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The Hidden Retirement Pitfall: It’s Not The Money

Every financial advisor, wealth manager and financial institution will offer to help customers reach a “successful retirement”. They manage investments, and the focus is on making money last for life. Great. But they leave out a critical piece of the picture: successful retirement takes much more than adequate financial planning. What else is there?

A plan for how you want to enjoy your life, find meaning in it and maintain a sense of purpose and identity is something financial advisors are typically not trained to explain. Yet we know from studies of the subject that the challenges of creating a successful next phase of life after working full time are often overlooked when the emphasis is only all about how your investment portfolio is doing.

If you ask anyone who can’t wait to get to that last day of work, what they plan to do next, you often hear “I just want to relax”. Of course that’s fine, but look around you at the many folks who finished a high pressure job with no plan in mind for what’s next and you will see some some very lost people.

It is highly unlikely that a financial advisor will ever tell you the truth about the risk of depression in retirement. Media ads for “retirement planning” feature older people traveling, doing fun things and always smiling. We’re supposed to have that image of retirement. Got enough financial security? Yes? Good. You will be successful in your retirement. Now for a reality check. Depression is common in retirement and the risk is there for anyone who has not give enough consideration to what you need to do to prevent it. You might hear: “do some volunteer work or something. It would be good.” That advice is not enough.

Components Of True Successful Retirement

Retirement has been studied a lot, considering that Boomers are in that phase of life and the number of retirees is greater than ever. From all the research, we can conclude that enjoying life in retirement takes planning beyond the financial picture. The ones who have three important components planned out are much more likely to be happy and less at risk for depression. Here they are in a nutshell:


An essential, basic component of mental health is having some structure in your life. Working full time in any job gives us automatic structure, whether we work from home or in an office, large or small. Structure gives us a routine, something we can count on, knowing what to do with our time. When we give that up, we have to create our own structure. Traveling, playing golf or tennis, or whatever one envisions in retirement can only take us so far. Simply put, we need something to do each day. Without that, we can feel lost, isolated, and purposeless. When we stay that way, depression may follow. For example, as reported in Harvard Health Publishing, psychiatrist Dr. Randall Paulsen opines that “During that phase of going from a lot of structure to almost no structure, men can exhibit the same signs as someone who is overworked.”

Design a weekly routine you can like. What you put into your personal structure is important, as you want to look forward to what’s on your calendar, and be able to maintain it. Watching TV for many hours and “just relaxing” does not lead to good mental health.


Whether you loved your job or hated it, you had a purpose. Earning your pay was a motivator and our culture favors productivity. Our society respects those who work. People may ask you that common question: “What do you do?” Sometimes, responding ”I’m retired” leaves you feeling less than you were before, when you answered differently. Everyone is better off in finding something to do that gives you a sense of purpose. Some take up a hobby that becomes a consuming interest. Some start a new work venture on their own, in control of their time. Some volunteer. Whatever will give you a sense of purpose is fine, just so you work out what that is before retirement starts and take necessary steps to be involved. No one is going to hand it to you. Challenge yourself, stretch to a new level, learn something new. That is good for your mental health. If what you choose comes too easily it may not be enough. If it’s too hard, you can lose interest. Finding the balance is an individual quest.


Every healthcare professional you may meet will tell you that social isolation is not good for you. Without the built-in connection to co-workers, clients, customers or others that were part of your workday, you the retiree, now have to reach out and create connections in your life on your own. The job no longer offers an easy way to be in conversation and interact with other people. No meetings, no connections. The key to avoid feeling cut off and isolated is to plan what to do that will create interactions with others on a regular basis. Clubs, classes, sports, card games, volunteerism, religious organizations, community groups, and the like will fill in the empty space created when you stopped working. One must find something you can affiliate with and enjoy.

The Takeaways

Simply put, retirement can be bad for your mental health. Ever meet a wealthy, depressed person? I’d bet you have. Loss of structure, purpose and community can harm you in ways you may never have considered. When you get done looking at the travel brochures and planning the next golf game, consider that successful retirement doesn’t just happen because you are financially secure. It is a creation of your own design. May you make it beautiful.

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