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Retirement is Not a Number


Sitting on a beach, drink in hand. You hear the waves gently rolling onto the shore, and struggle to decide if a nap or finishing a book is how you’ll spend the next few hours.

The ring of glass on glass fills the balcony as you and your spouse toast the lifetime of work that brought you here. Wine always tastes best in Italy, and you two have finally made it. 

With the final turn of the wrench, the housing is back in place. With that, you’re one step closer to having your ‘someday’ car back up and running. Grease and oil cover your hands as you take a long draw from the bottle, and contemplate the next steps. 

The three scenarios above are common retirement fantasies. After a lifetime of hard work and sacrifice, you hit a point where you can step out of the daily grind, and into the pursuits you’ve never had time for. Be it travel, projects, reading, community service, or just enjoying time in the hammock, most of us long for a day where we can call the shots in our own lives, without worrying about whether or not we will starve. 

It’s easy to focus on retirement as a number. Once you hit $X, you will be able to live on a set budget, have a withdrawal rate of Y%, and that should sustain your lifestyle in most cases. On the surface, that is a reasonable analysis of retirement, and certainly an attractive one. Most of us crave simplicity, and being able to reduce one of the most attractive goals in life (financial independence) down to a single metric draws people like a moth to flame. In particular, the FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) crowd fixates on their ‘number’, which is generally seen as the launching point where you can make huge lifestyle changes without much concern for their effect on your bank account. In certain corners of the internet, you can find thousands of threads where highly analytical people (both professionals and laymen) try to arrive at a number that will sustain a given individual for the rest of their lives. 

However, retirement is not an amount of money. Though there is a certain amount of money needed to pay the bills without income from a job, that is only one piece of the puzzle. Money is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the retirement most people desire. 

One of the oft-overlooked components of retirement is your health. Most of our post-work fantasies assume that we’re as healthy as we were in our 30s, and will be able to chase our passions with the same vigor. However, we often sacrifice our physical health on the road to retirement. In pursuit of our careers, we sleep less than we should, eat more than we should, and many Americans take up unhealthy ways to cope with the stress of the working world. While we sprint down the one-way corridors of time, we are more than willing to do incalculable damage to our bodies, and that damage becomes painfully apparent as we near retirement age. 

Another pillar of retirement are the people in your life. Even though retirement is an entirely personal concept, virtually everyone assumes that they will be spending retirement with people they love. Be it a spouse, your parents, your child or grandchildren, or even dear friends, almost no one has a fantasy of living in retirement without social connections. It is ironic, then, that so many of us will let those relationships degrade in favor of our careers. I’ve known many professionals who would forsake meeting with family and friends in favor of the ‘someday’ they would spend together. However, we aren’t guaranteed tomorrow, and every child’s recital that you skip is one you won’t get back. That’s not to say that there is never a time where work needs to take priority over a given obligation, but if you want to have healthy relationships in retirement, you need to invest in them the same way you would a 401(k). 

I view retirement as a phase in life that you move into. While money is definitely a crucial portion, it is also comprised of your health, your relationships, your passions, and your purpose. When I work with clients, I have to know more than the numbers in their accounts. I also need to know what you want out of life, and where you’d like to be in the future. Without that, I’m just making a number increase, and that isn’t fulfilling to either of us. 

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