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10 things I learned in my faux-retirement

Christine Fahlund, who retired from her position as T. Rowe Price's retirement-planning guru a few years ago, often liked to say that pre-retirees should ‘trial-run’ their retirements.

Would traveling around the country in an RV be as fun as they had imagined, for example, or would day after day of close proximity to their spouse start to get old? An extended road trip could yield valuable intelligence. Meanwhile, renting a condo in a warm location for a month could help a pre-retiree determine whether she'd be too lonesome for family and friends if she moved away; such a finding would be valuable before she sold her home up north.

I'm not ready to retire any time soon, but my recent sabbatical from Morningstar--a six-week break totally free from work obligations, available to Morningstar's US employees every four years--gave me a chance to noodle on what retirement would feel like for me. Of course, there were some crucial differences relative to an actual retirement: I continued to get paid (nice work if you can get it!), and I knew I was going back to my job when my six weeks were up. In addition, my husband and I took a trip for a couple of weeks, so my true ‘faux-tirement’ observation period was really just a month. But after years of researching and writing about the financial side of retirement, my break gave me a sense of the lifestyle aspect of not working.

Here are some of my key takeaways.

1. My powers of concentration improved

Juggling work and family obligations means many of us are multitasking most of the time, me included. But one of the great revelations of my ‘faux-tirement’ was what a luxury it is to be single-minded about various tasks, even mundane ones. Whether I was organising files in my basement or planting a pot of annuals, I was able to do a better job and enjoy it more than I could under my normal, multitasking conditions. My challenge, now that I'm back at work, is to try to maintain that sort of focus. I realised I'm not really gaining anything, and I'm certainly losing peace of mind, by jumping forward to the next thing before I've finished the job at hand.

2. My to-do list wasn't all that long after all

As sabbatical dawned, I had a long list of projects that I hoped to accomplish--tasks like settling the final details of my mom's estate, organising files on my computer, and figuring out what to do with all of my photos, digital and otherwise. But while my to-do list was daunting, I found that I knocked off most of those tasks in short order. If I were embarking on my actual retirement, I might be asking myself, "Is that all there is?" We're all different, of course, but the experience underscored that I don't want to spend my retirement years attending exclusively to my own to-dos (and there may not be that many, anyway). I suspect I'll need more of a sense of purpose on an ongoing basis, probably community-service work, a part-time job, or both.

3. The balanced days were the best days

In a related vein, I found that I enjoyed my days the most when I combined doing something fun or leisurely with knocking off some bothersome task that had been hanging over my head. Just as we workers enjoy the weekends most when they've been preceded by a particularly tough workweek, my free time was more enjoyable when I had a sense of having accomplished something beforehand. To help keep myself on track and maintain a sense of balance during my time off, I maintained to-do lists for each day, just as I do when I'm working.

4. I missed my work ‘family’

This one will be obvious to anyone who has ever worked in an office or in close proximity to others. Bonds form. You know about each other’s families, TV viewing habits, and favorite products at Costco. You celebrate each other's birthdays and mourn the loss of loved ones; you know when someone's child is under the weather. You laugh--a lot. Is it any wonder I missed my work family while I was away, given what a big part of my daily life they are? (Missing colleagues was a unifying theme among the various retirees we asked to reflect on their retirement experiences for this video round table, too.) Even if I made a point to schedule regular lunches with my former colleagues in retirement--and I know I would--I would still miss the natural give and take of the workplace.

5. I had to monitor my media consumption

I love news of all kinds, and especially the tragicomedy that is the U.S. political scene. But the opportunity to pop on the TV during the day drove home just how same-y the news flow can be, at least on the major cable networks, with constant rehashing and parsing of the news du jour. It was easy to get sucked into the Twitter vortex.

