Man pruning bonsai tree

Planning for a Fulfilled Retirement

My first notion of retirement came from a family friend, Jimmy, an airline pilot. After a long discussion about his career, he told us how he secured early retirement due to having bad knees. Jimmy was thrilled to now spend time on his passion projects with little financial concern.

More than a year later, Jimmy showed my family how he had been filling his days: using a computer program, he was mowing his lawn at a precisely different angle each week, creating a perfect cut. Our envy turned into concern. All this time and money spent on lawn-care equipment, with only a few shrubs to trim, seemed a bit excessive.

Looking back, I can’t help but think Jimmy missed a few essential takeaways. By fending off boredom with technology, he failed to use this time to pursue any true passions. The goal of retirement is to create meaningful life experiences. Building wealth is a helpful step towards this endeavor, but insightful goal planning is just as important.

Let’s look at three ways to start planning for a fulfilling retirement:

1. Classifying Leisure

Retirement is something you work hard for, so you should enjoy it. But recognize which activities will maximize joy by classifying leisure activities into two buckets: passive and active.

Passive activities include watching TV, listening to music or browsing the internet. Some passive activities are fine, but your daily routine should also involve active ones, such as exercising, socializing or volunteering. If you’re staying home more often, it’s easy to revert to only passive leisure. But think of it this way: you have more moments to reflect on what it is you love to do and to whom you want to give your time.

Maybe it’s creating a group on Zoom to organize donations and support for a common cause or replacing time in front of the television with work on your golf technique. Making music, writing poetry and gardening are all examples of active leisure, too. These types of activities bring the most joy to retirees, regardless of wealth levels.1 Knowing what you value most can help keep a healthier balance between the passive and active ends of the spectrum.

2. Passionate Goal Pursuit vs. Retirement Filler

Twenty-six percent of new retirees return to work within five years.2 And their reason for going back to the grind is surprising: needing a sense of purpose is often more important than money for those who return. These retirees left their passions at work and never planned how to sustain them in retirement.

So reflect on how you want to extend that sense of purpose from your work years into retirement. If you value the sense of achievement you get from presenting a successful project at work, then write a list of non-work activities that provide similar fulfillment. Many retirees claim they’re busier than ever, but are they busy pursuing their goals?

Truly being busy means engaging in passions, not just something-to-do activities (filler that can perpetuate passive leisure). Instead of filling your morning calendar by making pancakes in your kitchen for you and your dog, you could try to volunteer your skills locally. Or if the time you’ve spent traveling has increased your fluency in a language, there are opportunities to lend your translation skills to groups like TedTalks or Translators Without Borders. Feeling fulfilled means engaging in passions you love — and retirement can be the perfect setting to explore those interests.

3. Making Room for Change

So, your plans have changed. This might mean you’re looking at different retirement locations, or maybe you’re retiring even sooner than you envisioned. In any case, there are ways to continue planning after your original goals have taken on a new shape. As you begin to explore and practice active leisure, consider what makes the most sense. If your dream of moving overseas next year is out of the question, make a list of opportunities closer to home that offer access to what you enjoy.

As for major shifts in your retirement timeline — consider this an opportunity to take another look at your objectives and values. A conversation with your partner or a financial professional is likely in order. Talk about how you want to adjust your mindset in addition to your investment portfolio during retirement. These conversations can improve your wellness and make sure your retirement fulfills your goals.

Now that we’ve had a chance to explore some approaches to a more fulfilled retirement, it’s even easier to see why Jimmy’s idea of being ready to retire — stashing away cash for fun yard tools — didn’t sit well with me at the time. Everyone has different hopes for the future, and that’s why it’s so important to properly plan for what it is you want.

At In Good Company, we help our guests challenge their preconceived notions of retirement by taking a closer look at each person’s goals and values. Our workshops guide small groups through retirement visualization exercises. This style of learning helps employees nurture healthier relationships with wealth and relate values to retirement planning. So whether your specialty is cultivating a finely groomed lawn or making the perfect omelet, with a little creativity, a more complete idea of retirement is within reach.

1Guo, Tao, Yuanshan Cheng, Philip Gibson, and Louis J. Pantuosco. 2019. “Time Allocations and Self-Reported Happiness of Retirees: An Exploratory Study.” Journal of Financial Planning, 32 (3): 38–47.

2Maestas, Nicole. "Back to Work: Expectations and Realizations of Work after Retirement." Journal of Human Resources, vol. 45 no. 3, 2010, p. 718-748. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/jhr.2010.0011.