Re-Thinking Retirement: Beyond Conventional Wisdom

When planners talk about retirement, they often use the metaphor of a three-legged stool. The three legs of this metaphorical stool include:

  • Social Security
  • Employer-sponsored retirement plans (pension, 401k)
  • Personal savings (IRAs, CDs, savings accounts)

With Social Security income becoming less and less reliable, and traditional pensions all but extinct, the three-legged stool has become quite a balancing act: Today's retirement plan is not your father's retirement plan!

Two Legs Down, One Questionable
Social Security will pay out more this year than it gets in payroll taxes, and leaders in Congress are now seriously talking about raising the retirement age to 70. Also, the traditional pension plan, especially in the wake of the Great Recession, is all but dead.

Who needs the federal government and the boss? One would think that 41 years after the birth of the financial planning industry, and 36 years after the creation of the self-directed retirement plan (401k), the do-it-yourself era would be alive and well, and the old three-legged stool would be replaced.

Unfortunately, conventional wisdom takes too long to change. People (and many financial planners) are still including Social Security in financial plans; and the disappearance of traditional pension plans has profoundly highlighted the debilitating human element of procrastination: Reports reveal that nearly 50 percent of Americans are not adequately saving for retirement.

The three-legged stool has been reduced to a pogo stick! How's your balance?

Fortunately, the Baby Boom generation, beginning with those who started retiring five years ago, and including those who are retiring today and up to 10 years from now, is beginning to change the conventional meaning of retirement. Let's learn a few things from today's retirees, observe what they are discovering, and form our own retirement philosophies, strategies and tactics.

Time to Rebuild the Three-Legged Stool
Mitch Anthony, modern-day expert on the behavioral aspects of retirement and the author of The New Retirementality, says retirement is not defined by financial means but rather “a time to write a new chapter in your life.” He's not just making this up; he gets his ideas directly from people in retirement!

The first step in alternative retirement strategy formation (and to rebuild the three-legged stool), therefore, is in alternative thought formation:

    • Think of retirement in non-financial terms. Too many people make the mistake of defining retirement only in financial terms: “I need X amount of dollars to retire.” This is what I call money planning. The conventional retirement plan is a money plan, which often makes you a tool for money, rather than money being a tool for life. Think, therefore, in terms of life planning (e.g. life goals, life mission); think more of what you need money to do for you and less of what you need to do for money: As today's retirees are discovering, seek meaning — not money — first; find purpose before you plan.

 

    • Stop thinking of retirement in terms of age. Conventional wisdom (originating from the federal government) says that the retirement age is 65. Why? If retirement can only be achieved by saving a massive amount of money, aided by Social Security income at age 65, I can see why many people mistakenly make this their default retirement age. If the government changes the retirement age to 70, will you be disappointed? If so, why? When you change your thinking, and move away from conventional wisdom, you are free to make retirement anything you want it to be at any age!

 

  • Think of your own definition of retirement.. This point dovetails naturally with the two previous points: What is your definition of retirement? We recently had a wonderful and productive discussion here at GRS about defining financial freedom. Try your best to remove conventional wisdom from your thoughts, and form your own definition of retirement. Who knows, you might discover, by your new-formed definition, that you are already retired now!

Now that you've begun to alter your thoughts regarding retirement, you may now begin to consider alternative financial strategies and tactics.

Career Planning as Retirement Planning
Many retirees return to work, not just for lack of money, but for lack of meaning. In The New Retirementality, Anthony says the definition of work, inspired by recent retirees, is “a meaningful and productive engagement, paid or unpaid.”

Working is a large part of being productive and mentally active; and it can be a viable (and meaningful) way of replacing one of the legs of your retirement plan's three-legged stool. In JD's book, Your Money: The Missing Manual, he describes this as “finding your sweet spot,” which originates from another outstanding book, Good to Great by Jim Collins. The sweet spot is where your passions, what you do best, and what people will pay you to do overlap.