On the other hand, my consumption of other media types increased during my time away. It was a great luxury to have the time to read about subjects online and in the newspaper that in the past I would have skimmed over--the political and economic scene in a country that I know nothing about, for example, or the history of DDT. I also upped my intake of podcasts; I continue to be amazed at the breadth and quality of podcast series available, and the format lends itself perfectly to car trips and long walks. At the same time, I was mindful of the fact that selecting only those media that jibe with my interests and biases puts me in a bit of an echo chamber; I run the risk of shutting out viewpoints that run contrary to my own. I also had to remind myself that silence--or music--is sometimes more necessary than taking in additional information. After replaying a podcast discussion of the conflict in Syria for the third time, and zoning out each time, I decided it was time to unplug for a while.

6. It was a bit easier to maintain a healthy lifestyle

Many retirees say having time to prepare food at home has prompted healthier eating habits than when they were working, and it also saved them money. I didn't detect big changes in my eating (or spending) patterns. I typically make time to cook while I'm working and did so on sabbatical, too. One difference, however, was that I felt less urgency to plan dinners for a whole week at a time, as I typically do while I'm working. Instead, I could decide that morning what we'd have for dinner that night, then shop for the ingredients in my copious spare time. I'm pretty sure we drank more wine.

On the other hand, being able to allocate an even greater share of my day to exercise, on my own schedule, was one of the great joys of sabbatical. I walked absolutely everywhere--my one-day record was 16,500 steps--thinking things over and listening to podcasts all the while. People who retire in good health and are able to stay active are a lucky lot.

7. My wardrobe changed

In a related vein, my ‘faux-tirement’ brought a change in my clothing habits, which would likely have implications for my clothes-buying were I actually retired. My workout and yard work clothes were in heavy rotation; I found I needed more such items, especially for warm weather, than I actually had. On the other hand, I found that my supply of dress-up clothes was crazily vast relative to my needs and lifestyle. No surprises there, really, but I expect a similar pattern in retirement would lead to changes in my shopping habits.

8. My spending was a mixed bag

Because I've focused so much on the financial side of retirement in my work, I was keen to see if my spending habits differed significantly during my break from when I'm working. I detected a mixed picture. On the one hand, not working gave me more time to engage in pleasurable activities that don't cost anything--walking, reading, and gardening, for example. And because I was more relaxed overall, I felt less of a need to treat myself for little goodies that might help get me through the working week--an afternoon Starbucks, for example, or little splurges at the Sephora or Zara in my office building. On the other hand, having more time brought more shopping opportunities--I could readily pop by Target after having lunch with a friend, for example. (It could have been a coincidence, but most of my purchases were home-related--perhaps because I was spending more time there?) On the spending front, I'd call it a draw.

9. Home projects were a nuisance

In the category of ‘first world problems’, I found myself a little annoyed by having workers around the house while I was on my break. As it happened, we were having the exterior of our house painted during my time off, and I felt a little self-conscious about my seemingly aimless schedule--long morning walks and periodic trips out of the house to have lunch with friends. Takeaway: I'd tackle any big, foreseeable home-improvement jobs before my actual retirement starts, because I relish my privacy while I'm at home.

10. I got to take the long view

Finally, having extra time on my hands gave me the opportunity to take the long view on things, to think big thoughts and open my heart a little bit. I thought about growing wealth inequality and the why of opioid addiction and despair. I wondered why so many people drive cars in my neighborhood when they could just as easily walk or ride their bikes instead. I felt - even more intensely than I usually do--about how grateful I am for my departed parents and my whole beautiful extended family. I decided my husband and I should get ourselves to Asia soon, and take some more road trips. I reconsidered a grudge I had been holding against a loved one and decided to let it go. I actually think I might have gotten a little bit wiser. Such moments, I suspect, are among the greatest joys of actually being retired. I'm grateful to have had a few.

 

Christine Benz is Morningstar’s Director of Personal Finance. This article does not consider the circumstances of any investor.

