her of ruining their lives, and their children all took his side. But she held her ground. Despite the pressure, she just wasn’t ready. After much discussion in therapy, they came to an understanding: He was ready and she was not. He came up with other interests to pursue while she worked, and they agreed they might spend two years abroad when she retires. They are still happily married and she hasn’t retired yet.
I am often asked whether couples should retire together or at different times. There are good individual reasons for each position, but I generally recommend that husbands retire first. This may happen naturally because women are usually younger and have gotten serious about their career later. In that case, husbands who have never learned to cook or clean or organize the home have time to learn these skills and then share more equally in these tasks after both are retired.
8) Do my partner and I have similar ideas about travel or where we want to live in retirement?
In my survey, the No. 1 reason people felt they might divorce after retirement was because they wanted to live in different places and have different lifestyles—the woman often wanting to be near grandchildren; the man wanting sun and sports. This is a difficult area in which to find compromise. But asking yourself whether you’re on the same page before retirement is a crucial first step, rather than just assuming you are seeing things alike. It could have a big effect on whether you decide you’re emotionally ready for retirement.
Similarly, travel can be another deal breaker if not talked about ahead of time.
A man I know has always loved to ski. After he and his partner retired, he became obsessed with planning trips to exotic ski destinations. But his partner wasn’t on board, preferring to play tennis and lie on beaches in warm climates. Their arguments grew more fierce. My turn/your turn didn’t work because they were both unhappy half the time. Finally, they tried separate vacations. Fortunately, that has worked like a charm—for now, anyway.
Had they asked themselves this question ahead of time, had they talked it out calmly when it was still in the future, they would have saved themselves a lot of angst and a near-breakup. They might have come to their separate-vacation solution earlier. Or one or both might have decided that, in fact, they weren’t ready for retirement.
Retirement is wonderful, but it can also be difficult. “Am I ready?” is an emotional journey into yourself, as well as an assessment of your situation. There will be no perfect decision, but you’ll fare better if you consider all of the options carefully.
There is usually some excitement in every new stage of life. After raising kids and working hard and doing the best we can, this is the first time that most of us have had total control over our lives. It can be the best time ever—time to learn a lot about ourself, finally “growing whole” in so many ways. Are you ready for that?
Dr. Vandervelde is a psychologist in Seattle and author of six books, including “Retirement for Two.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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