If retirement is a time to write a new chapter in your life, start writing the chapter now! As Aristotle said, “If you enjoy what you do, you will never work a day in your life.” If you enjoy your work, you will replace one of the legs of the conventional three-legged stool: Retirement will no longer be defined and created by money alone.

Start a Business
Starting a business isn't for everyone. It carries a lot of risk, perhaps even more than the market risk associated with investing in stocks. The rewards, however, both in money and in meaning, can far outweigh that of stocks, which can make the risks of starting a business worthwhile.

Similar to the preceding point on career planning, you may reduce risk by starting the business long before you plan to retire; by starting the new chapter in life now. Who knows, your moonlighting prior to retirement may produce retirement savings in addition to the formation of another income leg during retirement. Just be sure that the business involves something you are passionate about (see previous point).

Reduce the Size of Your Nest; Increase the Size of Your Nest Egg
Many people find themselves house rich and cash poor; yet conventional retirement planning doesn't consider the home as a retirement asset. While this strategy steps a bit outside of financial planning and into the realm of emotion and sentimentality, an empty nest that is larger than you need is also a retirement nest egg that is smaller than necessary: Home equity can be another leg in your three-legged stool.

Consider downsizing/relocating your home, getting a reverse mortgage, doing a sale-leaseback, or renting unused space:

    • Downsize/Relocate Your Home: Get into a smaller home and consider relocating to another city or state. You may be able to buy the smaller home with cash, have equity “profit” remaining, and/or reduce your mortgage payment (if applicable) to help finance retirement. The new home's size and location may also translate into savings on property taxes, insurance, maintenance, and utilities. Also, consider making the location for the new home within walking or bike-riding distance to most of the things you need or to some of your favorite relaxation spots. This will add to gas and car maintenance savings (and to your physical and mental well-being). You might even consider relocating to one of the many different states with tax laws friendly to retirees.

 

    • Reverse Mortgage: This alternative retirement income tactic has received poor press (and understandably great apprehension by those who choose not to consider their home as a “retirement asset”). Common misconceptions include: 1) The home is owned by the bank; 2) My home will not pass to beneficiaries. Both of these are false. While closing costs and interest rates can be relatively high, this income production tactic has recently become more mainstream and flexible. Reverse mortgages can work for some but remember to read the fine print and consider other alternatives first, such as home downsizing and/or relocation.

 

    • Sale/Lease-back: You can sell your home to your children and lease it back from them. This might satisfy those who want to stay in their home and/or keep it in the family while producing retirement income, without the reverse mortgage tactic.

 

  • Rent Unused Space: After the kids have moved out (and before the mother-in-law moves in), you might consider renting extra home space for additional income.

You Know the Rest
The rest of retirement planning is familiar territory to GRS readers. Continue to form and reinforce money habits that work: Reduce and eliminate consumer debt; drive used instead of new; automate your savings; if you get a raise at work, save it, don't spend it; track your spending and eliminate unnecessary expenses; take advantage of the 401(k) at work, especially if there is an employer match; and keep educating yourself (but try to have some fun while you're at it)!

Do your best to enjoy life. Worrying about tomorrow takes away from today; and remember, retirement is not something defined (or created) by money alone. An online savings calculator, for example, will not tell you how to find meaning and purpose in retirement: Savings calculators are quantitative; life is qualitative.

To rebuild the conventional three-legged stool, you must think (and plan) in non-conventional ways. What you do — not what you have — creates meaning. So be sure to make what you do meaningful first and let the money follow. It may sound corny, but the old saying, “life is about the journey, not the destination,” is wise (and true)!

The journey never ends as long as you live; therefore the proper perspective is to make life, which is always in the present moment, the best it can be…

How (and what) are you doing in your retirement planning? What unconventional retirement philosophies, strategies and tactics have you found useful? What are the “legs” of your retirement stool?

More about...Planning, Retirement

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Chett
Chett
10 years ago

“Think more of what you need money to do for you and less of what you need to do for money.”

Sage advice.

Another thing to consider is to find a mentor who is grounded and has purpose in their life outside of their possessions and let them help guide you towards your golden years. The true cost of things is the amount of life you have to give up to pay for them.