 

21 Comments
Philip Carman
July 25, 2021

"Retirement" is merely the leaving of full-time, PAID work. It need not mean the end of vocation. Once you are financially secure OR find you need little because you are self-sufficient, you can elect to move to doing what you really want to do, rather than what you do to make a living. You only need 'enough' and the true definition of wealth is having 'enough'...and knowing it!
If you managed to find a career that really was what you wanted to do with your life, "retirement" may simply mean that you can now relax about the money side and work in a way that helps others more than yourself, which can be deeply satisfying.
The important thing is to not "step off a cliff" (where loss of status and/or purpose is sudden and uncomfortable) into retirement, but to think ahead and plan for other roles/lifetsyle persuits that you enjoy and hopefully can share with others whose company you also enjoy. Whether that's active (doing; volunteering or working part-time) or whether it's passive (reading, learning or even being involved in social circles that got neglected while working) is up to each individual and should not be judged as 'better' or 'lesser'.
Above all, our lives are ultimately a journey of self discovery and/or social discovery and gaining and giving satisfaction. My own motto is that "We're here to love each other and help each other...and then we die." Perhaps the addition of "Don't worry; be happy" may also help. Good luck to all on their journey of discovery!

Tony Dillon
July 25, 2021

The big thing I noticed in retirement was having the time to think more broadly across many topics. When in employment, so much of our day to day thinking is consumed by the narrow sphere of one’s expertise, that there is little time to devote to alternative interests.

I find that I am constantly challenging my mind. I have been learning another language (French), read more broadly both non-fiction and fiction (I never used to read fiction when working). I am more in tune with topics of the day, being able to devote more time to delve deeper. And I have had time to put my hand up for local focus groups, enabling critical thinking and the challenging of ideas.

I feel that my mind is more agile in retirement than it was when I was working. I’m even good at sudokus now!

The key to a healthy retirement I believe is to be active, both physically as well as mentally (physical activity is also important to me), and don’t be afraid to challenge yourself. Oh, and reward yourself with the odd indulgence, whatever that may be.

C
July 25, 2021

Boy, I pity people who have no hobbies and get bored in retirement. There is so much more to life than just work. I took 6 months long service leave a few years ago and loved it.

Dan
July 23, 2021

I’ve just embarked on early retirement. I’m 50 in a few months. Finances are not a concern, and I’m terrified. I have no hobbies, sports or genuine interests. Building my business and being at my clients beckoned call consumed me. I wanted out. Now I’m not so sure.

Angela
July 23, 2021

You might consider a part time consultancy sharing the skills you’ve learned building a business. Since Finances aren’t an issue you could pick and choose the clients. There are also a lot of online short courses Universities offer as well as many Volunteer jobs that could use your skills

Margit
July 25, 2021

Young enough to start a retirement career, totally divorced from the money making career. Throw yourself into environmental issues, population control - I did that, never-ending tasks, lots of 'fire fighting'.

Janifer Eales
July 25, 2021

U3A are always looking for tutors, check them out.

Richard
July 25, 2021

The biggest problem I found with retiring at 50 was I didn't have any mates to play with. no one to have lunch with.. Join clubs, volunteer, library, online courses, learn a musical instrument. the 50 retirement club is small but the members are interesting and I have tended toward the wisdom of older retirees

Steve
July 26, 2021

I echo Richard's thoughts. Everyone in my circle of friends was still working and gradually, the commonality with them dissipated. Initially I felt a bit uncomfortable but over time I discovered new interests that meant I was not dependent upon those friendships anymore. It is sometimes difficult to know what those new interests will be at the outset but they will become more apparent as the retirement journey develops.

rory murphy
July 25, 2021

sharemarket investing in tech stocks can be very entertaining and if u feel like doing it today u do or u go for a bike ride or coffee or other wonderfull spur of the moment thing, but I like how it seriously exercises my brain

DC
July 23, 2021

My wife and started to seriously save and plan for retirement in our late 30's - the plan was to retire in our early 50's. We took a "gap year" when we were 51 / 45 and quit our well paying full time jobs, packed up the house and went travelling with 1 suitcase each for a year.

