Will you survive the first year of retirement?
It’s not a facetious question. Retirement is a life-changing experience. Most people daydream about retiring. They fantasize about foreign travel, laying on the beach, working on hobbies, catching up with old friends, etc. There is nothing wrong with that but you need to be realistic. To help you gauge whether you are really ready to retire, here are a few questions for you to consider. Before leaping from 25, 35 or more years of working for the government and suddenly having time to do those things you have put off for decades, answer these questions. If you are married, it may be a good idea to discuss them with your spouse. You have worked hard for your retirement. We want to help you make the most of it. To retire successfully, you need to think through what you want.
Money will continue to be important. Most people think their expenses will decrease and perhaps they will. No more commuting expenses, no more expensive clothes to wear to business meetings, no more monthly parking fees just to get near the office so you can get to work on time, and fewer dry cleaning bills since you may be wearing shorts, sandals and a bathing suit as you enjoy your near retirement home.
Don’t be too rosy in your financial estimates. You may find you have more time to eat out than you did before and, if you do eat out a great deal, your expenses will go up. Remember you won’t be getting travel expense reimbursement as you did when you traveled for Uncle Sam. And those trips you have been thinking about may come true but, when they do, they may not be as inexpensive as you think. And those hobbies you always wanted to pursue? That may be good for your mental and your physical health but many retirees find themselves spending much more on recreational activities than they did when they were working and commuting five days a week. (A new set of golf clubs can become more pressing when you play 3-5 times a week.)
And don’t forget the cost of your health insurance. Federal retirees get a cost of living allowance. While you may have voiced dissatisfaction with a 3% raise as an active federal employee, you may find a 15% increase in health premiums will cost you more than you get with your new 1% cost of living increase. (These are just examples; the actual figures may vary dramatically but Federal retirees have been experiencing differentials like these in the past several years.)
Finally, many retirees are planning on using their Thrift Savings Plan to fund their retirement. That is what it is for but don’t abuse it. What type of return do you expect to get with your money? If you put your funds in the G fund, your money is safe but you will not increase your principle as inflation is likely to exceed your rate of return. If you put money in stocks, you may do much better in some years but there will also be years when your money goes down. If you think you will get 10%, 15% or more each year (just as you did in the late ‘90’s during the roaring bull market), think again and plan accordingly. You may want to talk to a financial planner about how to diversify your investments to give you a reasonable rate of return without taking too much risk.
In short, some people do have fewer expenses. But many retirees find their expenses go up and not down even though their income goes down when they quit working. If you are doing financial planning and being too optimistic in your estimates, the first year at home may not be as pleasant as you hoped.
Aside from the financial considerations, there are other considerations requiring honesty and a realistic assessment. Here are a couple of examples that can trip people up in retirement.
Do you travel a lot in your work? Perhaps you will discover you actually enjoyed getting on a plane once a month to visit your agency’s office in San Francisco or Washington, DC and staying in a hotel. Now that you are retired, if you really miss the travel, you will have to pay for those trips yourself.
Do you have a staff reporting to you? Your title, your office, your position in the bureaucratic hierarchy may be very important to you. Do you define yourself through your job? How will you react when these are no longer part of your daily life? Your spouse may not want to spend time scheduling your social calendar-you will be on your own. No one will be telling you where you have to be in order to make the next important policy decision. Will you be able to enjoy yourself when the biggest decision you make during the day is what time to have lunch or what time to tee off at the golf course?
Will your spouse miss your title and your position in the government hierarchy? Some spouses take great delight in telling friends about how important you are in planning the future direction of our country. Will she (or he) still feel the same when you are sitting at home during the day studying the TV schedule instead of advising Alan Greenspan or Donald Rumsfeld? Will you care when you find your former friends and colleagues talk about projects you know nothing about?
Is your spouse continuing to work? Will you resent it? Will your spouse resent you staying at home? What will this do to your marital relationship? Quality time together can do wonders for a relationship. Spending all your time together every day can end a marriage. Have you discussed these changes with your spouse? If not, you should before conflicts arise.
Have you thought about what to do next? Aside from the daydreaming during a staff meeting about how much you want to get away from the office, do you have a plan for spending time when you are not going to work every day? After you have mowed the lawn, washed the car, groomed the dog and taken your new Harley for a spin on every back road in the county, is there anything else you want to do?
Will you have a purpose? What will make you want to get up in the morning and enjoy your life? If you think you will make that decision after you retire and when you are laying in bed watching the Today show, you may want to delay your retirement a little longer and think through your future direction.
Federal employees have one of the best retirement systems in the country and you will have had the good fortune to benefit from it it. Unlike many private sector employees, your health benefits don’t get cut off when you leave government service. Unlike many companies, the government has not stopped contributing to your retirement plan. And you can usually plan when to retire because, unlike some companies, you aren’t likely to be unexpectedly fired on a moment’s notice because the company wants to bring in new people who work for less money or sales have suddenly dropped off. And, since you worked for Uncle Sam, it isn’t likely that the government will go out of business or that your retirement income will vanish along with a former employer.
Your retirement benefits can be the epitome of your government career. You worked hard for it. If you plan wisely, you can use the time to start a second career, travel, or fulfilling a dream you may have had all your life. This is your chance to do it. But plan ahead and be honest with yourself and know what is important to you. Retirement can be your dream come true. But if you don’t think it through, it is possible to find yourself unhappy, with little money, and wishing you never left the civil service environment you were accustomed to living within.
You have a great many options that most people will never have. We hope these questions will help you wisely consider these options and help you make decisions that will be right for you.