Rob Bennett
Rob Bennett
10 years ago

This is a fine article, Kent. I very much agree that we need to redefine what “retirement” means. I like to think of retirement a a move towards something (meaningful work) rather than as a move away from something (poverty in old age). I saved enough from the time I was 35 to the time I was 43 to be able to “retire” from corporate employment; my family of four has been able to live for 10 years now on the income generated by the amounts I saved in those years. But I am by no means “retired” from the… Read more »

Paul
Paul
10 years ago

I think the metaphor is being misunderstood. A three-legged-stool is something that collapses if a leg is removed. A better analogy would be three boxes that you can stack one on top of the other. The more money you put in, the taller the box. When you’re retired you stand on top of the stack of boxes. If you only put money into your social security box, or employer sponsored box, or self funded box, you only have one box (whether big or small) to stand on. If you have two boxes and one goes away, you still have one… Read more »

Ross Williams
Ross Williams
10 years ago

This article reinforces the current media narrative is that “social security” is not reliable. That has lead many young people to adopt that attitude that, as one told me 15 years ago, “I don’t expect to get any social security.” But in fact that is wrong. Even once the social security trust fund is gone in 30 years, continued revenue is expected to cover at least 75% of the projected benefits. And even that is based on projections that assume US workers wages will continue to represent a declining proportion of any increases in productivity. The reality is that for… Read more »

Nicole
Nicole
10 years ago

What #4, Ross Williams, said.

Jessica
Jessica
10 years ago

Another advocate for #4. He makes great points. I agree that those who have more to gain by refusing to pay back the social security trust are the biggest proponents of this “social security won’t be around.” Telling people to take social security out of the equation makes the number needed to live after one is no longer able to work completely overwhelming. Stories about the death of social security don’t inspire most people to save – they make them want to throw up their hands and give up. And despite what all the 20-somethings say in polls, if the… Read more »

Nick
Nick
10 years ago

Good stuff here!! Ross made some really good points, I sure don’t plan on counting on social security. Retirement has to be reconsidered, we are living longer and working longer.

KP
KP
10 years ago

Yes, pensions are vanishing and 401k plans take a hit during market downturns. When I think of this three-legged stool that you refer to as retirement, the saddest part about it is that so many people depend on social security today. And if the cycle continues, then there will be generations that follow who will depend on social security for retirement too.

While you’re suggestions may not be the right answer for everyone (e.g. relocating), I commend you for sharing your perspective. After all, gaining and applying useful knowledge is the key to future success.

Robert
Robert
10 years ago

Raise the retirement age to 70? As if Americans aren’t overworked enough….now we should work until we’re almost dead?

Rosa
Rosa
10 years ago

It’s great to talk about retirement as the freedom to do work you want to do – though I personally want to do “work” that isn’t paid, so it’s not different than saving up for a long golf vacation. But it’s over-optimistic to assume anyone will be able to do that. It really scare me how many people say “I like what I do, I don’t want to stop, so I’m not going to save so much.” People get sicker as they get older. Their parents become dependent, their spouses may become dependents needing full-time medical care. A job you… Read more »

Des
Des
10 years ago

RE: Robert – Yes, we should. The life average expectancy in 1935 when SS was started was 61.7 years, and the retirement age was 65. That means the average person was given retirement after they were expected to die. The current life expectancy is over 77 years in the US. That would point to an SS retirement age of 80.

Brent
Brent
10 years ago

I’m pretty sure I’m not in the target for this wisdom, it just doesn’t make sense to me. If retirement is a time to write a new chapter, why would you have the one before it? Why ever work a job you don’t enjoy? At 26 I have no clue what I will want to do in my later years. But I enjoy what I do now. Does that make me retired?

