When it comes to your nest egg, you made all the right
decisions, saving enough to turn your retirement dreams into
reality. But as the big day approaches, you realize you've
forgotten to answer a couple of crucial questions: What exactly are
my dreams? How can I make the next 20 or 30 years purposeful?
Some people enter retirement with a full-blown plan. Other new
retirees struggle to fill a blank canvas. And as the soul-searching
baby boomers march into this stage of life, a cottage industry of
retirement and life-transition coaches are helping them explore the
nonfinancial, emotional side of retirement.
The key to a meaningful retirement is not just filling your time
but crafting a portfolio of pursuits that are based on what's
important to you, experts say. "Many times, work is what you do and
not so much who you are," says Catherine Frank, executive director
of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, which is affiliated with
the University of North Carolina at Asheville. "Retirement is an
opportunity to create a life that reflects more closely who you
With so many choices and so much freedom, figuring out what you
value most can be tough--even for people like Ronald Manheimer, who
helped others plan for retirement for 21 years as Frank's
predecessor when the organization was called the Center for
Creative Retirement. When Manheimer retired in July 2009, he says
he "had this idea that I would do things I had never done before."
As he always instructed others, he would allow for a "chrysalis
period, when these newly creative endeavors would come to me."
Aside from embarking on a fitness regimen and becoming a hospice
volunteer, Manheimer says, little else came to him. "I was sort of
at loose ends," he says. "I realized that this was much harder than
I ever thought."
Eventually, Manheimer began to employ his skills and knowledge
in new ways. A former philosophy professor and an expert on Danish
existentialist Søren Kierkegaard, Manheimer returned to working on
a book he started years ago focusing on philosophers'
autobiographies. He used his book research to develop a course he
teaches at the Osher center. And he's using his expertise on aging
as a consultant to an Atlanta developer who is building senior
housing that will incorporate an education component.
Among the lessons that Manheimer learned: "Keep open time to
explore, to perhaps research what you may want to do next," he
says. "But you should be able to look forward to a calendar of
activities." And, he says, while you can explore new areas, "see
how you can renew yourself within what you already know."
Retirees who are enjoying this stage in life offer similar
advice to those about to join them. "Try things out. If something
is not right for you, you have plenty of time to change," says Tom
Lashnits, 66, a former magazine and book editor and writer, who was
laid off in a downsizing at age 53.
The first couple of years after he lost his job, Lashnits says,
he was "feeling that I was not getting anywhere." Over time, he put
together a number of activities that he finds enjoyable and
Lashnits, who lives in Granite Springs, N.Y., joined a
competitive table tennis clinic, which was fun but too physically
taxing. So he dropped it and spent more time playing golf. He began
writing a retirement blog under the name of Tom Sightings called
"Sightings Over Sixty" (
). That's led to freelance writing gigs and consulting work.
With a "vague notion" that he wanted to volunteer, Lashnits got
in touch with VolunteerMatch (
), which found him a position as a writing tutor at the local
community college. "I find it enormously rewarding, and it gives me
a place to go and people to meet," he says.
With a Little Help From Friends
Maintaining social connections is an essential ingredient to a
successful retirement. If you're feeling isolated, take a step
toward meeting new people: volunteer, take an exercise class, or
join a hiking group. You also can find a continuing education class
at your local community college or at one of 119 college-affiliated
Osher lifelong learning centers (
The longing for social interaction is a recurrent theme among
retirees who write to Sydney Lagier, 50, a retired finance
executive who writes a blog called "Retirement: A Full-Time Job" (
). "It's easy to get lonely in retirement, especially if your
friends are not retired too," says Lagier, who lives with her
retired husband in Redwood City, Cal.
Lagier makes a point of meeting with former work friends during
their lunch breaks. She also has met people through volunteering on
the finance committee of an education nonprofit. "It turns out
these casual relationships are pretty important," she says. "We
have common things we are working for."
Men tend to have a more difficult time than working women making
the transition to retirement, according to experts. "Women already
have outside friendships and outside activities," says Michelle
Maton, a certified financial planner with Aequus Wealth Management
Resources, in Chicago. "For men, most of their satisfaction comes
Chuck Fink, 64, says he suffered from depression soon after
retiring in 2008 to Asheville. He loved the corporate training
company that he owned in Cincinnati, Ohio, but his wife, Cindy, a
university professor, wanted to retire to a new community. "Moving
was a huge shock," Fink says. "I was a P.I.P.--a previously
Fink recalls attending a lecture at the Osher center, where a
speaker mentioned that women tend to handle transitions better than
men because they're more likely to have social networks. Something
clicked for him.
After several months of research, Fink "cajoled" a group of nine
other retired men to join the first Men's Wisdom Works group. That
was in October 2009. Today, 11 groups totaling 127 retired
men--ages 55 to older than 90--meet for two hours twice a
Among discussion topics: the loss of identity, changing
relationships with family members, life's regrets, and aging and
mortality. The groups also go to ballgames, hike, and meet
regularly for meals where they discuss everyday topics such as
sports and the news. The support groups help the men "find avenues
to establish meaning" in their lives, Fink says.
Fink says these relationships gave him the confidence and sense
of well-being to pursue new interests. He took a stand-up comedy
class and is participating in a personal storytelling group. "I
never would have had the chutzpah" if not for the men's groups, he
In their quest for a meaningful retirement, many new retirees
look for activities that provide for the greater good or connect to
a long-held passion. Sally Conkright had held top management jobs
at large companies for decades. In 2009, after a corporate
restructuring, she decided to retire.
