Seven Rules to Guide Your Retirement

When is it time to retire? Your body will tell you long before your boss.

Financial statements, pension plans and buyout deals are all important factors, of course, but if you’re struggling to get through the work day, if exhaustion or the symptoms of an illness have become your closest companion, then it may be time to consider chucking the 9-to-5 life.

That’s what happened to me. In recent years, with post-polio syndrome my closest companion, my body was demanding an end to the long work hours and relentless stress. Did I listen? Not right away.

My mind worked fine, and I still enjoyed the job, if not the workload, so I felt no rush to end a 38-year career in print journalism. Besides, the official retirement age was still a few years off. But in early 2011, the signs could no longer be ignored: I was totally exhausted getting out of bed every morning, showering, dressing, transferring in and out of the car, then pushing to my fourth-floor office at the newspaper building. I arrived later every day, totally drained, and even the accommodations management made — to work from home a day or two a week — weren’t replenishing my energy.

It was time to retire.

Which might explain why I was ironically amused when I bumped into an AARP survey revealing that 40 percent of Baby Boomers turning 65 said they planned to work “until I drop.” I “dropped” several years shy of 65, but am convinced retirement will add a decade or two to my lifespan. As my longtime friend and fellow wheeler, Chris Farrell, said of the retirement decision: “Just do it. It won’t get easier. Leave something of yourself for yourself.” She is so right.

The decision to leave was made easier since I worked in an industry that’s rapidly downsizing. Hundreds of journalists around the country — with decades of experience and buckets of talent — are getting buyout offers. Most take them with heavy hearts. I took the offer gladly.

Still, there were pangs of guilt as I dropped out of the workforce because the shameful national unemployment rate for people with disabilities, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, stands at 13.7 percent. An even more startling DOL finding: only 20.8 percent of people with disabilities participate in the labor force.

Looking at it from a different perspective, I guess I’m one of the lucky ones who had long-term employment with the opportunity to save for retirement — even if it came sooner rather than later. Retirement came much too early for Farrell as well, who left her job as an attorney for the General Accounting Office in Washington, D.C., in 1986, because of chronic illness. She was 35 when she was forced to give up her career, and even though her income was “going down while her expenses were going up,” her body gave her no choice. “I couldn’t get off the couch even if it caught on fire,” she remembers, “I was inert; completely, utterly inert.”

Leaving Washington for a more restful life in North Carolina, Farrell faced a big adjustment: “It was very difficult not to feel like a productive member of society,” she says. “Also, the isolation was difficult. This had to do with the illness, not retirement per se.”

Now living in New England closer to family, she works on balancing her health with her life. “Living in a small, walkable village has made a social life possible during the limited times of day that my physical ability exists,” she says. “As my health has returned a bit and I have a few hours of productive time now and again, I’m able to be of some use.”

The lesson? Only you can decide the right time to retire, but if it’s something you’re considering, perhaps you can plan your future by learning from my mistakes:

Rule Number 1: Develop a plan for how you want to spend the days, months and years ahead.
Believe me, you don’t want to park in front of the television or computer 24/7 because that will lead to depression faster than eating a bag of salty potato chips. But, then, you also don’t want
a jam-packed post-retirement schedule.

On Oct. 1, 2011, my first day of retirement, I planned to sleep till noon; then clean out some closets, find some volunteer work, and add more classes to my teaching schedule. (I started teaching English courses for a local college a few years ago as a way to eventually supplement my retirement income. It was one of the wiser things I’ve done.)

By November, I was teaching full time, freelance editing for my former employer and considering a volunteer job that included early morning meetings, overseeing projects, and taking work home.

What had changed? I still had an energy-sapping schedule. So, after a couple of months, I learned to pace myself. I didn’t teach every course offered, stopped freelancing for my former employer and most importantly, learned to build my days around how I was feeling. If it’s not a good day, I rest. If I have energy, I do something.

