Lessons on retirement from the experts: retirees

Trudy and Paul Schuett are still a decade away from retirement. But that defining event has been on their minds, at least indirectly, ever since they moved from Detroit to Yuma, Ariz., in their mid-30s. Surrounded by older neighbors, friends, and relatives, they absorbed, as if by osmosis, the positive and negative comments people made about retirement choices.

"It's totally changed our outlook on retirement," says Mrs. Schuett, a library aide. "We're already planning right now what we want to do. We're talking it over. Do we want to stay here? Do we want to move up North to be with our son? A lot of people have regretted leaping in without really seeing where they're going."

As the first baby boomers turn 60 and approach a new stage beyond full-time careers, retirement advisers are trying to spread an important message: Leaping in without planning could lead to uninformed or impulsive decisions and the possibility of mistakes and regrets. Although some baby boomers are already considering future finances, housing, and activities, others are taking a mañana approach, largely ignoring these issues.

"Many people don't give any thought to retirement until they get there," says Bruce Juell, who leads retirement-planning seminars at the University of Southern California. "They think, 'I'll love this. I don't have to get up in the morning. I don't have to shave. I can play golf, go on trips.' But after a few months, they're bored. If they had a choice, they'd go back to work."

In an age of shrinking pensions, rising healthcare costs, and increasing longevity, many current and future retirees rank money as their biggest concern. In a MetLife study released last month, nearly two-thirds of 55- to 59-year-olds and almost half of 60- to 70-year-olds wish they had done better financial planning.

"The people who are most regretful are those who have retired without benefits," says David DeLong, who conducted the study. Although he notes that retirement planning is more complicated today than in the past, he adds, "It isn't always the people who are richest who are happiest. Some people living on fairly limited incomes are actually having the time of their lives. Income is not the only predictor of satisfaction in retirement."

Anne Hartman of Truro, Mass., a retired career counselor who now advises retirees, hears other kinds of dissatisfaction. "The most regrets seem to come from people who enter retirement abruptly, without daydreams, thoughts, or plans," she says. "They haven't talked with their life partner to learn what is on his or her mind. They have neglected to explore what might satisfy them. They retreat. Or they go into the community with unrealistic expectations about work, about volunteering, about community opportunities, only to be disappointed."

Mr. Juell, author of "The Retirement Activities Guide," urges people to "find a need and fill it." A passionate advocate for productivity in the later years, he sees "a lot of wasted talent." He even proposes that the government appoint an unpaid "retirement productivity czar" to encourage involvement in meaningful volunteer work.

Some people learn from their parents' mistakes. "In a typical case, their parents had put off retirement, and then it was too late," says Robert Weiss, author of "The Experience of Retirement." "They had plans to travel or maybe just take it easy. But by the time they retired, they didn't really have good years. People who could tell that story about their parents used it as an admonition to themselves: 'Don't you repeat that.' "

David Rourke, who heads a retirement-planning firm in Needham, Mass., offers similar "don't wait too long" advice to clients worrying needlessly that they can't afford to retire. "They save and save, and don't want to start drawing from their savings," he says. "A lot of single women think they can't touch it."

In his meetings with clients, other subjects inevitably come up. "They want to know, should they stop working, what do they do after they stop working, and should they downsize their house. That's a big one."

Housing is also a big subject among Schuett's acquaintances in Yuma, especially those who have had second thoughts about living in a mobile home or recreational vehicle. "We've encountered people who really missed their house," she says. "It's a lot smaller and a lot less convenient than they were led to believe by brochures and salesmen. It's hard, especially if you're used to having a basement and an attic."

Others have told Schuett they moved to the Sun Belt too impulsively. "They didn't really know what they were getting into. It's so hot in the summer." She urges prospective retirees considering a move to a different area to take a short-term rental for a month or two to see what the community and climate are like.

Yet even planning, however important, has its limits. "There's a pretty significant gap between what people expect to do and what they end up doing," says Mr. DeLong, author of "Lost Knowledge: Confronting the Threat of the Aging Workforce." "At 55 they might say, 'Oh, I'm going to work until I'm 75.' That may not happen."

For Albert Sutkus of Bedford, Mass., there was no time to plan when his employer, a wire and cable company, announced a downsizing. "They told us to take [the severance package] and run." In the 20 years since then, he has engaged in varied volunteer activities. He now runs the fix-it shop at the Bedford Council on Aging.

"Everyone has great expectations," Mr. Sutkus says. "They project their life and future life, and it doesn't always work out the way they planned. I'm alive, I've got a good wife, good children. Minus some medical problems, what else can I ask for?"

While some people forget to plan, Hartman finds others making another mistake. "They ignore the magic of serendipity - that opportunity that appears when you are out looking for and doing something else. There is that sense of possibility, adventure, exploration." She and her husband have both found serendipitous activities in retirement, he as a town selectman and she as a member of a chorale.

For the Schuetts, who expect to retire at 65, the next 10 years will involve "working on having savings for our backup money." She adds, "Both of us are making sure we have things to do. We'll probably end up doing volunteer work. That's what my parents did. They were a lot happier having something to do." Already the couple has spent years volunteering for programs that help seniors.

"For some people, retirement is the best thing they ever did," Schuett says. "Some people just blossom. They're not doing their same old job. They find a volunteer job they really enjoy. They're having a whale of a time."

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