Ross Williams
Ross Williams
10 years ago

@#12 Brent, No, it makes you lucky. When I was your age I was packing used clothes to be sold in Africa. There was NOTHING fulfilling about that job. But at the time (or within the same time frame) I bought a bicycle (for transportation), a guitar, a harmonica, a caste iron skillet, a sleeping bag, a portable camp stove, hiking boots and a tent. With the exception of the tent which wore out and the bike that was stolen, I still use all of the others. I spend a lot of my leisure time now cooking, hiking and camping.… Read more »

chacha1
chacha1
10 years ago

Gee, I thought the article was very balanced. Maybe because I am now doing what Kent suggests. NOT overspending on housing. NOT planning to live somewhere expensive after leaving full-time employment. NOT planning to stop full-time work before age 70 – since I have family history and personal habits to support expectations of full health and ability until well past that age. Saving. Building a part-time business for extra income. Social Security will, I believe, always be there in some form. Our nation has never yet completely cancelled a benefit once it has been enacted. Turning the discussion to SS… Read more »

El Nerdo Loco
El Nerdo Loco
10 years ago

@#4 Ross Williams– excellent post! Thanks.

Kent @ The Financial Philosopher
Kent @ The Financial Philosopher
10 years ago

There are many great points here. The discussion illustrates (and supports) at least three of the primary themes in this post: 1) Don’t allow others (not even this blog) to tell you what retirement means; 2) Retirement is not only a financial goal but a lifestyle choice; and 3) Everything is in flux: we are always evolving and “writing new chapters” as we move through life. @ #2Rob: It sounds as if you’ve discovered what I believe to be an essential element of success and overall well-being: Balance! @ #3Paul: Metaphors can be misleading! I like your idea of the… Read more »

Ross Williams
Ross Williams
10 years ago

“it is costing a lot of Florida retirees a packet – because they only looked at income tax, and not at property tax” There are plenty of people who moved to Florida who thought they were going to save on heating bills, only to discover air-conditioning a poorly insulated house was even more expensive. Your argument that people sometimes miscalculate just reinforces my point. The difference in taxes is a minor financial issue and not likely going to be very important either financially or in terms of your fulfillment. While health is certainly an issue on working past 70, the… Read more »

chacha1
chacha1
10 years ago

And hence the advice to develop a self-directed business. I don’t WANT to be an employee at 70+. I will be perfectly happy, however, to employ MYSELF.

And must continue to disagree re: taxes. To my certain knowledge, my dad pays more in property taxes now, in retirement, than he ever paid in state income taxes before moving to Florida. The utility bills are just the icing on his headache.

suzy
suzy
10 years ago

I don’t understand why “fixing SS” discussions always center on raising the retirement age. People currently stop paying into SS at, what, 109K or so? So everyone making more than that gets to keep all the money they would have contributed past that. That means our income “goes up” by over $1000/mo from August-December. We’d be just as happy to continue paying SS on our entire income if it meant letting people retire at decent ages. How come raising the cap on the SS tax is never brought up?

Tara C
Tara C
10 years ago

Sing it, Suzy! I totally agree. Raise the cap on SS, that will go a long way towards stabilizing it. But unfortunately America is run by the corporations and wealthy people who fund our politicians’ careers, so that will probably never be enacted.

Kent @ The Financial Philosopher
Kent @ The Financial Philosopher
10 years ago

I agree Suzy, and I also agree with Tara: Many qualified plan (i.e. profit sharing) plan designs, for example, are “integrated” with Social Security because of the cap in place now. In other words, certain plan designs allow for the higher paid employees and owners to put more away toward retirement because of this “disadvantage” of not having more income as a percentage of salary put aside in Social Security. If the cap is raised, some of the sweet profit sharing deals will be endangered. “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up… Read more »

suzy
suzy
10 years ago

They wouldn’t even have to make it limitless, though (though I think that would totally make sense), they could probably just raise the cap to, what, 250K or so? Wouldn’t that solve a heck of a lot of the solvency problems? It just makes a lot more sense to keep a healthy SS program in place, and for reasonable ages, even for people who are in a higher income bracket like us. We want to see our parents retire comfortably, but neither of us come from wealthy backgrounds, and we aren’t currently planning on funding their retirements (that doesn’t really… Read more »

Annemarie
Annemarie
10 years ago

Echoing #10 Rosa…the idea that one will have to work until age 70 is great for those with white-collar jobs. Much harder for metalworkers like my husband, who figures he only has a few years left in the job unless he can get a full-body transplant.

