Jonathan Look, Jr. in Cambodia
Jonathan Watching the Sunset in Cambodia

Why seeking the perfect retirement can be an obstacle to a great retirement.

Beliefs about what it takes to make a great retirement vary wildly. Ask a Millennial what their retirement goals are, and you are likely to get a vastly different answer than you would from a Baby-Boomer. Even financial planners can’t agree on when you should retire, or even how to finance a happy retirement. Financial expert and best-selling author Suze Orman says you should live frugally and not consider retiring before 70, and even then, you need to have at least $5 million saved up. Peter Adeney of the wildly popular blog Mister Money Mustache, who retired at 30, says you can follow his lead, get financially lean, retire as soon as possible and pursue your passions without the distraction of needing a paycheck.

These experts even disagree about what spending benchmarks you should use to determine your future needs. Orman asserts that you should use present income to set your retirement spending goals, while Adney says that you should take a hard look at your expenditures and set your retirement budget by concentrating only on things that matter. He believes that people with relatively high salaries who are happily living low expenditure lifestyles can retire ultra-early by rapidly building their nest egg and keeping their spending in check after retirement. In contrast, Orman seems to believe that even if you are a miser today, your current income drives your future needs, and for a happy retirement, you need to stay in the workforce, even beyond normal health spans.

Who is right? What unites all retirement philosophies is that they are designed to help you overcome your financial fears and make you comfortable transitioning into this new phase of life. As a person who opted to take early retirement at the age of 50, I can tell you that, no matter how much you have planned and saved, the day retirement becomes a reality is a scary one. Sure, finances are a big part of it, but breaking away from comforting routines in favor of finding new paths and taking on new challenges is unsettling as well.

As you contemplate retirement, your mind will play tricks to keep you anchored in a “good enough” present, even if it means sacrificing a better future. Your mind wants to keep you in your comfort zone, even though your heart craves new adventures and new challenges. While the sand passes irretrievably through the hourglass, our brains tell us to defer our dreams, stick to the familiar routine, and build in more safety.

When it comes to retirement, what is good enough? Henry David Thoreau said, “Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul,” and he is right. What is also right is that freedom is more enjoyable when we don’t have to worry about the necessities of the body. It gets confusing.

Here is the truth. There are some problems that money can help with, but money itself cannot fix our problems or give us fulfillment. A satisfying retirement requires mindfully picking the stuff we need and carefully choosing the things we allow to occupy our ever more precious time. It is a conundrum but, once you have planned to cover life’s necessities, and for some reasonable contingencies, isn’t enough, enough? Not everyone sees it that way.

Unlike many of my colleagues, when I retired, I decided to err on the side of reclaiming my time over accumulating more money. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy being an air traffic controller, but after 25-years, I longed for distant horizons more than I desired the nearby status-quo. When I left, I knew that I was taking a risk, however small, that my finances would come up short, and I may have to reevaluate later. What gave me to courage to retire was the stoic concept of “Memento Mori,” a Latin phrase meaning “remember you must die.” I didn’t want to die without having fully lived and explored other phases of life.

I know elderly retirees with ample pensions and millions in the bank who spend like misers because they don’t feel like they will ever have enough. I know some young retirees who spend their meager savings as if they will never run out and trust that serendipity and resourcefulness will get them through all situations. For me, as they teach in Buddhism, the sweet spot lies somewhere in the middle. A place where it is acknowledged that you can never remove all uncertainties, but take reasonable care to examine the possibilities, make a plan, and move forward. In other words, a good enough retirement. Because, as I have learned, “good enough” can be extraordinary!

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