“Happiness,” it’s been said, “is like a butterfly. The more you chase it, the more it will evade you.” In other words, by actively pursuing a happy state, you reduce your chances of achieving it.
That may be true from a philosophical standpoint, but when it comes to retirement planning, new research suggests there may in fact be specific steps you can take to enjoy a more rewarding post-career life.
Researchers from The American College, Eastern New Mexico University, and Texas Tech looked at financial, lifestyle and other data on 1,526 retirees to see what makes for a more satisfying retirement.
When it comes to having a more enjoyable retirement, the experiences of older Americans shows that there are three main ways you may be able to tilt the odds in your favor.
1. Spend more money on having fun.
When the researchers examined how retirees spend their money — on everything from cars and housing-related items to food and insurance — they found that spending in only one category tended to predict retirement satisfaction: leisure, or “experiential commodities” as they say, which includes such activities as dining out, travel, entertainment, and hobbies.
It’s hardly shocking that splurging on dinner at a nice restaurant will leave you feeling more warm and fuzzy inside than forking over the same sum to have your car’s oil changed and the tires balanced and rotated.
But don’t put the bump in satisfaction down to mere hedonism.
Rather, it’s because shelling out dough for leisure activities — or what one of the study’s co-author’s, The American College’s Michael Finke described to me as “social spending” — takes us outside of ourselves and keep us more engaged with the world.
You don’t want to overdo it, though, and have an initially blissful retirement devolve into a survival test in your dotage because you spent too freely on leisure pursuits early on.
But to the extent you have discretionary funds built into your retirement budget, don’t be afraid to target them to activities that give you the biggest happiness bang for your buck.
2. Nurture your personal relationships.
How close you feel to family and friends can also affect how much you enjoy retirement. For example, the researchers found that when it comes to relationships, how well you and your spouse get along had the biggest impact — even larger than that of leisure spending — with retirees who described their relations with their spouse as being very or quite close likely to experience higher levels of life satisfaction than those with a poor spousal relationship.
This stands to reason. After all, if you’re married, your spouse is the person you’re probably going to be spending the most time with. And if that relationship is sour, it will likely be harder for you to truly savor other aspects of retirement.
Surprisingly, the researchers found “no evidence to support children contributing to retirees life satisfaction,” although having close relationships with friends and, to a lesser extent, other family members does.
I have to admit I did a double-take on this assertion about children, as it seems inconsistent with the importance most parents place on their relationships with their kids.
But the issue here isn’t how much we love or value our offspring, but whose company is likely to provide us with the most enjoyment in retirement. “And it appears that the people we get the most satisfaction from spending time with,” says Finke, “may not be our children, but the friends with whom we have more in common and share similar interests.”
In any case, relationships, not to mention physical intimacy, can play a major role in how much you enjoy life after work. So as you near and enter retirement, you’ll want to be sure to evaluate your relationships with the people who matter to you and try to sustain and improve those relationships (and if possible cultivate new ones) as you age.
3. Do all you can to maintain your health.
You can also improve your shot at a happy retirement by staying healthy. Indeed, retirees who reported they were in good, very good, or excellent health were more likely to feel satisfied with their retirement than those with poor or even fair health. What’s more, health status was even more likely to lead to retirement satisfaction than good relationships or leisure spending.
Other research bears out just how much good health is linked to retirement happiness. According to a recent Nationwide Retirement Institute survey, a third of recent retirees say that health problems are interfering with their retirement.
Of course, you don’t have absolute control over your health. But there are a number of things you can do to reduce the chance that an illness or other physical problems will cast a pall on your post-career life, including staying active and exercising regularly, getting regular checkups, and receiving proper treatment for any ongoing health issues.
Aside from enhancing your enjoyment of retirement in general, looking after your physical well-being may also help you feel more financially secure by possibly lowering the amount of money you’ll have to shell out for health care, which is one of retirees’ largest expenses.
There are other ways aside from those mentioned in this paper that may also be able to help you can improve your prospects for a more satisfying retirement. For example, a 2015 Merrill Lynch report found that seniors, who give back in some way, such as by volunteering, were more likely to say they were happy and had a strong sense of purpose in their lives.
To make your retirement years truly golden, understand what may be coming your way.
Many of us look forward to retirement as the reward for a lifetime of hard work. While the post-work years can truly be golden for those who plan for them, many retirees are caught off guard by the facts of their new life. Here are six things you should know about before you leave the working world for good.
