It’s Time to Change How We Talk about ‘Retirement,’ Starting with the Word Itself

Let’s retire the word retirement, which conjures images of rocking chairs and sunsets. Today, it’s all about achieving “vocational freedom,” a place where work is optional and life is an adventure.

A couple of hikers take in a view.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Kevin and Sara were a young couple in their early 30s passionate about the outdoor lifestyle and living life to the fullest. They had reached a point where they were ready to engage with a professional financial adviser to help guide them through their life full of future adventures.

In our first meeting I began my interview to learn more about who they are and what is important to them. I got to the part where I ask about goals and retirement. As I asked, “Tell me about retirement for you. What does that look like? When do you see that happening?” I got this deer-in-the-headlights look, and I could see them mentally checking out.

Kevin and Sara had no idea. Retirement seemed so far way, and the picture of retirement in their heads — sitting in rocking chairs drinking tea — is not one that they wanted for themselves.

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That is when I realized that “retirement” can feel a lifetime away for some clients, especially those who are younger. Some clients have a tougher time visualizing what they might want it to look like. The last thing advisers want is for clients to feel intimidated by having these types of conversations.

A New Way of Thinking about Retirement

I knew we had to change the dialogue if we were going to be able to help folks paint the picture of their future and help them get there. Moving forward, I began to ask clients about what they planned to do “when work was optional,” which morphed into a term I use now: vocational freedom.

Vocational freedom opens up a world of possibilities for people to imagine what their days would look like if they didn’t have to answer the alarm clock’s call, didn’t have to be in a certain meeting, or turn a report in at a certain time. It does not have to be at 60 or 65 or some other pre-determined age that society sets. It can be whenever a person wants to shoot for making it happen. It also does not mean you have to stop being completely productive. Maybe there is hobby that you want to turn into a career, or a line of work that you have always wanted to do. Whatever that is, it can be possible.

To get started working toward this goal, begin by writing down what you want this phase of your life to look like. Be sure to include a partner or spouse in the conversation who will be with you on this journey to help design and decide what you will do together and individually. Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Where do I want to live?
  2. How do I want to live?
  3. How will I spend my weekdays, my weekends?
  4. Would I like to give back?
  5. Will I travel and what type?
  6. Will I have adventure?
  7. Will I be healthy and physically strong?
  8. Who do I want to spend time with, conversely, who not?

These questions are only to be used as a starting point but will help get the conversation going in your mind to generate more questions and more answers about your vocational freedom masterpiece.

Get Those Goals Going

Next, begin prioritizing your goals and crunching the numbers. Start by asking yourself what the non-negotiables are as they relate to your goals. For example, if you want to take four international vacations a year, determine if you need first-class accommodations on each trip or if there is flexibility to go economy. If you are unfamiliar with what it might cost to have a certain type of lifestyle, do the research to get the data needed to support your goals. Working with experts such as travel agents, Realtors, accountants and financial advisers can help you to develop a plan to move closer to reaching your vision of what vocational freedom looks like for you.

Once you know where you want to go and the associated costs, it’s time to put a plan of action in place and start implementing it. Just like any other goal, you need to take the steps necessary to make it happen. One simple way to do this is to begin by automating your savings. Start by taking advantage of a 401(k) or another employer-sponsored plan and begin contributing. A good rule of thumb is to save around 15% of your income.

If taking a 15% bite out of your take-home is a tough pill to swallow, start smaller, but start! Begin by doing 5% this year, then put a reminder in your phone one year out to move to 7%, then 9% the next year, and so on, moving you closer to that 15%. If your employer does not offer a plan, you can set up your own account with an investment firm and have automated monthly transfers. The point is to get going, and to automate. The less you have to do with the decision of saving, the more you can save over time, and the closer you will move to your goal.

Our Couple Takes Their First Steps Toward a Future Without Rocking Chairs

Back to our clients from the beginning, Kevin and Sara. When we had our second meeting, we changed the dialogue from “retirement” to “vocational freedom,” and it completely changed the course of our conversation. Kevin is an engineer and has a passion for snow skiing. He shared that if there were no constraints, that he would love to be a ski instructor. We encouraged Kevin to start doing this now. Begin spending some time on weekends or vacation days here and there working as a ski instructor. Not only could he start to hone his skills, but he could make some extra money to put away toward that future vocational freedom lifestyle.

You can do just as Kevin did: Find something on the side to make extra money, move you closer toward your goal, and learn along the way. If you have enough money going toward your goals, start volunteering in the area that interests you.

Vocational freedom means different things to everyone and can happen at different times. Don’t be constrained by what the societal norms are for “retirement.” You don’t have to reserve yourself to the rocking chairs on the porch.

Through proper design, planning and taking action, you can make your vocational freedom look like whatever you want it to be. Whether it is taking a year off to live abroad or building a life where you control your time and schedule, your path to vocational freedom starts today. Now, put pen to paper, and start charting out your adventure!


Not Federally Insured | No Financial Institution Guarantee | May Lose Value. Springs Wealth Group, A financial advisory practice of Ameriprise Financial Services, LLC. Ameriprise Financial cannot guarantee future financial results. Investment advisory products and services are made available through Ameriprise Financial Services, LLC, a registered investment adviser. © 2020 Ameriprise Financial, Inc. All rights reserved.


This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

Chris Young, CFP®
Financial Adviser, Springs Wealth Group

Chris Young is a co-founder and financial adviser at Springs Wealth Group where he
focuses on working with individuals and businesses with a passion for the outdoors and
the outdoor lifestyle. He holds a Certified Financial Planner designation.