A couple of years ago, I wrote a column about how to have a retirement worth saving for. It ended with a quote from personal finance educator Barbara O’Neill, who reflected on how the pandemic disrupted many retirees’ plans.
“It wasn’t just two years lost, it was two good years,” O’Neill said then. “You don’t know how many of those you have left.”
One of my younger colleagues objected to that sentiment, saying it was a jarring ending to an otherwise upbeat column. But my older co-workers got it. Those of us who currently have good health and energy don’t know how long those blessings will last. There’s no guarantee we’ll get to enjoy the retirements we have planned.
That lesson was driven home in July 2023, when a longtime colleague died at age 61. We’d had many talks over the years about the retirement he had envisioned. It’s heartbreaking that his dreams will never happen.
But his death was the push I needed to make my own decision. By the time you read this, I will have retired from my job at personal finance site NerdWallet.
MAKING THE DECISION WAS SURPRISINGLY HARD
When our financial planner told us we could afford to retire, my initial reaction wasn’t joy but bemusement.
I’ve been writing about retirement planning for three decades and saving for even longer, but it was always a goal in the distant, misty future. Making the decision felt like jumping off a cliff.
Would I be OK without the intellectual challenges, social interactions and sense of satisfaction I get from my job? Had I accomplished everything I wanted to in my career? And just how much would I miss that nice, steady paycheck and all the wonderful benefits NerdWallet provides, including massively subsidized health care?
DOING WHAT A JOURNALIST DOES: RESEARCH
At this point, I have to acknowledge the huge privilege of even having a choice about when to retire. Almost half of retirees leave the workforce earlier than they planned, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. Some are laid off or forced out. Others have health issues or must care for loved ones who are sick or disabled. Many people keep working out of necessity: They have bills to pay and too little savings.
Knowing all that didn’t make the choice easy, however. So I did what I do best: copious research. I found it hugely helpful to read O’Neill’s book, “Flipping a Switch: Your Guide to Happiness and Financial Security in Later Life.” Another good read is “Independence Day: What I Learned About Retirement from Some Who’ve Done It and Some Who Never Will,” by Steve Lopez, my former Los Angeles Times colleague.
My husband and I had many, many discussions with our financial planner. We asked her to rerun our plan with different assumptions about what we’d spend, how we’d tap our funds, what the markets might do and what we’d earn with part-time work. This stress testing gave us confidence in our plan.
Our planner also connected us with an insurance agent who helped us figure out health coverage. My husband is old enough for Medicare, but I’m a few years shy of 65 and we have a daughter going to college in another state. I’m glad we have the option to buy health insurance through the Affordable Care Act exchanges. But continuing my employer’s group coverage for my daughter and myself through the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) turned out to be the most cost-effective option for now.
Our financial plan worked and health care was solved, but emotionally I was still resisting. Ultimately, I realized why. I was looking at retirement solely as an ending.
LOOKING AHEAD, RATHER THAN BACK
With previous big life changes — buying a home, getting married, having a child, starting new jobs — excitement about the adventure to come quickly overcame concerns about what I was giving up. I needed to stop focusing on what I was retiring from and start contemplating what I was retiring to.
Today, I’m seeing retirement for what it is: the beginning of an interesting new chapter in our lives. The time I once spent building a career will be invested in travel, volunteering, and deepening relationships with friends and family.
I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished. I’ve won awards, written five books, contributed to the growth of a company (NerdWallet) and its award-winning podcast (“Smart Money”). Most importantly, I’ve helped people solve their money problems. I’ll continue with that last part, but I’m also looking forward to the rest of what comes next.
This column was provided to The Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet. Liz Weston is a columnist at NerdWallet, a certified financial planner and author of “Your Credit Score.” Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @lizweston.
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