Retirement planning: it’s not just about the money

June 2, 2014
golf man in white nki

It’s amazing how often the word “golf” crops up in my conversation with retirement counsellors Diana Mills and Sue Morgan. And not in a good way. It seems men on the cusp of retirement fear they’ll end up on the golf course seven days a week. That’s the fate that can befall the retiree who lacks a plan. Life just slips away between the tees. “More planning goes into a two-week holiday than goes into retirement,” Diana tells me. We’re not talking about the financial plan, now an understandable obsession of older Australians. We’re talking about the life plan. Given it’s not our generation who’ll be compelled to work till 70, most of us face 20 or 30 years in retirement, one-third of a life-time. And retirement counsellors, also known as retirement coaches or advisers, are here to help us through.

You might think you don’t need a retirement coach, or a plan. And some people with hobbies, friends, grandchildren, and networks make an easy adjustment. At social events when asked what they do, they don’t say, “I’m an ex-judge.” Or an ex-anything. They’re comfortable with the word “retired.” The rest of us are confused or maybe terrified. Loss of identity, status, and purpose threaten. Either we’ve been pushed off the cliff into retirement or jumped, hoping for a safe landing. And many are thinking “What are we to do with the rest of our lives?” Retirement counsellors will say, of course, that some of us need professional guidance – an independent person, skilled in asking the right questions, being a sounding board, and helping us see our true selves and the opportunities that abound. And maybe we do need them. Senior executives, for example, used to bossing hundreds around, can be clueless about their own retirement. One female leader, newly-retired, wanted to do nothing but sit in her pyjamas and read. But she couldn’t give herself permission to do so. Diana and Sue, who run Life Portfolio, let her know it was ok, and three months later, thoroughly bored, she came back to make a plan.

So what do retirement coaches do? They talk with you a lot, do online assessments and use other diagnostic tools to prompt you to reflect deeply and clarify your goals. Questions like: If you decide to do paid work in retirement would your main reason be financial or non-financial? When you retire will most of your friends still be at work? You get detailed feedback and a report, and maybe referrals. And sometimes you get reality checks. Many ex-lawyers want to join a company board but board positions are scarce. Fat businessmen with athletic, younger wives want to climb Everest but have to be brought to earth. “The one I have in mind, to his credit, got himself fit,” Diana said. Surprising numbers fail to properly discuss retirement with their spouses. One man who resigned without having warned his wife was regularly kicked out of the house. He found consolation on a golf course. A joint counselling session with the spouse may help avoid such an outcome.

Kathy Keele, former head of the Australia Council, found the dialogue with the Life Portfolio counsellors helpful in sorting out her priorities. After 20 years in Australia, she came to the realisation she wanted to return to the US, be close to her family, re-connect with old friends, and stop working so hard: “I’m getting involved in the local arts scene and am volunteering in the community here in Gig Harbor [a small town in Washington State],” she emailed me. “I’m back to playing racquetball and golf and of course, running… It’s not quite six months and it’s been a wonderful move so far.”

Andrea Hull, formerly CEO of the Victorian College of the Arts, got good advice before her retirement five years ago. And today she draws on it to mentor others through the transition. Her consultancy is part of a diverse, busy life. “These five years have been the most deliriously happy and expanding of my life,” she said. She’s a firm believer in having a plan for retirement, or what she calls, the “architecture” in place. “Things are not serendipitous in this world,” she said. “You have to plan, get your architecture clear, be in charge rather than vulnerable to circumstance.”  In fact you need Plan A, B and C. Plan A is your preferred future (the corporate board, maybe), B is the realistic one; and C the dream.

As an executive Andrea had devoted 80 per cent of her time to work. Now the division is one-third for earning, one-third for “giving back”, one-third for family, friends and “me”. It’s a formula that’s worked pretty well. She was also determined “not to repeat myself.”  Stepping away from the arts, she’s both deputy chair of the National Museum of Australia and of the Breast Cancer Network of Australia. “I didn’t waiver from my determination to live life differently,” she said.

For the uncertain and overwhelmed, formal retirement counselling may be useful. (It isn’t cheap, starting at around $1500, and the field lacks proper accreditation). But for everyone, retirement – and the lead-up years – can be an occasion for re-assessment: what’s important to us, how do we derive self-worth, how do we want to divide our time? For some golf is the perfect solution, but probably not for all of us, and not seven days a week.

Do you think having a plan is a good idea? Who helped you in adjusting? Please Comment.

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