This is how to have the 'perfect' retirement

Make sure your expectations line up with reality.

  • By Paul A. Merriman,
  • MarketWatch
  • Getting Ready to Retire
  • Getting Ready to Retire
  • Getting Ready to Retire
  • Getting Ready to Retire
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I recently came across an interesting blog post in which the author described his idea of the perfect retirement. It made me realize that there are more ways than one to define this important phase of life — which may not really be a phase at all.

Most people look forward to retirement as a time to forget their worries, live without a boss or a commute and to perhaps just kick back whenever and however the urge appears.

But in real life, that fantasy isn't very common — and it may not be all it's cracked up to be.

There's no one-size-fits-all formula for a good retirement, because every situation is in some ways unique.

Key retirement milestones

This infographic highlights an important timeline to ensure you make the most of your golden years.

This discussion has three parts.

First, I'll set down my own views, based on my personal experience and conversations I've had with hundreds of people who are retired and planning to retire.

Second, I'll present the view of the blog post that got my brain working on this.

Third, I asked my friend and writing partner Richard Buck, who retired about the same time I did, to weigh in with his thoughts.

I think of retirement as a kind of freedom to do what you want. I retired for the first time at age 40, due to some good luck and hard work. At that time, I regarded retirement as the opportunity to do what I wanted to do, whether or not it brought in any money.

I followed that passion, and it led me to found a business that kept me busily and happily "un-retired" for the next 30 years. I then "re-retired" in 2012, only to start a foundation and what could be regarded as a third career.

Many people think the main prerequisite for retirement is having lots of money, more than you need. This is wonderful if you can do it, but in fact most retirees don't meet that test.

Just as important (maybe more important) no matter how much or how little money you have, is a set of expectations that mesh with reality.

I've known people who always want more. They think they need more, and they envy those who have what they don't. Unfortunately, the result can be a lifetime of frustration and unnecessary emotional pain.

This may sound odd coming from somebody who's spent his working lifetime helping people acquire more assets for retirement.

But if the goal is just to accumulate bigger and bigger net worth numbers, what's the point? That's what the fictional old miser Ebenezer Scrooge did in "A Christmas Carol."

The story depicts Scrooge as a miserable old man who took no pleasure in life and was haunted by ghosts.

Scrooge eventually discovers the life-changing joy of generosity and the mental and emotional boost of helping young people achieve their potential.

Likewise, I think the perfect retirement involves positive relationships with children, including (if you're lucky) access to grandchildren.

Equally important are relationships with friends who live in the same world you do and are pleased to take the time to share it with you.

I know lots of retirees who find great satisfaction from helping others. Some of my friends work hard for multiple nonprofit agencies, and get a lot of satisfaction from it. In my own case, I'm sure I couldn't be a happy retiree (or even a semi-retiree, as I seem to be) without believing I am helping people in some way.

Sure, there's an "infrastructure" that is necessary to support a good retirement. You need financial resources, along with peace of mind over how much you do or don't have.

To whatever extent you can get it and keep it, you need your health to enjoy the opportunities before you and keep up with your friends and family.


I sometimes ask myself what would make my own retirement more perfect.

I would get more sleep, spend more time with my family, eat better, get more exercise and figure out how to get my message across to more investors.

Perhaps none of that is very surprising.

For a more provocative look, let's return to the recent blog post by Joe Hearn, who sums up his idea for retirement in just 10 words: "A system for living that optimizes for freedom and fulfillment."

Joe doesn't buy into the traditional idea that a good retirement requires you to be no longer working at age 65 and have millions of dollars to pursue idealized goals.

He sees no reason to wait to live the good life. We've all witnessed the harsh lesson that "life is short," and it's obvious that for most people, declining health in old age gradually imposes stricter and stricter limits on activities.

Joe's definition calls for a system, or a set of connected parts that form "a complex whole. Retirement has a ton of moving parts that need to work together to produce the results that you want."

These "moving parts" include money, health, insurance, housing, relationships and of course your chosen pursuits.

The system should help you get control of your time and then use that time "in intentional ways;" it's designed "for living" at any age, not just after 65.

The element of freedom consists of time and money, and all is directed at achieving fulfillment of your highest aspirations.

Now I'll turn to my friend Rich. Here's his take on this, in his own words:

Retirement isn't some magic new experience like going to the Land of Oz. When you wake up that first Monday and realize you don't have to go to work, you're still the same person you were on Friday. If you haven't started creating your perfect life by then, you're way behind.

About 20 years before I finally retired, I spent some time thinking about what I would do if I won the lottery and suddenly had all the resources I could ever want without having to work.

The really interesting question wasn't how I would spend my money. It was how I would spend my time.

I identified four core activities to pursue, and I realized that I could (and should) be pursuing them even then.

Pretty soon I discovered some very satisfying ways to do just that. Even after all these years, I haven't strayed much from my desire for these same activities.

I've developed a set of personal guidelines for my life. These aren't all original, but they serve me well.

Here are a few:

  1. Be focused rather than trying to do everything.
  2. Life is short, if there's something you really want to do before your time is up, do at least some of it now.
  3. Be kind and generous.
  4. Strive to be useful.
  5. Invest your time and energy in relationships that have some sort of a payoff for you.
  6. If you want to leave your mark on the world, don't wait to start creating that legacy.
  7. Don't expect everything to go your way, because it won't.
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