Unsure what to do next, Conkright, now 61, who lives in New York
City, sought the guidance of New Directions, a Boston firm that
helps executives navigate career transitions. Extensive coaching
confirmed what she was already thinking: She wanted to work for a
nonprofit. Early in her career, Conkright worked for a health care
company and wanted to return to the field. "There is the sense you
get that you are making a difference," she says. Through her
connections, she found paid part-time work consulting on strategic
planning for two medical centers in Brooklyn.
Conkright also is using her executive skills as a volunteer for
two nonprofits in Marion, Mass., where she has a cottage. After she
retired, she was invited to sit on the boards of directors of the
local historical society and the Buzzards Bay Musicfest, an annual
four-day concert series. Today, Conkright is president of both. She
never played an instrument, but she always loved music. The
Musicfest board job "melded with one of my passions," she says.
Outside Help to Find the Inner You
Need guidance with your quest for self discovery? You can hire a
coach, enroll in a life-transition program or go to a retirement
workshop. Or you can visit a financial life planner who will help
you figure out your passions and ways to afford them.
Twice a year, about two dozen retirees and those approaching
retirement visit Asheville for a weekend program called Paths to
Creative Retirement (
). Participants engage in exercises that probe everything from
fears of loneliness to fantasies of taking risks.
One exercise is called "Making a Dream List Come True." Over
five or so minutes, participants must list all possible things they
might like to do, such as traveling, moving, painting or spending
more time with family. They circle the dreams they would like to
pursue in the next few years, and then choose the three most
important dreams and list steps to make them come true.
If one of your top three is spending several months making pasta
in Tuscany, Frank says, you need to figure out how to make it
happen. How do you find out if there's a course you could take?
What kind of arrangements would you need to make? Thinking through
the practical steps helps participants realize that a dream
"doesn't have to seem insurmountable," Frank says. "People don't
see retirement as the same thing as planning other parts of their
lives, and they should."
Unlike the Asheville program, New Directions (
) provides one-on-one coaching. Preretirees are likely to enter the
Life Portfolio program, which helps participants find a mix of
activities that provide meaning--perhaps some income-producing
work, ongoing learning, more time for recreation and family, and
community service. "These executives don't want to work 80 hours a
week, but they want to be engaged as fully as possible," says Mark
Shepard, a senior consultant, who worked with Conkright.
Clients are given exercises to help them dig deep to determine
their values, motivations, aptitudes, interests and skills. They
also undergo extensive interviews with the senior consultant and a
psychologist. In addition, the organization interviews a group of
friends and relatives who know the person well.
Shepard says clients explore what may have been left undone and
what engaged them even in their childhood. He also helps them
figure out their "drivers." For example, Shepard says, many
retirees "want to be involved with boards of directors, but you
really shouldn't be on a board if strategic planning doesn't appeal
and you'd rather be in the midst of the action." Starting a small
business might be a better idea.
Jim Dawson, now 62, entered the program in 2013 after working 38
years in the banking industry, most recently as president and chief
operating officer of Boston Private Bank & Trust. "In the back
of my mind, I always thought I would ease into retirement by
working part time at my family's hardware business," he says. He
recalls his dad talking about the business at the dinner table.
Decision-time came sooner than he had planned when his bank
underwent a restructuring. While considering a senior executive
position at another bank, Dawson went to New Directions to ponder
his priorities. "I spent a lot of time soul-searching," he
In the end, he decided that he did not want to commit to working
50 to 60 hours a week for the next several years. He preferred to
spend more time with his wife and two adult children and pursue
some interests he had postponed because of his time-crunching
career--stand-up paddling, bike riding, learning a new language and
taking up the piano.
Today, Dawson, who lives in Beverly, Mass., is working 25 hours
a week with his younger sister at the family's two hardware stores.
"My dad built a wonderful business, and I want to carry on his
legacy," he says.
Perhaps you need help figuring out what you want to do in
retirement--and you need some financial advice as well. You can see
one of a growing number of "financial life planners," mostly
fee-only certified financial planners. These advisers help you
determine what kind of life you want to lead--and then design a
financial plan that will enable you to pursue it.
The movement is the creation of George Kinder, president of the
Kinder Institute of Life Planning, which has trained financial
advisers in 25 countries. "Before you can make any appropriate
decision about money, you need to know what you're passionate
about," Kinder says.
Financial life planners often start the process by asking three
questions: If you had enough money, how would you live your life?
If your doctor told you that you have just five to ten years to
live (but you would feel healthy), would you change your life and
how would you do it? If your doctor told you that you had one day
to live, is there anything left unfinished?
Kinder says that these questions--as well as other
exercises--encourage people to focus on what's most important. For
instance, he says, one person may regret that he didn't spend more
time with his family, while another may realize that he'd like to
move to the country after living for decades in the city.
The planner offers the client concrete steps to turn a goal into
reality, Kinder says. The planner also looks at financial assets.
Perhaps the client already has enough money to retire early. Or
maybe the retiree can achieve certain goals by cutting
You can find a registered life planner near you and try some
exercises by going to
. Or you can buy Kinder's book,
Life Planning for You
(Serenity Point, $17).