Rule Number 2: It’s OK to procrastinate.
The happy, little secret about retirement is that you can put off to tomorrow what you don’t feel like doing today — because you’re not stuck in an office for most of the day.

If I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t commit to anything for at least six months or until I had a good idea how much energy I could realistically put into a volunteer job and part-time work and still have time for rest and maybe some fun.

Chris Farrell learned much faster than I about the importance of balancing health with daily life and not sapping precious energy reserves. She takes on projects — such as designing websites for community groups — which she tackles when she has energy. She stores up her reserves for the things she really loves — gardening and working with the local food co-op.

Rule Number 3: Don’t assume you can live on less.
With no daily commute, I buy less gas and no longer spend big bucks on clothes for the office. But what I didn’t factor into my retirement budget were higher utility bills (at home more); the increase in grocery bills (eat most meals at home) and the temptation to purchase in-home entertainment for the days when I’m resting (everything from an upgrade in cable to books, tech toys, hobby supplies, magazine subscriptions, etc.).

No matter how thoroughly you plan your finances for retirement, there will be some surprises. A word of advice: set aside a little cushion to pad any monetary blips.

Rule Number 4: Expect your sleeping patterns to be out of whack.
Whether you work nights, days, or somewhere in between, don’t think that suddenly you’ll develop “normal” sleeping habits in the post-work life. There were many, many nights that first year when I couldn’t fall asleep before 2 a.m., and couldn’t function without nine solid hours of sleep. (I’m still making up for 38 years of work-related sleep deprivation.) But it’s pure joy to turn off the alarm clock and sleep until your body wakes up naturally. And an afternoon nap is heaven.

Rule Number 5: Don’t let doctors rule your life.
For most of us, it’s easy to schedule a health-related appointment practically every day of the week. Monday: urologist. Tuesday: neurologist. Wednesday: physical therapy — you know the drill.
But nothing will put you in a post-work funk faster than spending too much time in the doctor’s office. My goal is to schedule no more than one per week. And on the bright side, you now have flexibility in appointment times — you no longer have to wait six months for a time slot that fits your work schedule.

Rule Number 6: Indulge your passions.
Remember that book you were going to write — or read? The class you wanted to take or the skill you wanted to learn? How about the promise to eat more healthfully or to exercise more if you had the time?

In retirement, you finally have the time to pursue your interests and
accomplish the goals delayed during the working years. But beware: you don’t magically undergo a personality transformation with your new lifestyle.

If you avoided trying something new before, you’ll likely want to avoid it still. But you’re the only boss you have to answer to now, so you might be open to taking some risks, like finally getting that pilot’s license or reading all of John Grisham’s works. It’s totally up to you.

Rule Number 7: Take your time making decisions.
There are post-retirement issues that still need to be addressed, even adapted, as the years go on. Hopefully, the answers present themselves when the timing is right.

Consider:
• How will I know the difference between taking care of myself (resting) and becoming isolated? 
I’m a homebody at heart, and don’t mind spending a string of days inside, but that can become a problem when living alone. Facebook is a poor substitute for face-to-face interaction with others, and too much “alone time” is bad for your mental health (as is too much Facebook time). It’s a particularly difficult issue in the winter if you live in northern climes, when the cold and snow force you inside for days on end.

• What kind of diet works when you don’t go to work every day and burn fewer calories?
Eating habits can go awry quickly when you’re home more (hmmm, time for another snack?), and that can translate into weight gain. It’s a challenge I face every day.

• Do I have the money for the things on my bucket list?
I figure I won’t be able to spend much on “extras” (like a new car) until I’m 65 and qualify for Medicare. Right now, health insurance premiums eat up my budget at an alarming rate. In fact, health insurance is one big, dark hole when it comes to early retirement.

• Will I need physical assistance for my daily needs? Can I afford it?
Yes, those are critical questions, but let’s save them for another day. Right now, I’d rather concentrate on enjoying life since I finally have the time — and some energy — to do just that.

Ahh, retirement — what a gift!

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