Happy Days

Dennis Stearns

RETIREMENT IS BEING rethought: Playing lots of tennis, golf or bridge, while living modestly so we don’t run out of money, might have been an acceptable plan when lives were shorter.

Now, the early go-go years of life’s “fourth quarter” can last two decades, especially if we retire early. A life of pure leisure may not be financially possible—and it might even be a bad idea mentally, emotionally and physically. As we look beyond the current uncertainty of the coronavirus, we should prepare for what’s likely to be a longer and healthier retirement than previous generations enjoyed.

Let’s say you’re fairly confident you have the money needed to support yourself for the rest of your life, so work is now optional. Without a sense of purpose and a thoughtful plan, you may be more susceptible to bad decisions, including financial, marital and health mistakes. To help you avoid key pitfalls, here are five pointers.

Tip No. 1: Consider a part-time job, becoming a consultant or taking a volunteer position. This could help you feel useful and might be a good option for meeting people.

Currently stuck at home? Use this time to figure out your game plan. The coronavirus has reinforced the value of strong connections with others—preferably those with positive but realistic attitudes.

As you ponder working part-time in retirement, you’ll likely be able to leverage your current career. For example, attorneys or accountants might do some consulting. A retired executive could coach professionals on their way up or mentor local small business owners through an arrangement with the community college. A former chef might begin a blog or podcast that focuses on food and wine. If you’ve always loved history or art, you could work as a guide at a museum or historical site.

Tip No. 2: Guard and cultivate your mind. In our contentious 24/7 media environment, we need friends and activities to help us stay balanced. But it’s also important to minimize time spent with negative people and to refrain from dwelling on the world’s problems.

Here’s a real-world example: A client of mine was having heart problems. His cardiologist helped him discover that part of his problem was attending a weekly men’s group that spent time fretting over the world’s dysfunction, compounded by watching too much cable news. For 30 days, he stopped attending the men’s group and gave up certain news shows, choosing instead to spend time with his most positive, can-do friends. He is now off his doctor’s heart attack danger list and off most of his medications. During the current pandemic, he’s selectively calling and Zooming with those people in his men’s group who energize him with their upbeat attitudes.

A great way to focus on the positive side of life is to work on your emotional quotient or EQ. EQ is the measure of a person’s adequacy in such areas as self-awareness, empathy and dealing sensitively with others. Studies have shown that EQ is a better predictor of career success than IQ, or intelligence quotient. Better EQ skills can help us build a stronger network of friends during retirement.

A healthy sense of curiosity also helps build friendships and enhances mental health. For instance, read something new and different every day. Learn a new language. Dig into a historical documentary or take a course at the local library or community college. Be both interested and interesting. Challenge yourself.

Tip No. 3: Nurture existing friendships. Early in retirement, we need close friends who can help us feel useful and important at a time when we might feel the loss of our career identity. The importance of friends, especially “share almost anything” friends, was a key finding in our research with aging thought leaders and hundreds of people approaching—or already in—their fourth quarter.

Loneliness has become an epidemic. Most people don’t realize how important it is to keep up with old friends.

Tip No. 4: Find new friends. Amid the coronavirus shutdown, this is difficult, but it’ll be easier once life returns to normal. For instance, simply going to the gym can connect you to new people. Don’t just hang out with the Silver Sneakers group. Try to engage with younger people, especially if you don’t have many in your current circle of family and friends.

Some of our clients use old school networking, participating in church and community events. Others have used to find people who share their interests. Volunteering is a great way to meet people. Find a group whose mission you really believe in and see how you can help.

What happens if you don’t tend to your existing “garden of friends,” while also seeking to add new friends? There’s a risk that, in life’s fourth quarter, you could become overly dependent on your spouse or life partner.

Tip No. 5: Find the right balance with your spouse. There’s a reason the old saying “I married you for better or worse, but not for lunch” rings true. In the past, when lifespans were shorter and the slow-go years quickly became no-go, an overly needy spouse was a problem, but not usually fatal to the less needy spouse or the marriage.

With longer go-go and slow-go periods, neediness can be toxic for both partners and sometimes leads to gray divorce, which is fast growing and a major threat to maintaining financial independence. One of my partners and I presented our thoughts on gray divorce—and how to avoid it—at a 2018 conference. Click here to view the presentation.

Dennis Stearns is a Certified Financial Planner, a partner at Stearns Financial Group and the author of Fourth Quarter Fumbles: How Successful People Can Avoid Critical Mistakes Later in Life. For more information, visit Consider taking the free Fumbleocity test.

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