Congratulations on Your Retirement: Here's How to Find Your Joy

Knowing how you want to spend your time in retirement and having a sense of purpose can prevent you from feeling unmoored and isolated.

A smiling older couple sit on the beach with coffee and their dog in front of a beach house.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

To help my clients visualize their retirement dreams and goals, I take them through a postcard exercise. I give them a stack of random postcards with all sorts of images and then ask them to pick five cards that represent what they want their retirement to look like.

Some years ago, my husband suggested we do this, too. We both chose postcards of sugary beaches and wide-open roads, confirming our desire to travel. But I also picked a picture of a young girl running through a meadow, a butterfly net clutched in her small hand. To me, that picture symbolized my future grandchildren. At the time, my youngest child was a toddler. Still, I knew that a worthwhile retirement for me would include being a significant presence in the lives of my grandchildren.

That goal is my retirement north star. It guides how my husband and I think about our retirement lifestyle, and also our finances. Depending on where our children land, we may want to have two homes, one near each of them. And maybe we won't spend as much time traveling as we had originally thought, enabling us to be around for birthdays, carpooling and Grandparents’ Day.

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Retire to something

I do this exercise with my clients because it helps clarify what they want from retirement. All too often, people stumble into retirement without much of a plan, leaving them feeling unmoored and isolated. For some people, retirement comes sooner than they want, often because of health issues or a job loss. They don't have a plan for how they'll spend the next 20, 30 or even 40 years. They don't know how they'll fill the hours and days stretching out before them.

The people I see having the happiest retirements are those who have a sense of purpose. They have a plan for how they'll spend each day. One of my clients retired from her job and now volunteers nearly 30 hours a week for a nonprofit — giving her the flexibility to decide which hours she'll work. Another client wrapped up her accounting career and now devotes even more time to the business she had started when she was still working. Yet another started a business in retirement based on an idea that had been brewing for years.

All these people say they're busier than ever in retirement. And loving it.

On the other end of the spectrum are those who have bought into traditional notions of retirement and believe that retirement is a retreat. They're the ones who say they want to play golf or just "relax" in retirement. In other words, they don't have a plan.

Without a plan, you could be setting yourself up for years of isolation and even depression. A Nationwide Retirement Institute study of recent retirees found that 28% found life in retirement to be worse than it was when they were working. After all, how many rounds of golf can you play? How much TV can you watch?

What will you do in retirement?

Since I'm a financial planner, it should come as no surprise that I urge my clients to have a retirement game plan.

For better or worse, work gives shape to our lives. Small interactions, like looking at photos of your colleague's grandchildren or hearing about your boss' recent vacation, bring us happiness. They keep us connected to others and remind us that they're part of the human family. In retirement, you must create those little interactions that together add up to human connection.

That's why I want to see people retire to something, not just retire from something. Here are some things you can do in retirement to keep yourself engaged:

  • Volunteer. There's no better way to be actively engaged in your community than by giving of your time. The beauty of volunteering is that you can do as much or as a little as you want. And you also have an opportunity to give of your talents to nonprofits that might not be able to afford to hire an expert.
  • Work part time. A part-time job can be a great way to supplement your retirement income — and maybe land some perks, too. If you love golf, a job at a golf course can help you meet other golfers and get some time on the links. A job at a craft store can get you discounts on supplies for your own crafting, in addition to your wages.
  • Join a group. Are you an outdoor enthusiast? A bridge player? A bookworm? There are groups for just about every interest. Check with a senior or community center to find like-minded people to do your hobbies with.
  • Start a business. Who says that entrepreneurship is a young person's game? An American Economic Review: Insights research paper suggests that business owners over 50 are more likely to succeed than a 30-year-old founder. Retirement is a great time to start a consulting business.

How will your finances fit in?

When you take the time to understand what you want out of retirement, you can shape your finances to support those dreams.

Nowhere was this clearer than when I did the postcard exercise with one client, a nurse in her 50s. The card she picked was a photo of a pair of leopard-print high heels. No one had ever picked this card before. I could barely contain myself waiting for her to finish picking her five cards so we could talk about the leopard-print heels.

My client said she picked the card because in retirement she wanted to be done not only with her career as a nurse, but also with the scrubs she wore day in and day out. She wanted a life filled with occasions to get dressed up and wear shoes like that. She wanted to have season tickets to concerts, symphonies and plays. She wanted to go to nice restaurants and have drinks at chic bars. In essence, she wanted a lifestyle change in retirement.

Her retirement financial plan had to match her aspirations. We researched how much season tickets to the symphony and community playhouse would cost and what it would take to build a wardrobe free of scrubs. Then we added these expenses into her retirement income requirements.

Different needs for different dreams

This doesn't mean that every retirement dream requires a fat nest egg. If you know that you're the type of person who will want to have a part-time job early in retirement because you crave human interaction, your retirement nest egg doesn't have to be as big. Likewise, people who plan to volunteer and spend time with family in their hometown might not need as much as someone who plans to travel six months of the year.

The point is this: By starting your planning early, your retirement vision can drive your whole plan. You'll know what you're working toward instead of stumbling into an unsatisfying retirement.

Securities offered through Cetera Advisor Networks LLC (doing insurance business in CA as CFGAN Insurance Agency LLC), Member FINRA/SIPC. Investment advisory services offered through CWM, LLC, an SEC Registered Investment Advisor. Cetera Advisor Networks LLC is under separate ownership from any other named entity. Carson Partners, a division of CWM, LLC, is a nationwide partnership of advisors.

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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.

Erin Wood, CFP®, CRPC®, FBSⓇ
Senior Vice President, Financial Planning, Carson Group

Erin Wood is the Senior Vice President of Financial Planning at Carson Group, where she develops strategies to help families achieve their financial goals. She holds Certified Financial Planner, Chartered Retirement Planning Counselor and Certified Financial Behavior Specialist designations.