Plan ahead to embrace the four stages of retirement

Doug May
Doug May

Planning is vital to enjoying a happy and peaceful retirement — not just financial planning, but preparation in a wide range of areas. My investment and retirement planning practice breaks planning issues into four distinct stages. We encourage people to start planning at least 10 years before hitting their retirement dates.

While successful retirees share the trait of planning for retirement, many people appear to be overwhelmed by the thought of laying the foundation for success in the final season of life. However, those who don’t plan increase the anxiety they experience and potentially miss out on time-sensitive opportunities that could improve their financial situations in retirement.

May-Investments breaks the planning process into four discrete stages and then applies complex retirement planning software to give clients a sense of what their financial future could look like. While the planning tool is sophisticated, more than anything else it’s going through the process itself that makes the big difference.

In the first stage of retirement, clients are still working and accumulating assets. One of the primary questions to answer is: How much is enough? Or, as the insurance ads used to say: What’s my number?

Another key question is when clients should file for Social Security benefits. This is an area in which poor planning can lead to irreversible mistakes.

In the second stage of retirement — prior to taking Social Security benefits — the question is whether or not to factor part-time work into the equation. A planned work slowdown can both enable an earlier retirement and increase satisfaction in retirement. The vocational transition this involves also makes it a great time to consciously develop new social networks that, once in place, will help people through the rest of their lives.

The third stage involves full, active retirement. With  retirement income and Social Security benefits kicking in, these folks often become some of the most active people in the community. Days are filled with travel, leisure activities and community involvement reflecting each person’s passions and expertise. While this is the stage most people think about when planning for “retirement,” the prior two stages are even more important in helping people truly enjoy this third stage of maximum activity.

The fourth stage, full retirement, involves handling the health and other challenges people face during their final season of life. In this stage, people cement their legacies in both spiritual and financial arenas. Hopefully, people create memories for others that build them up even as a new set of financial risks and health challenges is managed.

As they draw down financial resources, many retirees must decide whether or not to annuitize financial risk  — that is, hand that risk off to others. Although this is the time when long-term health care plans are put into effect, it’s probably too late to craft a plan. That issue should be addressed much earlier, when more options remained available.

Starting early, breaking things down into smaller and more manageable stages and systematically reviewing decisions ensures that a retirement plan is current, flexible, comprehensive and implemented properly. As with most disciplines, it’s something many people will implement easily on their own. But most will need a coach on the side to structure the process and bring the right tools to the table. The only way to lose in the planning process is to fail to start.

Like life, retirement is a process rather than a destination. There’s no single “number” above which your financial wealth will assure a happy and healthy retirement. Happiness and peace of mind require a concerted planning effort, but planning in the fun sense — preparing for a season of life focused on passions and relationships beats the daily office grind, even for those who enjoy their jobs.

Embracing these four stages of retirement in the planning process and beyond can help you retire right and enjoy the opportunities that await you beyond your working years.