1. Required minimum distributions can seriously raise your costs
Once you reach age 70 1/2, you're typically required to take money out of your traditional IRA and your traditional 401(k) plan each year. While those distributions start relatively small, they increase as a percentage of your account balance each year after that until you reach age 115.
Withdrawals from these account types are treated as taxable income, which means you'll owe income tax on the amount distributed. This increase in your taxable income may expose your Social Security benefits to taxation as well. As if that weren't enough, your Medicare Part B premium also rises along with your income. If your income is high enough, Part B can cost you as much as $428.60 per month.
Those are some tremendous costs to bear for accessing your own retirement savings.
2. Medicare premiums can eat up your Social Security increase
Most retirees are relieved to find out that their Social Security benefit can receive an inflation adjustment every year to help keep pace with rising costs. What few realize, however, is that raising Medicare Part B premiums may wind up chewing through most, if not all, of that entire increase. Thanks to the "hold harmless" provision, hikes in Medicare Part B premiums can eat up all -- but not more than -- the increase in a recipient's Social Security check.
The table below shows how that has worked in recent years. Standard Medicare Part B premiums increased from $104.90 per month in 2015 to as much as $134 per month in 2017. They're expected to remain at $134 in 2018, but that's cold comfort to a retiree whose net monthly Social Security check has gone up by less than $8 since 2015 because of Medicare Part B premium hikes.
3. It gets substantially harder to wait out a bad market once you retire
While you're working and adding money to your retirement accounts, your salary covers your costs of living. That makes it much easier for you to power through a nasty bear market and wait for the ensuing recovery. Indeed, in many respects, while you're still working, you can look forward to bear markets as an opportunity to buy great companies' stocks on sale.
Once you retire and start pulling money from your portfolio to cover your costs of living, however, a down market takes on an entirely different meaning. If you need to sell stocks to pay your bills, a market slump may leave you with no choice but to sell at a low point and rapidly deplete your retirement assets. That's why you should structure your retirement finances so that you have at least a five-year buffer of bonds and cash to see you through bad spells. Then you won't be forced to sell during a typical downturn.
4. You could finish retirement with a larger nest egg than you had when you started it
A common guideline for retirement spending is known as the 4% rule. This rule indicates that with a diversified stock and bond portfolio, you can spend 4% of the initial value of your nest egg in the first year of your retirement and then increase your withdrawals annually based on inflation. Following that strategy, over the course of a 30-year retirement, you'll be very unlikely to run out of money.
The benefit of following the 4% rule is that it has been back-tested and shown to survive some pretty tough market conditions. The potential downside, however, is that because the rule was designed to withstand tough market conditions, you may end retirement with more money than you had when you started it -- especially if you're invested primarily in stocks, which have far outpaced inflation over the long term.
Michael Kitces of Pinnacle Advisory Group analyzed models of the 4% rule over various 30-year periods all the way back to the late 19th century, and he found that the median follower of the 4% rule would end up with about 2.8 times their starting balance at the end of those 30 years.
So what's wrong with ending retirement with more than you started with? Well, as the old saying goes, you can't take it with you. If that money is available to you at the end of your retirement, it means you didn't spend as much as you could have earlier in your retirement, when you may have been able to enjoy it more.
5. Other than health-related costs, your expenses may actually go down in retirement
Americans' annual household spending tends to decrease once a family is headed by a person aged 55 or older, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's partly because they have paid off their mortgages, and their adult children are self-sufficient. They also enjoy various tax benefits like a larger standard deduction, greater medical-expense deductions, and freedom from the Social Security and Medicare payroll tax.
There's also the fact that people generally slow down as they age. While early retirement may be marked by periods of frequent travel, older retirees tend to stay put more and thus spend less. Keep that in mind as you plan out your retirement, because you'll want to be able to spend more while you're young enough to enjoy that spending to the fullest.
6. You still have 24 hours in your day and seven days in your week
Depression is a widespread issue among retirees. When you leave the workplace, you lose the regular socialization that goes with it, along with the daily mental and physical activity. The deaths of aging friends and family members are also a contributing factor. The happiest retirees find meaningful ways to fill their days. Caring for family members, charitable volunteer work, or even a low-stress job can keep them active and provide them with purpose, stimulation, and social support.
Working late in life is not a sign of failure. Even Warren Buffett, one of the richest people in the world, chooses to keep working despite the fact that he's well into his 80s. His secret is doing work that he loves, finds meaning in, and can continue to do despite his age. While you may never be CEO of a multibillion-dollar business, you can certainly use him as inspiration to keep active and engaged well into your golden years.