Defining Your Retirement: A Judicial Approach

Defining Your Retirement: A Judicial Approach

October 05, 2021

“So what do you think?” she asked, staring across a desk piled with papers. 

Nearing the end of her 32-year teaching career, after years of diligent saving and several weeks gathering financial facts, she asked a simple question. 

“When can I retire?”

At that moment, I was reminded of an interview I had seen years before between the comedian Stephen Colbert and the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  Colbert asked Justice Ginsburg to answer a question that he claimed was dividing our nation:

“Is a hot dog a sandwich?”

Justice Ginsburg smiled and patiently replied, “You tell me what a sandwich is, and I’ll tell you if a hot dog is a sandwich.”

In other words, we need to define terms to answer the question.  And so, following RBG's example, I answered the question there on the desk before us.

“You tell me what retirement looks like, and I’ll tell you if you’re ready to retire.”

And so we began a series of conversations that challenged her to imagine the possibilities for her retirement.  We talked less about bucket lists and more about what was meaningful to her – time to think, to explore, and pursue things that her busy schedule had so far kept out of reach.

Over the years, I have found that retirement expectations change rapidly, and Covid accelerated the rate of change.  In response to changing expectations, there are a few questions that I like to ask now:

Are you completely done, or just mostly done working? 

You won’t be alone if you decide to continue working after you retire.  This year’s report from the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) found more than half of workers surveyed are planning a gradual transition to retirement, rather than a full stop.[i]  Some may choose to work longer for financial reasons, while others will see an opportunity to stay engaged or find purpose doing something they truly enjoy.  Regardless the reason, if working even part time interests you, it belongs in your financial plan. 

Where would you like to call home? 

Would you like to stay in town, or move out to the country – or move to another town, or another country?  Covid further weakened the ties that historically kept people in place after they retire.  If a person could work from home, or from anywhere, does she really need to stay put when she retires?  There are practical, financial, and emotional dimensions to consider when choosing a place to call home.  My advice is to consider the possibilities, and if another location calls to you, give it a home in your long-term financial plan. 

How would you like to spend your time? 

Advertisers often portray retirement as an extended vacation.  Models in stock photos lead the sporting life under cloudless skies and suggest a retirement of happiness and fulfillment.  While it is true that we have more time in retirement for activities that we enjoy, research suggests that’s not what retirees are thinking about.  A recent study by AgeWave and Edward Jones found 94 percent of retirees surveyed think a great deal about activities that will give a sense of purpose, meaning and fulfillment.[ii] 

From a financial planning perspective, putting numbers behind whatever calls to you is easy.  But first, we need to know who, or what, is calling. 

Do you need more time to think about your answers?

It is normal not to have complete and ready answers to these questions.  Sometimes, we need a high-level assessment of our financial situation to help sharpen our focus.  At the same time, I don’t recommend we start with a calculator, financial statements or tax returns.  There will be a time and place to study the financial details.  When that time comes, we have great tools to help make sense of the numbers and stay on track as they change.

The most important part of getting ready for something is knowing what we’re getting ready for.  It is okay to take time, and some risks, in defining our retirement.  I’m always interested to learn more about what people have in mind.  If you’d like a sounding board for your ideas, you can click here to schedule a time to talk


[i] Employee Benefit Research Institute, 2021 Retirement Confidence Survey

[ii]The Four Pillars of the New Retirement: What a Difference a Year Makes, An Edward Jones and Age Wave Study: June 2021

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