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Retirement has never been so complicated. How do we make our money last? How should we spend the last third of ever-longer lives outside the traditional workforce? In fact, the prospect of planning retirement can be so overwhelming it almost seems easier to just keep working. But rather than remain in a state of paralysis, here are some steps you can take to get started.

Take the pressure off!

You do not have to have all of the answers now, so start by separating the financial part from the how-to-pass-the-time part. I often tell clients who are “stuck” on how to begin planning for retirement to focus on the first three years and then on the last three years. This takes the stress out of a big question like, “What the heck am I going to do for 20-30 years?!”

For the first three years, write down the collection of projects you want to get done. This often leads to a very satisfying feeling of purpose and direction. It’s like you’re still working, but you’re working on the stuff you want to work on and have been putting off. I’ve had clients travel for a year, remodel homes and take care of grandchildren, to name a few.

Then write down your ideal last three years, which are also usually easy to envision. These are typically slower, easier, quieter. This part also comes with specifics, such as:

  • where you’ll live,
  • who you’ll rely on for companionship and support,
  • how you’ll want to manage your physical slow-down,
  • how you want to be cared for and who will take care of you, and
  • how you’ll feel at the end of each day

This process helps you figure out how much money or assets you need to set aside to meet these criteria, which will help build the financial part of your retirement plan.

Now for the years in between. I recommend making a list of the skills you want to keep using. This will likely have far fewer specifics than the first or last three years. That’s fine. For instance,

  • I’ve had teachers that want to continuing teaching, so they consider tutoring.
  • Those leaving executive positions find there are all kinds of nonprofit boards looking for expertise in leadership, development and managing a budget without having to manage employees.
  • Some people enjoy mentoring others and find places to create those relationships.
  • Talk to others who have retired. Keep your networks going with people who are or are not in the workforce. You don’t need to know exactly what you want to do, but it’s helpful to identify those skills of which you are most proud, most willing to “give away,” and most likely to energize and satisfy you.

In my experience, most people take two to three years to settle into a “retirement groove.” They tackle all of their projects early on, then they hit the end of that list and it takes a while to figure out how to spend their days. Even those who have done a “whole lotta nothin’” in the first year of retirement realize they want to make a change in how they spend their time. This is typical and normal. I also find it takes two to three years for the budget to work itself out. Rest assured, both how to spend time and how to spend money do work out. And both begin with figuring out how to spend the first three years and how to spend the last three years.

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