Planning Your Retirement: How Long and How Well Will You Live?

Last Updated Apr 3, 2011 11:36 PM EDT

A fifty-something friend recently asked me to help her plan for retirement. My first piece of advice was to estimate her life expectancy with an online life expectancy calculator, such as the ones at www.bluezones.com and www.livingto100.com. "The results will be eye-opening," I told her.

Because my friend's mother had died of cancer in her mid-fifties, my friend wasn't expecting to have a long retirement; she assumed her lifespan would be much like her mother's. After plugging in data to one of the online calculators, she was shocked to learn that there was a good chance she'd live into her early 90s -- almost 40 years more than her mother -- in spite of her family history. Now she has a much different outlook on her rest-of-life.

Our culture produces an expectation that retirement is a period of leisure, that you're done being productive and contributing to society, and that you're basically winding down. Well, 20, 30 or 40 years is a long time to wind down!

Learning how long you might live, and then letting the financial and lifestyle implications sink in, is the first step in my series 12 Weeks to Plan Your Retirement.

Here are a few important points to consider:

It takes a boatload of money to be retired for 20, 30, or 40 years. In upcoming posts over the next 11 weeks, I'll cover the steps you'll need to take to finance your retirement years. But just for the moment, accept that it makes sense that you'll need substantial financial resources to be able to afford to be retired for decades. After all, how much money have you spent in the past 20, 30, or 40 years? While you'll probably need less during your retirement, it doesn't do much good to get frustrated about the amount of money you'll need -- just accept this as an important factor in your planning.

What are you going to do for 20, 30, or 40 years? When you really think about it, playing golf, taking art classes, traveling, and playing bingo will get old after awhile. So during this first week of planning the rest of your life, talk about your retirement hopes, dreams, fears, and concerns with your spouse, partner, family, and close friends. Think about where you'll live, what you'll do, and who you'll want to see regularly.

Then think about the past 20, 30, or 40 years of your life. How much change has happened in your life, your family, and society in general? You should expect that much change in the future. You'll then realize it's not realistic to devise a plan that covers everything because so much will change that you have no control over. The best you can do is put yourself in a good position with your finances, health, and social contacts to help you deal with life's twists and turns. Be prepared for the ride!

In addition to prompting your thinking about your retirement years, there's a bonus for using one of the online life expectancy calculators mentioned above. It shows you how your estimated lifespan might increase if you make certain changes to your lifestyle. These changes usually improve your health, also reducing the odds of incurring expensive medical conditions.

Many people who go through this exercise end up rejecting the cultural expectation of retirement as a period of leisure and winding down. They realize that retirement is a chance to do something new with their lives, and that they'll most likely continue working for pay in some manner in order to be able to afford it. Retirement offers a new opportunity to make conscious choices about where you'll live, work, and play, and what you'll spend your money on.

I take inspiration from my children who are entering the adult world -- graduating from college, landing their first jobs, getting married, and having children. They're bravely and enthusiastically facing a number of challenges and uncertainties.

While we also face challenges and uncertainties as we age, we are fortunate to have a lifetime of skills and resources to draw upon. It's well worth the time to tap into your experience and skills to plan this next phase of your life.

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    Steve Vernon helped large employers design and manage their retirement programs for more than 35 years as a consulting actuary. Now he's a research scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity, where he helps collect, direct and disseminate research that will improve the financial security of seniors. He's also president of Rest-of-Life Communications, delivers retirement planning workshops and authored Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck and Recession-Proof Your Retirement Years.

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