There is a large working class in America, untrained and possibly unqualified (at the moment) for desk work, and faced with physical issues from their jobs. Workforce development will be needed if we’re going to help those folks.

Squirrelers
Squirrelers
10 years ago

Personally, I think about the kind of life I would want as I get older. It’s hard to say what one’s interests are going to be, as even the most steady, boring among us have shifts in perspective as we get older. That said, it’s important to think about these things anyway. As I figure out what I think I’ll want to be doing down the line, I then base my financial plans around it. I find it to be more satisfying than saying – “here’s what I have, what can I do with it?” Of course, I do think… Read more »

bogart
bogart
10 years ago

A huge barrier for many would-be early retirees, and for that matter would-be entrepreneurs is health insurance, something of which this post makes no mention.

Kent @ The Financial Philosopher
Kent @ The Financial Philosopher
10 years ago

Bogart: You bring up a good point regarding health care costs, especially for “early retirees.” There are just as many cost variables as there are human beings and their particular retirement plans/outcomes, which makes retirement difficult to cover comprehensively in all its financial factors. Speaking from a personal perspective (on your point regarding entrepreneurs), my health premiums are lower now as a self-employed person as they were when I had the “Cadillac” plan with my previous employer. From a risk management perspective, health costs can decrease as long as there are no extreme health issues to face. If the extreme… Read more »

getagrip
getagrip
10 years ago

If I recall correctly, the reason there is a cap on Social Security taxes paid in is because there is a cap on what Social Security will pay out. So right now, if someone retired as a 65 year old and had years of salary in the $200K range but only put the cap limit into social security, they’d get the same payout as someone who also put in at the cap limit but made in the $100K range. If you raise the cap on what is put in, it’s only fair you raise the cap on payouts for those… Read more »

Hugin
Hugin
10 years ago

Interesting thoughts on an interesting subject. The conventional thought is, as you wrote, that you should retire at the age of 65. In my opinion, people are too obsessed with their retirement plans in the long term. And by long term I mean that people are worried about what will happen to them when they retire at the age of 65. In my opinion people should take care of their own retirement plans and don’t put away to much money in locked pension funds. I want to retire before that age and I trust in my ability to handle the… Read more »

suzy
suzy
10 years ago

#27: Yes, I suppose that’s why they have the cap, but I have no problem with the idea of “only” receiving the amount someone in the $100K range makes, even if we’re making $400K by the time we retire. My husband and I have benefitted a great deal from our society (free public education, government-backed college loans, good transportation networks, cops and firefighters keeping things safe, etc), and we don’t see anything wrong with paying more into it now that we’ve been lucky enough to climb into the group of “haves”. We’re going to be okay regardless of how much… Read more »

Jaime
Jaime
10 years ago

I love the retirement articles. I’m currently trying to save right now, and work on financial independence.

While I do think its important to save for retirement, its just as equally important to not put off having the life you want until you’re 60. In other words prepare for the future, but don’t put off living.

bogart
bogart
10 years ago

Kent, thanks for your reply. Certainly health insurance is a complex topic and hard to examine concisely. Actually this is “pretty much” a non-issue for us; my DH is retired with a (modest) government pension and adequate, affordable group coverage provided for himself and available for purchase for me (spouse) and dependents. But I’m far less sanguine about it than you seem as we live in a state that has had no high-risk pool and have seen basically healthy (extended) family members denied coverage in the private market (i.e. it was group, COBRA, or nothing). Reform may change that, but… Read more »

crack
crack
10 years ago

I’m with Ross, Soc Sec is the _only_ leg of the stool that is at all reliable (even if you think it will go bankrupt). 401ks are a scam perpetrated by the financial services industry. There is no reason to believe people have the ability to use them on their own. People are forced into plans that likely suck. People aren’t told that the only factor that can be accurately compared amongst funds is the fee structure. People are told that stocks make sense. They don’t. If I offer to sell you a claim on my earnings with no voting… Read more »

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