My wife and I have attended a series of retirement seminars, hosted by our local senior citizens center called Founders Hall. The moderator told us that we would be covering every aspect of retirement, except for money: How to find new meaning in life. What to do with your time. Whether to stay in your old home, or relocate to a retirement mecca.
And yet, the most important lesson I took away from this week’s seminar hit the question of money right on the head.
The lesson doesn’t involve any practical tips, like downsizing your living quarters or paying off your mortgage or starting to sell your old furniture on eBay or your new craft projects on Etsy. It involves an attitude adjustment.
When the moderator asked for questions or comments, or personal stories about how people handled retirement, one fellow stood up. He was in his mid-to-late 60s, dressed in casual, unremarkable clothes. He apologized, saying his wife was a volunteer at Founders Hall, so maybe he shouldn’t be talking. But he just wanted to add one thing to the discussion about starting a new life in retirement.
He told us that he had retired from a computer company about three years ago. He used to run a department, and he had a number of people reporting to him. He said he’d been with his company for almost 40 years and toward the end he made a pretty good salary. He confessed that he had spent most of it, on a house and new cars and travel and his kids. Yes, he had funded his retirement accounts, but when he retired he was still a little worried about having enough money to maintain his lifestyle throughout retirement.
But the real problem, it turned out, was that after he retired he felt disconnected. He had no purpose in life, no focus. For the first few months he would go with his wife to the grocery store and follow her up and down the aisles, until one day she leveled a look at him and said, “This has got to stop!”
Still, he didn’t know what to do. When he was working he had places to go, people to see, and a schedule to keep. Now he had nothing. When he was working, he had performance reviews, which gave him a kind of report card on his life. He got raises and promotions, and had the money to buy most of the things he wanted. His job had defined his life. He took some pride in telling people where he worked, and he “kept score” by how much money he made, how many people reported to him, as well as the money he spent on travel, cars and his house.
But now realized that he had to come up with a different way to define himself, and a different way to keep score. He considered taking up golf or fishing; but when he really thought about it, he realized that didn’t interest him.
He knew he had certain skills, and finally, prompted by his wife, he decided he could apply those skills to help people around town. So he talked to a friend, who suggested he attend a meeting of the men’s club, and that eventually led to Meals on Wheels. So today, he spends two afternoons a week delivering meals to senior citizens. He also found himself at the library last winter, helping seniors do their taxes. Then in the summer he checked out the Volunteer Match website, and was linked up to work with Habitat for Humanity.
Last year, he and his wife sold their house and moved into a condominium. He was tired of taking care of his yard and repairing things around the house; and besides, with the kids long gone, he just wasn’t interested in his house anymore. Instead, he was interested in spending time with his new friends and helping out around town. He and his wife don’t travel much anymore. They haven’t bought a new car since they traded in the family SUV for a Honda sedan almost ten years ago.
He doesn’t miss his house, or the travel. And he doesn’t have to worry about his finances anymore. Why? Not because he has more money, but because he spends less. Because now he defines himself not as a computer programmer and affluent member of the community, but as a volunteer who helps out other people in his community.
He keeps score not by how much money he makes and spends, but by how many people he has helped. “I think about what I want people to say at my funeral,” he said. “And I decided nobody was going to care how much money I made, or what my title was at work. I want them to talk about the people I have helped, and the impact I made on my community.”