On return we weren't quit ready for full retirement, but did not want to return to full time work, so as a transition we did part time work for 2-3 days a week for about 6 years before fully retiring . The part time work paid the everyday bills, allowed our investments to "compound", and importantly gave us a feel for what full retirement would really be like. Without that part time work transition, I think retirement would have been a much bigger transition than it was.

We found it essential to do the things you want to do in retirement before you retire - plans / hobbies / sports / interests / travel so when you retire having all that free time is not a shock. Key to it all is the financial resources to pursue and enjoy them.

Graham W
July 23, 2021

Need a dose of ABC - Act, Belong, Commit. Being part of service, community AND sporting clubs well before retiring is important. I also like doing jobs around the house. Getting a RV and possibly joining a club is also recommended.

Paul B
July 22, 2021

Wow - all that in only 6 weeks Christine! I took a "senior gap year" just after I turned 60 which was one of the best decisions I ever made. I was able to complete most of my home projects that I had wanted to get on top of for several years plus go away on a couple of good vacations. I then back to work for a couple more years before fully retiring. The break gave me a better perspective in many areas of my life - certainly about work but also a greater and clearer insight about retirement. Since retiring, we travelled around Australia for a couple of years and now look forward to an active life closer to home. Don't miss work one little bit.

Paul B
July 22, 2021

Wow - all that in only 6 weeks Christine! I took a "senior gap year" just after I turned 60 which was one of the best decisions I ever made. I was able to complete most of my home projects that I had wanted to get on top of for several years plus go awsy on a couple of good vacations. I then back to work for a couple more years before fully retiring. The break gave me a better perspective in life - certainly about work but also a greater and clearer insight about retirement. Since retiring, we travelled around Australia for a couple of years and now look forward to an active life closer to home. Don't miss work one little bit.

Matt
July 22, 2021

Everything rang true except the missing the work colleagues

Peter Sheahan
July 22, 2021

I thoroughly enjoyed your perspectives Christine.

They both confirmed or enlightened me for the unwritten chapter that lies ahead.

Eve
July 22, 2021

No no, home projects are not a nuisance, they are a joy! Stop hiring tradies and do it yourself. You can teach yourself anything with YouTube. It’s good exercise for your body and brain. Gotta love Bunnings.

Trevor
July 22, 2021

To Eve and Christine: Good thinking Eve, as long as you stay off ladders "The most commonly-reported injuries, including those resulting from ladders and stepstools, are fractured ribs, skulls, hips, legs and arms. ... 7 million of those falls result in serious injuries. 27,000 die from fall-related injuries." [ These are US statistics....just to add emphasis !!! ] Tradesmen "bounce" when they fall off ladders......Retirees are brittle and break !! 

Adrianne
July 22, 2021

Everything here is so true and this is my experience. After a major health scare whilst my kids were still in primary school, I made the choice to 'retire' and let my husband be the main earner. Whilst I no longer have that health issue and have worked part time on and off, I will never regret spending those years spending more with time my kids, yet would've regretted spending that time at work. That scare made me realise health is wealth and taught me what is important in life. Of course, now the kids aren't here I do wonder what the hell I am going to do with myself, and maybe now is the time to focus on me and get those photo books done, catch up with those friends who have fallen by the way side whilst some of us raised families, make new friends, or pack the tent, get in the car and go somewhere different. Learn to live with less and invest the rest!

CC
July 22, 2021

The best advice I will give as a happy retiree is to make up your mind at an early age, say 30/40, at what age you want to retire . Plan and work towards your planned retirement age. When the time comes, retire. Do not consider if or but and what may happen. I have seen enough real life examples when people are forced to retire due to ill health or retrenchment. Many do not last long after such retirements.

Alex A
July 22, 2021

I;m worried if I take three months off work, I'd enjoy it so much I'd never want to go back ... but I must.

 

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