Turn Your Retirement Dreams Into Reality

Some people dream of playing golf every day in retirement, while others plan to travel the world, work part-time, take up a hobby, see grandchildren or just relax. The trouble is, no matter what they envisioned, many retirees discover that it’s very difficult to turn their dreams of retirement into a satisfying reality.

There are lots of reasons why the reality of your retirement might not match your dream. But there also are many ways to improve things—if you know some important truths about retirement…

Leisure activities must provide much more than just relaxation in retirement. If you ask people who are not yet retired what they expect to do with their free time in retirement, many will say that they’ll do the same types of things they currently do on weekends—but do them on weekdays, too. Many discover, however, that their weekend pastimes are much less satisfying as full-time ­pursuits.

Example: Golf or tennis might be very enjoyable and relaxing when you play once or twice a week during the years when you still are working, but it could begin to feel boring—or even stressful—if you play most days in ­retirement.

What to do: Engage in a variety of leisure activities that collectively supply the following six needs—relaxation…physical exercise…social interaction…intellectual stimulation…cultural enrichment…and creative expression. Yes, you actually should make a list of your leisure activities, and then write down which needs are met by each. If retired life ever starts to feel empty and ­unenjoyable, review this list…determine which of these six needs are missing from your retirement…then explore activities that fill this niche until you find one you enjoy.

Example: A retired entrepreneur who had no creative outlet in retirement discovered that he loved glassblowing.

The single best way to make your retirement better is to make someone else’s life better. If you’re like most people, a career isn’t just a way to earn a paycheck. It also provides purpose—your clients, coworkers, employees and/or employers depend on you. Life in retirement can feel empty without this sense that you are doing things that are useful to other people.

What to do: Consult…or take a part-time job in a field that interests you…or volunteer with a nonprofit organization. If you don’t already have a ­favorite nonprofit, check whether your local library has a “community service directory” or some other list of local nonprofits. Leaf through this until you find a few that seem appealing, then arrange meetings with these groups or volunteer with different ones until you find one that makes you feel truly useful.

Examples: A retired teacher who had survived cancer found meaning by volunteering at a cancer education center. A former high-level executive who discovered that making children laugh made his life feel meaningful went to clown school and then volunteered to entertain at children’s hospitals.

Alternatives: Feeling useful generally is the most effective way for retirees to find meaning in life, but it is not the only way. Some people find meaning in tracing their heritage—research your family tree and/or travel to places that have a connection to your family history or ethnicity. Other people find meaning in going back to school to study something of deep interest.

The retirement you’re planning may not be the retirement your partner is planning. Most people approaching retirement think that they are on the same page as their spouses when it comes to retirement plans. Many will discover how far from the truth that is. Spouses often have different ideas about when to retire…where to live during retirement…and/or how to spend time and money during retirement. That’s true even when couples believe they have hashed these things out—because one or both partners might not have fully communicated priorities…or simply might have had a change of heart.

What to do: Do not just chat informally with your spouse about retirement—hold a retirement-planning meeting to put a plan down on paper. Don’t be surprised if your spouse’s ideas are different from your own, and try not to get angry. If certain differences cannot be immediately resolved, schedule additional meetings.

Example: A husband did not realize that his younger wife would not be ready to retire when he was, and he feared that he might be too old to travel by the time she concluded her career. The couple agreed that the wife would cut back on her work hours, providing sufficient time for travel, while the husband continued working part-time as a ­consultant. Then they set a full ­retirement date roughly halfway between the dates each originally had in mind.

Your dream retirement destination might not be so dreamy in reality. Some people dream of retiring where it’s warm…others of living near the kids and grandkids…or in an exciting city. But if your retirement destination is not somewhere you have spent lots of time in recent years, living there might be quite different from what you imagine.

Example: A retired couple dreamed of returning to their long-ago hometown in retirement—but they hadn’t lived there in 30 years. When they moved back, they discovered the people they knew were gone and the town no longer felt like the home they remembered.

What to do: Rent homes in possible retirement destinations before finalizing a move there. If your goal is to live near your children or other family members, chat with them about their long-term plans—are they planning to stay where they currently live? If moving close to young grandchildren, consider whether you will enjoy being an always-on-call baby-sitter…and whether your grandkids are likely to have time for you as they get older.

You’re not going to hear from your old work friends as much as you expect. Loss of socialization is not just a problem for older retirees who cannot easily get out of the house. It’s also a problem for recent retirees whose friends still are working. Office friends are particularly likely to lose touch with you.

What to do: Join new groups and form new friendships when you retire.

One more thing you are likely to lose in retirement—status. You may have worked for decades to reach a respected position in your profession. When you leave that profession, it’s natural to feel diminished. In fact, people who retire from management positions sometimes try to fill this void by treating their spouses like employees. They might not even realize they are doing it—and it really can strain a marriage.

What to do: If you owned a small business, worked for a Fortune 500 company or simply would enjoy helping small-business owners succeed, volunteer with the nonprofit association SCORE, which helps owners of small ­businesses, and serve as a mentor. Or volunteer to take a leadership role on projects for nonprofit organizations.

Your travel plans might be cut short. People who plan to travel extensively in retirement almost always travel much less than they expect—around half as much, on average. They discover that frequent travel is tiring…that health issues can make travel a challenge…and/or that travel is more expensive than they thought. For couples, retirement travel tends to decrease as soon as either partner grows disenchanted with it.

What to do: If you plan to spend much of your retirement traveling, develop some contingency plans, too.

Example: A wife became frustrated when her husband did not want to travel in retirement as much as the couple had anticipated. She solved this by taking trips with a group of female friends while her husband stayed home.