Is Retirement Broken? Inconceivable!

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Do you remember the scene from The Princess Bride where Vizzini keeps using the word "inconceivable" at all the wrong times?  Inigo Montoya finally corrects him: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."  

When it comes to the word "retirement" I feel a little like Inigo must have felt. I keep hearing people use that word and I don't think it means what they think it means. Most think it is synonymous with things like travel, leisure, adventure and fun. It is the time in their life when they will do everything they have always dreamed of. 

A recent study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that, when it comes to retirement, perception may be different than reality. The study, called the American Time Use Survey , analyzes how different age groups of Americans spend their day. 


As you might imagine, everyone spends time sleeping, eating, shopping, working and enjoying leisure activities. How much time we spend on those different activities varies depending on our life-stage. Students understandably spend more time on educational activities. People in their prime working years spend more time at the office.

How people reallocate their time when moving from their working years into retirement can tell us a great deal about the state of retirement in America. Do we spend our Golden Years living life to the full or does retired life look suspiciously like our working years?

The Results

To get an idea, I compared two groups of people from the study: those in their prime working years (55 to 64) and those in the years typically associated with retirement (65 to 74). The study showed that those in retirement spent less time on things like working, educational activities, and caring for others like their children. They spent more time on things like personal care, eating, household activities, shopping, leisure, civic activities and talking on the phone. In all, a typical retiree took 2.5 hours per day away from activities like work and added those 2.5 hours into activities like leisure. 

The Takeaway

If that number surprises you, you're not alone. It surprised me too. The study seems to show that the typical day in retirement doesn't look drastically different from the typical day during your working years. Rather, it is a reallocation of 10-20 percent of our day from things that we are obligated to do to things that we choose to do. Said another way, retirement happens at the margins. You won't be handed a 30 year uninterrupted block of time at your retirement party to do with what you want. You will be given a few extra hours each day. How disciplined and creative you are with those few extra hours will largely determine how fulfilling your retirement years will be. 

How are current retirees doing in that regard? The numbers are a little concerning. According to the BLS study, retirees are currently allocating about 9.45 of their extra hours each week to leisure activities like travel, recreation, reading and socializing. That seems like a promising start. Unfortunately, the bulk of that time (5.42 hours to be exact) is spent watching T.V.  The rest is spent on things like relaxing (about an hour), socializing (44 minutes), and activities like travel (a whopping 3.6 minutes).  

That's not exactly the stuff that retirement dreams are made of.  So why are people choosing the television over travel and other retirement pursuits? It is likely because more and more people are entering retirement financially unprepared and without a clear idea of what they want to do. In other words, television is winning by default. How can we do better?  

Save enough -Some of the best things in life are free, but pretty much everything else costs money. If your plans include travel, hobbies, a vacation home or anything else that costs money, it's important to make sure you've set enough aside. I'm sure many retirees in the BLS study would love to do more with their time, but they just can't afford it. Before retiring, work closely with a trusted adviser to make sure that you are on track to save enough to fund the type of retirement you want.

Simplify -During retirement you are given the same 24 hour day that you had during your working years. The more efficiently you are able to handle things like cleaning the house, getting groceries, mowing the yard, and going to the doctor, the more time you will have to allocate to things like family, relationships, education, adventure, community, hobbies, travel, and health. Do everything you can to simplify, condense, consolidate, minimize, or outsource the maintenance so you can be free to spend more of each day focusing on milestones.

Have specific plans -As you transition into retirement, it's helpful to have specific, new plans that will force you to steer off the well-worn path you've become accustomed to and proactively pursue your new goals. If you don't have specific new plans, it's easy to fall into a routine that doesn't look much different from your working years, save for sleeping in a little bit and having more time to run errands.

Retire to something, not from something -Ralph Waldo Emerson once said "Don't be pushed by your problems. Be led by your dreams." Retiring to escape a job is a recipe for misery and discontent. Retiring to pursue things that you are passionate about is a recipe for meaning and fulfillment. 

Dream big -When you dream big, something happens. It changes how you think and how you act. It changes the types of questions you ask. It inspires and changes those around you. What are your dreams for the future? What is the vision you have, not just for retirement, but also for the rest of your life? If you can't answer that question or if your answer doesn't really inspire you, then stop everything else you're doing and really think that through. Don't settle for more Seinfeld reruns when retirement can be so much more.  

Don't quit learning-  Those 65 and older in the BLS study reported spending zero hours per day on educational activities. That is unfortunate. Learning new things is a key element to an interesting, rewarding retirement. It helps to keep your mind sharp. It helps you figure out what you like. It helps you discover new things. It gives you people to interact with. It provides personal satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment. Be a lifelong learner.  

So as you head into retirement, remember to spend your time wisely. An hour here and there can make a big difference as long as you spend that time doing the right things. Be intentional with your day and having a mediocre retirement would be, well…inconceivable.

FPA member Joseph R. Hearn is the Vice President at Teckmeyer Financial and author of the books If Something Happens to Me and The Bell Lap: The 8 Biggest Mistakes to Avoid as You Approach Retirement .



The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The NASDAQ OMX Group, Inc.

Copyright © 2010 FPA All Rights Reserved


This article appears in: Personal Finance , Retirement

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