Expect Surprises in Retirement

Financially, your experiences have been mixed—and sometimes eye-opening.

A big thanks to all of you for sharing your retirement experiences (see Living in Retirement). I’ve been overwhelmed with e-mails—many more than I can acknowledge in a single article. So this will be the first of several columns, starting with a look at some of the things that have surprised you the most.

What struck me most is that you’re all so darn busy. “Before I retired, I made a three-page list of things to keep me busy,” writes Bob Gray. “Eight months after I retired, I found the list. I hadn’t had time to look at it.”

Karen Lojo keeps a weekly spreadsheet of things she would like to get done, but “it’s in pencil so I can reshuffle it.” Lojo has backpacked across the Grand Canyon, “but my closets are still not cleaned.” Likewise, John Russo discovered that “things that weren’t important enough to do when I was working aren’t important to me now.”

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Jim Turner surprised his family, who feared he would be at loose ends when he retired. Instead, “I replaced my work routine with my retirement routine: exercise in the morning, errands and civic work in the afternoon, and reading in the evening.” Turner’s second-biggest surprise: “I watch less TV than when I was working.”

Roger Van Cleve thought that he would spend more time on creative projects, such as brewing his own beer and learning to play the guitar. Instead, “the amount of time I spend playing sports has expanded” to include tennis, cycling and golf. Those guitar lessons “have slipped down the priority list.”

Marilee Morgan is also doing something she didn’t envision in retirement: getting up at 6:15 a.m. to take advantage of activities in her active-adult community. “I wasn’t a morning person before, but now I happily rise early, eager to enjoy the day. Go figure!”

The time factor. Keeping busy is the key to adjusting to all the extra time on your hands. “My biggest surprise is how fast time goes by,” writes Sally Zitzer. “I have now been retired for 15 years and it boggles my mind.” Ramin Hashemi says “the day goes by just as quickly as when I worked.”

But the transition can be rocky. At first, says John Walther, “I went a little bonkers and threw myself into every volunteer opportunity that looked palatable. Now I’m dialing back and trying to find the right balance.” After decades of productive work, “it’s hard to learn how to just relax,” says Walther. “Once I realized this, I started to enjoy the process.”

For some of you, productive work is still in the picture. “I was surprised that after anticipating retirement for so long, I lasted six months before starting my own part-time consulting business,” says Rob Jennings. For others, it’s the opposite: “I loved retirement right from the get-go and haven’t missed work at all,” writes Cindy Gnech. “In the eight years since I retired, I have worked for five whole days, and I complained almost the whole time about the things I couldn’t do.”

Financially, your experiences have also been mixed. “I’m spending much more than I expected in retirement because of all my free time,” says Dennis Maki. Like a number of other readers who retired too early to sign up for Medicare, Tom Whin was surprised at “how much our health insurance premiums went up every year after our COBRA coverage expired and we had to use Obamacare.”

On the plus side, Nancy Ashmore’s biggest surprise is that “we have more than enough money to enjoy exactly the retirement life we envisioned. Years of financial planning, maxing out the 401(k) and paying off all debt before retirement have given us a freedom that is truly exhilarating.”

Janet Bodnar
Editor-at-Large, Kiplinger's Personal Finance
Janet Bodnar is editor-at-large of Kiplinger's Personal Finance, a position she assumed after retiring as editor of the magazine after eight years at the helm. While editor, Bodnar was honored by Folio as one of its Top Women in Media. She is a nationally recognized expert on the subjects of women and money, children's and family finances, and financial literacy. She is the author of two books, Money Smart Women and Raising Money Smart Kids. As editor-at-large, she writes two popular columns for Kiplinger, "Money Smart Women" and "Living in Retirement." Bodnar is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University and is a member of its Board of Trustees. She received her master's degree from Columbia University, where she was also a Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Business and Economics Journalism.