Finally, it's time. The long-anticipated day has arrived. You loosen your tie (or kick off your heels), sink into your leatherette desk chair one last time, and spin around for a final 360-degree view of the cubicle farm horizon before waltzing down to the parking garage and saying "sayonara" to your 9-to-5 working days (after turning in your security badge and boxing up your terrarium of mixed succulents, of course).
It may be time, and you may be financially ready. But there's a key part of the retirement readiness equation that isn't captured by asset allocation models and withdrawal-rate simulations: Are you emotionally prepared for retirement?
"You mean, no more being woken by a shrieking alarm clock? Unlimited days of unfettered free time? Are you kidding?! This is the life, and I'm gonna live it up and enjoy every single moment of it!"
That's what you might be thinking right now. But while this may be hard to fathom, the honeymoon period of nonstop leisure time eventually comes to an end. Sleeping late, puttering around in the garden, day drinking, and doing whatever moves you in the moment may be great for the first couple of weeks, months, or even years. But 20 years of that can get old, and there may come a day when you wake up in the morning and ask yourself, "Now what?"
Exactly. Now what?
Think about what you've been doing for the past 40-plus years. The activity that dominates our waking hours is work. Given the sheer amount of time we devote to our careers over our lifetimes, it's not hard to see why people derive a great deal of their self-worth from their jobs.
Even if you don't particularly like what you do to earn a living, that place you go to fill your time between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. provides structure to your week and daily social interactions, even if you're only talking about the latest widget sales data. When all of that goes away, many people experience a sense of loss, particularly in the early days of retirement. That loss can be felt acutely, particularly by people who were in high-influence professions. (We've all heard the stories of retirees croaking on the golf course mere weeks after they retire.)
There's a loss of responsibility, routine, and a place to be when you get up in the morning. And then there's the loss of relationships -- or at least the built-in, day-to-day interactions with colleagues that most of us take for granted until we're no longer roaming the halls and high-fiving each other in passing.
It's awesome that you don't have to fight rush-hour traffic anymore. But now you have to deal with an identity crisis!
How not to hate retirement
Retirement is a major transition. And while it may be a happy one -- like other big life changes such as moving to a nicer home or welcoming a new addition to the family -- it's stressful.
Anticipating the potential side effects going into your golden years will help you deal. Just as you plotted out the financial portion of your after-work life, you need to plan ahead for ways to fulfill your social and emotional needs. Those needs don't simply evaporate the day you retire.
Here are four ways to ensure that you don't end up hating retirement.
1. Plan how you're going to spend your time
Weeks of binge-watching all those series that you've put off until retirement will fill several weeks. (By the way, I highly recommend all five seasons of The Wire.) And then there's all that travel you've planned to do -- seeing the sights, catching up with family, spending a few weeks at a dude ranch.
But there's a lot of time to fill between trips and TV -- and only so many garages you can clean out and reorganize. Plus, let's face it, aging isn't exactly a cake walk, and eventually you may have physical maladies that limit what you can actually do.
People who have interests or endeavors outside of their official jobs fare better psychologically in retirement. So ask yourself: "What am I going to do with my time? What is it that will drive me and inspire me to get up in the morning and start my days? What is it that I am going to regret not having done?"
If there's something you've always enjoyed doing but never had enough time to do, that's great; you have an informal plan already. Or maybe there are new things you want to explore. Now's the time to take up a hobby or, if you have one already, to think about how you can develop that even more -- or even turn it into a small business -- when you have more time on your hands. Nearly half of today's retirees say they have worked or plan to work in retirement, according to a Merrill Lynch and Age Wave study, and 72% of pre-retirees (aged 55-plus) say they want to keep working after they retire.
2. Make new friends and keep the old ones
Having a community is important, and often the people we know best -- those we make friends with and spend a lot of time with -- come from our job, where a social network is built in. When you retire you have to put in the extra effort to get together with your former colleagues. My dad, for example, has set up standing lunch dates with his longtime buddies from his working days.
Then there are the friendships outside of your former work community -- pals from days of yore and new people you meet as you pursue your hobbies and interests. Here, too, consider how you're going to connect. You can also start researching social groups in your area and think about places you can plug in and help out when you retire. Speaking of which...
3. Find a purpose to fulfill your sense of contributing to society
Another Merrill Lynch/Age Wave study on health and retirement found that one of the top determinants of a happier retirement is having a purpose.
You have a career's worth of experience and talent to share. There are plenty of organizations and causes that could use your talents. Here's where volunteering comes in -- and it gives you a twofer: a community rallying around a common cause and a sense of purpose.
Before you retire, you might not have a lot of time to devote to volunteer work. But it will take a while for you to find a good fit, so start laying the ground work by checking out different groups -- perhaps volunteering at different places once a month to start.
4. Discuss with your spouse how you can avoid driving each other crazy
Think about it: When you retire, you and your spouse will go from being together maybe three hours a day (plus time spent running errands and doing other stuff on the weekends) to being together 24/7. All of that alone time that you each enjoyed at the office will be in short supply once you retire, and those annoying habits you both used to overlook will start getting on your nerves.
A happy retirement co-existence will require some adjustments. You'll have to learn to be together all over again. That means finding the right balance between being together and being apart. (This is especially important if one partner retires before the other, and it will need to be revisited when the situation puts you both at home full-time, too.)
Address ways to set up your schedules for a harmonious co-existence before you start bickering about stupid stuff. Decide what projects or recreational activities you like to do together. Then discuss what you each like doing solo so that you respect the other person's sacred alone time.
Make the most of the second half of your life
Emotional preparedness is just as important to a happy retirement life as financial readiness. Plant the seeds now for your post-work life. Cultivate your community so you have people to talk to, places to go, and important work to do. That way, you won't be blindsided by feelings of isolation and emptiness and a lack of direction in retirement.