GETTING TO RETIREMENT is lazy work for an indexing aficionado. What could be easier than stuffing money every paycheck into an all-in-one target-date index fund? Even building a two- or three-index-fund portfolio takes minimal effort.
Actually retiring, on the other hand, feels like a fulltime job. Who knew that spending money takes more thought than earning, saving and investing it? At age 61, I’m faced with important decisions that I want to get right, including which withdrawal strategy to use, whether to buy an annuity, converting to a Roth or not, and what age to claim Social Security. Just when I thought I had this personal-finance thing figured out, I’m discovering that I’ve only just begun to work on the problem.
Then there’s the question of what to do with my time. On that score, at least, I think I may be a step ahead of the game.
I discovered at an early age that I’m happiest when I’m busy. In my 20s, work devoured every extra hour I was willing to give. I had no need for other pursuits to quench my thirst for industry.
Later, as I moved into my present career, and then on to marriage and a family, I learned to keep my work hours within reasonable bounds. I’m still happiest, however, when the hours not consumed by my job are dedicated to endeavors I consider productive and useful. I derive even more joy when others benefit from my efforts. To that end, I’ve found no shortage of people with needs that I can fill. I expect I’ll find the same is true once I’m retired.
For example, as a deacon, I help manage the secular needs of my church. Along with the weekly duties that keep Sunday services running smoothly, I share responsibility for budgeting, planning and spending projects. Even after my active days as a deacon are behind me, I suspect my successors won’t refuse an occasional helping hand.
Closer to home, my wife and I tend to the personal and financial affairs of family members. Our elderly mothers need care that grows more complex with time. Meanwhile, my wife’s brother passed away in January, so we’re now focused on settling his estate. Once this season of life ends, I don’t anticipate rushing to replace such responsibilities. Still, pitching in to help friends as we grow old together doesn’t strike me as an onerous use of my time.
I also carve out hours to feed my inner selfishness, hiding in my garden with the hope my absence won’t be noticed. One of my hobby’s great pleasures is sharing my harvest with those who appreciate fresh fruits and vegetables. I love soaking up the praise that’s lavished on me, even if the words are a little exaggerated. Their expressions are part of the ritual that turns my garden time into a satisfying exchange between friends. I plan to participate in this barter until I can no longer lift a hoe.
Perhaps the quickest route to a gratifying retirement is a slow winding down. As a physical therapist, I still find ministering to patients to be deeply rewarding. A part-time schedule that fades into a few pro bono hours at the free clinic or the senior center seems like a good way to ease out of the work world. Even now, I enjoy providing physical therapy advice or simple treatment to family and friends.
Can my vision for retirement work for others? I think it’s possible. Here are three suggestions:
1. Share your work. We all possess knowledge or skills that are valuable to others. Sharing a bit of ourselves with another person may sate the desire to remain useful while also helping an appreciative friend. A struggling small business might profit from the advice of a retired CEO. Many seniors depend on volunteers for tax return preparation. A retired handyman may find an endless supply of broken light switches and leaky faucets to mend.
2. Share your hobby. How? Find a fellow chess player who longs for more company than her computer provides, or introduce a favorite dish to a shut-in who’s tired of TV dinners. My wife’s mother shares her hobby by giving away countless crocheted afghans. Have an interesting financial story? I’m sure the HumbleDollar community would like to read it. For instance, one of the site’s writers found a unique way to combine his hobby with service to a cause he’s passionate about.
3. Share your time. Has your busy life been too crowded for family and old friends? Employ your organizational skills to create a memorable reunion that revives those once-cherished relationships. Early in retirement, my father gathered our clan together for the first reunion in many years. Each family was presented with a genealogy notebook compiled by him.
Looking farther afield, remember that a place of worship often has a place for volunteers. So does a local school or animal shelter. An older friend with a generous heart donates her time to a hospice. Other opportunities abound, and even offer health benefits to volunteers.
At the moment, gazing from this side of retirement, I know I don’t have a perfect perspective and my views may change. But between generous portions of leisurely travel, indulgent reading and afternoon naps, I imagine a full schedule that’ll satisfy my restless nature—and that’ll give my retirement a sense of purpose.
Ed Marsh is a physical therapist who lives and works in a small community near Atlanta. He likes to spend time with his church, with his family and in his garden thinking about retirement. His favorite question to ask a young person is, “Are you saving for retirement?” Check out Ed’s earlier articles.